The Yellow Star

A yellow Star of David badge bearing the German word Jude.
A yellow Star of David badge bearing the German word 'Jude' (Jew). Picture from the USHMM, courtesy of Charles and Hana Bruml.

The yellow star, inscribed with the word "Jude" ("Jew" in German), has become a symbol of Nazi persecution. Its likeness abounds upon Holocaust literature and materials.

But the Jewish badge was not instituted in 1933 when Hitler came to power. It was not instituted in 1935 when the Nuremberg Laws stripped Jews of their citizenship. It was still not implemented by Kristallnacht in 1938. The oppression and labeling of the Jews by use of the Jewish badge did not begin until after the start of the Second World War.

And even then, it began as local laws rather than as a unified Nazi policy.

Were the Nazis the First to Implement a Jewish badge?

The Nazis rarely had an original idea. Almost always what made the Nazi policies different was that they intensified, magnified, and institutionalized the age-old methods of persecution.

The oldest reference to using mandatory articles of clothing to identify and distinguish Jews from the rest of society was in 807 CE. In this year, Abbassid caliph Haroun al-Raschid ordered all Jews to wear a yellow belt and a tall, cone-like hat.1

But it was in 1215 that the Fourth Lateran Council, presided over by Pope Innocent III, made its infamous decree. Canon 68 declared:

Jews and Saracens [Muslims] of both sexes in every Christian province and at all times shall be marked off in the eyes of the public from other peoples through the character of their dress.2

This Council represented all of Christendom and thus this decree was to be enforced throughout all of the Christian countries.

The use of a badge was not instantaneous throughout Europe nor were the dimensions or shape of the badge uniform. As early as 1217, King Henry III of England ordered Jews to wear "on the front of their upper garment the two tables of the Ten Commandments made of white linen or parchment."3 In France, local variations of the badge continued until Louis IX decreed in 1269 that "both men and women were to wear badges on the outer garment, both front and back, round pieces of yellow felt or linen, a palm long and four fingers wide."4

In Germany and Austria, Jews were distinguishable in the latter half of the 1200's when the wearing of a "horned hat" otherwise known as a "Jewish hat" -- an article of clothing that Jews had worn freely before the crusades -- became mandatory. It wasn't until the fifteenth century when a badge became the distinguishing article in Germany and Austria.

The use of badges became relatively widespread throughout Europe within a couple of centuries and continued to be used as distinctive markings until the age of Enlightenment. In 1781, Joseph II of Austria made major torrents into the use of a badge with his Edict of Tolerance and many other countries discontinued their use of badges very late in the eighteenth century.

When Did the Nazis Come Up With the Idea of Re-using the Jewish Badge?

The first reference to a Jewish badge during the Nazi era was made by the German Zionist leader, Robert Weltsch. During the Nazi declared boycott upon Jewish stores on April 1, 1933, yellow Stars of David were painted on windows. In reaction to this, Weltsch wrote an article entitled "Tragt ihn mit Stolz, den gelben Fleck" ("Wear the Yellow Badge with Pride") which was published on April 4, 1933. At this time, Jewish badges had yet even to be discussed among the top Nazis.

It is believed that the first time that the implementation of a Jewish badge was discussed among the Nazi leaders was right after Kristallnacht in 1938. At a meeting on November 12, 1938, Reinhard Heydrich made the first suggestion about a badge.

But it wasn't until after the Second World War began in September 1939 that individual authorities implemented a Jewish badge in the occupied territories of Poland. For instance, on November 16, 1939, the order for a Jewish badge was announced in Lodz.

We are returning to the Middle Ages. The yellow patch once again becomes a part of Jewish dress. Today an order was announced that all Jews, no matter what age or sex, have to wear a band of "Jewish-yellow," 10 centimeters wide, on their right arm, just below the armpit.5

Various locales within occupied Poland had their own regulations about size, color, and shape of the badge to be worn, until Hans Frank made a decree that affected all of the Government General in Poland.

On November 23, 1939, Hans Frank, the chief officer of the Government General, declared that all Jews above ten years of age were to wear a white badge with a Star of David on their right arm.

It wasn't until nearly two years later that a decree, issued on September 1, 1941, issued badges to Jews within Germany as well as occupied and incorporated Poland. This badge was the yellow Star of David with the word "Jude" ("Jew") and worn on the left side of one's chest.

How Did Implementing the Jewish Badge Help the Nazis?

Of course the obvious benefit of the badge to the Nazis was the visual labeling of the Jews. No longer would the rabble only be able to attack and persecute those Jews with stereotypical Jewish features or forms of dress, now all Jews and part Jews were open to the various Nazi actions.

