Bar-Ilan University

The Faculty of Jewish Studies

The Office of the Campus Rabbi

Daf Parashat Hashavua

(Study Sheet on the Weekly Torah Portion)

Basic Jewish Studies Unit

Daf Shvui No. 76

Parashat Kedoshim

Conversion to Christianity and Conversion to Judaism During the Era of Nazi Rule

(In Commemoration of Memorial Day for the Holocaust Victims and Ghetto Fighters, Monday, June 5, 1997).

As we know, Nazism sanctified the principle of racism. Carrying forward racial anti-Semitic concepts which were formulated toward the end of the nineteenth century, it claimed that a Jew remained a Jew even if he changed his religion or pretended to be a member of another nation. This approach found expression at a very early stage of Nazi rule in Germany. For the purpose of anti- Jewish activity, the regime needed of a legal definition for the term "Jew". The following definition was given as early as April 11, 1933, little more than two months after Hitler was appointed Prime Minister (Reichskanzler) of Germany:

A non-Aryan is anyone whose antecedents are not Aryan, especially if he had Jewish parents or grandparents. It is sufficient that one parent or one grandparent be non-Aryan. This rule must be especially observed when one parent or one grandparent belonged to the Jewish religion.[1]

This definition is based on biological factors, but was limited to two generations and not to more distant ancestors. The determination of the Jewishness of the grandparents was done according to the religious or congregational affiliation which could be ascertained from the orderly lists which still existed from the nineteenth century. The definition was slightly "modified" two and a half years later; to be considered a "full Jew" one had to have no less than three Jewish grandparents. Other combinations of descent were then defined as being of "mixed descent" (mischling), but the principle of biological origin as the determining factor for the closest two generations was never revised. It followed that conversion to Christianity even of parents or grandparents could not provide much help to Jews who wished to escape their fate.

But day-to-day life in the Third Reich was more complex than what was decreed by the dry letter of the law. True, at every possible opportunity people's racial purity was checked -- even Germans had to prove their pure Aryan descent - but converts to Christianity found support from various sources which tried to protect them and assist them. One such source was "The United Paulist Association of Non-Aryan Christians", a Protestant group which began its work early on in the Third Reich period. Pastor Heinrich Gruber was particularly well-known for his efforts on behalf of Jewish converts to Christianity in the Late 1930's.[2]

Conversion was no easy process as the Nazi regime tried very hard to prevent it. In the 1940's, when Germany had conquered almost all of Europe and the anti-Jewish policies increased in their severity to carry out the program of mass murder termed by the Nazis "The final solution to the Jewish question", an increasing number of Jews sought every possible way to remain alive. The over-arching reach of German rule over all of Europe stretched Germany's organizational capabilities to their limit and entailed relying on various individuals to carry out Nazi policy. Not all of these were capable and efficient administrators and supervision and investigation were not always thorough. In such a situation conversion and pretended conversion were also sought out as modes of escape.

First, there were Jews who applied to priests and ministers requesting conversion to Christianity, usually in locales far from their original places of residence in order to avoid identification later as Jews. Secondly, and more widespread, were cases of children who were given over to Christian families to be hidden. Research indicates that observant Christians were willing to endanger themselves in this way more than the population in general. In these situations, many of the children in the homes of their Christian benefactors were brought closer to Christianity and baptized (either willingly or at the urging of those who hid them). The return of these children to Judaism after the Holocaust met with numerous obstacles.[3]

Thirdly, Jews commonly forged birth certificates or, even more frequently, baptismal certificates - which showed that their ancestors had undergone conversion to Christianity generations earlier (for example, in the early 19th century), in order to sidestep the legal definition of a Jew discussed above.[4]

These difficult decisions had halachic implications. After the Holocaust, Rabbi Ephraim Oschry of the Kovno Ghetto reconstructed a number of questions which he was asked during those terrible times and published them. The following is one example out of many.

Question: Is the commandment of "Kiddush Hashem" (martyrdom, to Sanctifying God's Name upon pain of death) applicable to children?

In the Kovno Ghetto, in those days of killing and destruction and terrifying decrees against our children, the infants, toddlers and children of Israel, on the third and fourth of Nissan, 1944, I was asked the following question:

A. The parents, wishing to save their children, had an idea. They purchased birth certificates from the gentiles and deserted the children at the gentile orphanage so that the gentiles would think that these deserted children were also gentiles. Some parents gave their children to priests to whom they wrote that the children had been converted to their faith. Are these things permissible?

