December 7, 2019

Everything You Wanted to Know About German Jewry — and More

Steven Lowenstein

Recently, a group of scholars from Hebrew Union College, American Jewish University (AJU), UCLA and USC gathered to honor Steven Lowenstein on the forthcoming publication of his major work, “The Population History of German Jewry: Based on the Collections and Preliminary Research of Professor Osiel Oscar Schmetz.”

Lowenstein retired almost a decade ago from AJU after a successful career that included being honored twice by the National Jewish Book Council. He reimagined himself as a social worker, yet even in academic retirement, he never abandoned his calling.

Lowenstein and I grew up at the same time and lived in comparable communities. He grew up in what was euphemistically called the “Fourth Reich” or “Frankfurt on the Hudson,” Washington Heights, N.Y. It was an Orthodox community comprising Jews who had the good fortune and wisdom to leave Nazi Germany in the nick of time and preserve in this New World elements of the Old World they were forced to leave behind. They were displaced men and women, living freely in American exile.

I grew up in Kew Gardens, with more affluent refugees of the same world of Frankfurt and Antwerp, many in the diamond business, whose wealth was portable. They settled to re-create for themselves the communities they left behind.

The melodies were the same, the pronunciation identical, the sense of dignity and decorum prevailing. Lowenstein was the son of German Jews — the Yekke — and I of Yiddish-speaking, American Jews who wrestled between traditional observance and Americanization. I observed what I saw, somewhat an outsider.

Lowenstein saw the community from within. He studied the world they left behind and translated that world into English, explaining it brilliantly to an American audience. I brought the experience they fled from to American audiences, translated into contemporary idioms. We both were sons of a shattered world.

For decades, Hebrew University demographer professor Osiel Oscar Schmetz tirelessly assembled demographic study after demographic study of German Jewry — but he did not live to publish and interpret his findings. The assemblage of such massive information cried out for interpretation, and that is precisely what Lowenstein offers his readers.

Lowenstein’s significant contribution is to make sure his readers do not drown in the comprehensive, encyclopedic, overwhelming information. He absorbed the details and gleaned from those details the story of German Jewry from 1815 to 1939, including German Jewry during industrialization; urbanization; migration (migration and outmigration primarily to the United States); revolution; emancipation; democratization; escape; exile; persecution; and ultimately, deportation and annihilation.

Lowenstein’s significant contribution is to make sure his readers do not drown in the comprehensive, encyclopedic, overwhelming information.

Lowenstein brings a masterful organization to the book, looking at material chronologically from 1815 to 1871, from Napoleon to German Unification; Imperial Germany from 1871 to 1918; and the final pre-Holocaust chapter from the 1920s through the Nazi pre-war era. He organized the book regionally, then topically. He illuminated whatever he touched. He makes the demographics come to life.

Space will not permit me to mirror his detail, so let me illustrate his skill and brilliance with some random insights chosen from multitudes.

Lowenstein never claimed more credit than he deserved. Notice the subtitle of his book: “Based on the Collection and Research of Professor Osiel Oscar Schmetz.” 

Lowenstein is a meticulous scholar. For example, he details a small but significant difference between the 1910 census and 1925 census. In 1910, all who were in Germany were counted in the census, including tourists; in 1925, only residents were counted. We have all heard of the attempt to ask the citizenship question on the U.S. census in 2020. We should pay attention not only to the questions being asked, but of whom the questions are being asked.

Lowenstein has a sense of irony. The 1944 census measured the Jewish population of Germany on the basis of the 1939 numbers, at a time when with only two exceptions, the intermarried Jews and those hiding underground, the entire German Jewish population had been deported to death camps or Theresienstadt.

Lowenstein also has a sense of humor buried in more than 700 pages. He apologizes that he did not detail Jews by occupation and economic standing in order “to reduce the project to a manageable size.” Seven hundred plus pages with maps, graphics, tables and text must have been easily manageable for him.

Statistics are interpreted in context; thus, the Jewish process of urbanization is treated in relation to the urbanization of non-Jewish Germans.

He does not miss countervailing tendencies. Despite dramatic urbanization, Jewish communities in small towns were vibrant, almost until the end.

Lowenstein links the Jewish birthrate to urbanization. Urbanized residents had lower birthrates, yet Jews had a lower birthrate than their gentile neighbors, both in cities and in the countryside.

Lowenstein always places the Jewish experience in its larger context. World War I resulted in a decrease in marriage yet a notable increase in German-Jewish intermarriage. Intermarriage increased during the Weimar period as Jews were more integrated into German society, yet notably, in the immediate postwar period when soldiers, Jews and non-Jews alike returned home from war, actual intermarriage rates were the lowest of any year between 1912 and 1933.

Lowenstein is rigorously sensitive to population changes during the Nazi era. Jews emigrated, with the young leaving before the old; men, regarded as more vulnerable, left before women. Even those who stayed migrated from small towns to larger ones, where they hoped they could be more anonymous. Intermarriage virtually ceased for a very basic reason: It was outlawed. However, especially in the early years, marriage rates increased in anticipation and preparation for emigration and perhaps also for the need for stability in a most turbulent time.

Lowenstein pays careful attention to the different ways Jews were classified in the Nazi-era census — Full Jews by race and Jews by religion.

His work focuses on birthrates and death rates. From 1914 onward, the death rates of German Jews exceeded the birthrate, but immigration offset the natural decline in population. In the 1930s, during the Nazi reign, more than twice as many Jews died as were born. Lowenstein even offers a correlation between birth-control use and birthrates.

Suffice it to say, if you give a gifted scholar who knows the history of this community the raw data gathered meticulously by a diligent demographer, the result is a book that tells the fascinating yet tragic story of German Jewry. It is a tribute to Lowenstein that even in his academic retirement, he undertook so onerous a task. It is an even greater tribute that he brought the work to life in a manner that will only enhance the significant legacy of his distinguished scholarship.


Michael Berenbaum is director of the Sigi Ziering Institute and a professor of Jewish Studies at American Jewish University.