The badge made a distinction. One day there were just people on the street, and the next day, there were Jews and non-Jews.

A common reaction was as Gertrud Scholtz-Klink's stated in her answer to the question, "What did you think when one day in 1941 you saw so many of your fellow Berliners appear with yellow stars on their coats?" Her answer, "I don't know how to say it. There were so many. I felt that my aesthetic sensibility was wounded."6 All of a sudden, stars were everywhere, just like Hitler had said they were.

What About the Jews? How Did the Badge Affect Them?

At first, many Jews felt humiliated at having to wear the badge. As in Warsaw:

For many weeks the Jewish intelligentsia retired to voluntary house arrest. Nobody dared to go out into the street with the stigma on his arm, and if compelled to do so, tried to sneak through without being noticed, in shame and in pain, with his eyes fixed to the ground.7

The badge was an obvious, visual, step back to the Middle Ages, a time before Emancipation.

But soon after its implementation, the badge represented more than humiliation and shame, it represented fear.

If a Jew forgot to wear their badge they could be fined or imprisoned, but often, it meant beatings or death. Jews came up with ways to remind themselves not to go out without their badge. Posters often could be found at the exit doors of apartments that warned Jews by stating: "Remember the Badge!" Have you already put on the Badge?" "The Badge!" "Attention, the Badge!" "Before leaving the building, put on the Badge!"8

But remembering to wear the badge was not their only fear. Wearing the badge meant that they were targets for attacks and that they could be grabbed for forced labor.

Many Jews attempted to hide the badge. When the badge was a white armband with a Star of David, men and women would wear white shirts or blouses. When the badge was yellow and worn on the chest, Jews would carry objects and hold them in such a way as to cover their badge. To make sure that Jews could be easily noticed, some local authorities added additional stars to be worn on the back and even on one knee.

But those weren't the only rules to live by. And, actually, what made the fear of the badge even greater were the other innumerable infractions for which Jews could be punished. Jews could be punished for wearing a creased of folded badge. They could be punished for wearing their badge a centimeter out of place. They could be punished for attaching the badge using a safety pin rather than sewing it onto their clothing.9

The use of safety pins was an effort to conserve badges and yet give themselves flexibility in outfits. Jews were required to wear a badge on their outer clothing - thus, at least on their dress or shirt and on their overcoat.

But often, the material for badges or the badges themselves were scarce, so the number of dresses or shirts that one owned far exceeded the availability of badges. In order to wear more than one dress or shirt all the time, Jews would safety pin a badge onto their clothing for easy transfer of the badge to the next day's clothing. The Nazis did not like the practice of safety pinning for they believed it was so the Jews could easily take off their star if danger seemed near. And it very often was.

Under the Nazi regime, Jews were constantly in danger. Up to the time when Jewish badges were implemented, uniform persecution against the Jews could not be accomplished. With the visual labeling of Jews, the years of haphazard persecution quickly changed to organized destruction.

Notes

1. Joseph Telushkin, Jewish Literacy: The Most Important Things to Know About the Jewish Religion, Its People, and Its History (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1991) 163.


2. "The Fourth Lateran Council of 1215: Decree Concerning the Garb Distinguishing Jews from Christians, Canon 68" as quoted in Guido Kisch, "The Yellow Badge in History," Historia Judaica 4.2 (1942): 103.
3. Kisch, "Yellow Badge" 105.
4. Kisch, "Yellow Badge" 106.
5. Dawid Sierakowiak, The Diary of Dawid Sierakowiak: Five Notebooks from the Lodz Ghetto (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996) 63.
6. Claudia Koonz, Mothers in the Fatherland: Women, the Family, and Nazi Politics (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1987) xxi.
7. Lieb Spizman as quoted in Philip Friedman, Roads to Extinction: Essays on the Holocaust (New York: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1980) 24.
8. Friedman, Roads to Extinction 18.
9. Friedman, Roads to Extinction 18.

]Bibliography

Friedman, Philip. Roads to Extinction: Essays on the Holocaust. New York: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1980.

Kisch, Guido. "The Yellow Badge in History." Historia Judaica 4.2 (1942): 95-127.

Koonz, Claudia. Mothers in the Fatherland: Women, the Family, and Nazi Politics. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1987.

Sierakowiak, Dawid. The Diary of Dawid Sierakowiak: Five Notebooks from the Lodz Ghetto. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Straus, Raphael. "The 'Jewish Hat' as an Aspect of Social History." Jewish Social Studies 4.1 (1942): 59-72.

Telushkin, Joseph. Jewish Literacy: The Most Important Things to Know About the Jewish Religion, Its People, and Its History. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1991.