B. Is it permissible to give children to gentiles to hide them until after the war and the downfall of Hitler, may his name be eradicated, if there is doubt as to whether the parents will survive and then the children would then remain among the gentiles and follow their faith and ways of life?

[Answer] ... for if the child is not given to the gentiles he will surely be killed, and if he is with the gentiles he may survive and possibly the parents will also survive and take the child back to the religion of Israel, and it is also possible that the gentiles themselves will return the child to the Jewish institutions, therefore there are many reasons to be lenient in the face of doubt. And may the good Lord have mercy on the remnant of His oppressed people that they may never again know suffering and may we live to see the comfort of Zion and Jerusalem".[5]

There was, however, another side to this entire subject of conversion. The persecution of the Jews and their admirable attempts at resistance aroused a profound sense of admiration and identification among many non-Jews which moved them to become a part of the Jewish people. Few records of conversion to Judiasm exist and certainly the numbers were not large, but those few documents that remained indicate a real attraction to Jewish values and beliefs.

One example dated October, 1935, comes from Germany. Hugo Rosenthal, the director of a rural Jewish educational institution in Herlingen, Wurtemberg, approached the Rabbi of the Liberal movement, Leo Baeck, concerning "a female employee of our institution whose mother is Christian and who was baptized into Christianity as a child, who wishes to convert. She takes the study of Judaism quite seriously and tries, to what extent she can ... to know everything about to Judaism".[6]

Even more amazing is a paragraph from the protocol of a meeting of the forum of orthodox Chief Rabbis in Holland from the 16th of Iyar, 5701 (May 13, 1941), one year after the German invasion of that country, at a time when anti-Jewish policies were in full force:

5. Requests for Conversion

The chairman announces that numerous applications have been received [in Amsterdam]. There is a demand in other regions, as well. Mr. [Rabbi] Van Helder is opposed to accepting them.

Mr. [Rabbi] Levisohn is of the opinion that it would be a mistake to accept full Aryans, in view of the German legislation [which would cause those people to be persecuted]. What is the position of the law regarding a person who has two Jewish grandparents?

The chairman says the issue has been examined. The general tendency [of the forum] is to accept very few converts...[7]

Since no accompanying correspondence to this protocol exists, we have no further information concerning the nature or motives of those who sought to convert to Judaism. However, the phenomenon in itself is significant: it shows that the manner in which many Jews continued their lives despite the persecutions earned their respect in the eyes of some non-Jewish observers and even attracted a few of them to Judaism.

Professor Dan Michman

Department of Jewish History


[1]. The first ordinance in the application of the law concerning the restoration of the professional bureaucracy, from April 11, 1933; in: Hashoah Beteud (Y. Arad, Y. Gutman, A. Margaliot, eds.) Yad Vashem Publications, Jerusalem, 1978, p. 45.

[2] Y. Tennenbaum, Malchut Hageza Veharesha, Yad Vashem Publications, Jerusalem, 1961, p. 72.

[3] An informative article on the baptism of Jewish children hidden among Catholics in Belgium by Professor Luc Dequeker of Belgium is in preparation for publication in the anthology The Holocaust in Belgium (in English), to be published by the Finkler institute for Holocaust Research at Bar-Ilan University, in co-operation with Yad Vashem.

[4] Such incidents are known concerning Jews in Holland. There were also cases in which Sephardic Jews, descendants of Marranos (Annusim) who returned to Judaism in Holland at the beginning of the 17th century, sought every possible way of re-instating their original Spanish - Christian "descent" from before the return to Judaism, as a means of proving that they were not Jews in the racial sense. J. Presser, Ashes in the Wind, Detroit, 1988, pp. 305-311.

[5] Rabbi E. Oschry, Sefer Divrei Ephraim, New York, 1949, pp. 95-96; 101-102.

[6] Y. Wallch, "Sheelah Uteshuvah Miyemei Hitchadshutah shel Yahadut Germaniah Tachat Shilton Hanazim", Bitaon Universitat Bar-Ilan, Summer, 1974, p. 32.

[7] The Archive of Rabbi Davids, Central Archive for the History of the Jewish People, Jerusalem, No. 14, p. 122.
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