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The Red ‘J’ of October

The Red ‘J’ of October

As a boy in Germany, seeing that Judenstempel on his passport made him realize that for the Nazis he was nothing but a Jewish object.


My father’s friend left Germany toward the end of 1938. Amid the horrors of Nazi Germany, his family debated a topic which echoed through many Jewish living rooms: Should they leave Germany or stay?

This man – then a boy – was devastated by the spreading anti-Semitism. But how could he and his family abandon all they knew? Conditions in Germany were certain to improve. Germans would come to their senses. Perhaps this was youthful optimism but he was not alone. Of the half million Jews who lived in Germany in 1933, over 200,000 remained.

His parents decided to get out of Germany, and the boy was heart-broken. It was only after he saw something on a particular piece of paper that he understood Jews had no place in the “new” Germany.

“It was the red 'J' on my passport.”

Earlier in the year, the government decreed Jewish passports were invalid as of October 5, 1938. Jews were required to turn in existing passports which would then become valid only when stamped with a red ‘J’. This Judenstempel allowed other countries to more easily identify which Germans were Jewish refugees and turn them away. The color red made the Judenstempel easier to detect. Red meant danger. Warning. Beware.

Was this a Nazi idea? A Swiss one? The boy did not care. The German government enacted this law. It was another measure to denigrate those who were “out.” It kept Jews from pretending to be something other than what they were. After all, the most dangerous Jews were ones who tried to blend in with the good German Volk.

During the years leading up to the passport incident, this boy had suffered and witnessed the suffering of others. But seeing this ‘J’ stamped on a legal document bearing his photograph and name was the first time he realized that for the Nazis, he was nothing but a Jewish object.

“Now no one had to figure me out. The 'J' told them all they needed to know.”

The “J” stamped out his uniqueness. He and the label became the same. It didn’t matter if he was smart, funny or creative. No one cared about his aspirations and the sports he loved to play. This young German boy left behind the familiar, his language and the people who stayed and had their futures stolen.

Despite fears regarding his own future, he went without protest because he rejected the government's attempts to turn him into an object. He didn’t realize in 1938 that a red ‘J’ was paving the way for yellow Stars and tattooed numbers.

He created a new life in a new country. He grew up, married and had children. And he experienced such joy in synagogue, praying as part of a Jewish community. He recognized the value of that community and the oneness of the Jewish people. But he also understood our community strengthens when each person maximizes his own potential. Minimizing the uniqueness of an individual weakens all Jews.

This man spent a lifetime blocking out events he witnessed but each October, he recalled the horror he experienced upon viewing the red ‘J’ stamped on his passport for the first time. Each October, he felt especially grateful as he prayed alongside other Jews. He appreciated that each person he prayed with had distinctive traits and could never be an object.

Unfortunately, labels continue to pervade our society, and just like the red “J” of 1938, they provide an excuse to cast empathy aside. They justify hateful rhetoric and cruel behavior. We must all find inspiration in the wisdom of my father’s friend. He understood everyone has his own story, and that even something as small as a single letter discourages us from looking into each other’s hearts.

September 30, 2017

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Visitor Comments: 11

(7) Jared, October 19, 2017 7:11 PM

language in our lives

This article inspired me to think about how the meaning and pathos of a single letter and color can change instantly, and perhaps even permanently when placed in a new context. With the multitude of perspectives that determine the impact of the words we use, once we view a letter or a color or a word in a certain way, particularly through the lens of trauma, it's extremely difficult to un-see or un-learn the associations that are created. Thank you to the author for sharing this story.

(6) Bobby5000, October 14, 2017 6:09 PM

holocaust, never again, and Israel today

I candidly admit that I cannot say I would have done differently, I am confident saying that resistance would have significantly lessened the scope of the holocaust. After guns were taken and the situation became obviously dire, getting guns illegally should have been a priority to Jews and the Jewish community. If a ghetto community had sharpshooters, that would have changed the ease of the holocaust.

As it was in most areas, German casualties were slight, 1,000 Jews could be murdered without a single German casualty, with money and homes easily taken, and the tremendous success of early actions against the Jews bolstered Hitler's popularity as more than a few Germans were happy to take Jewish stores, homes, and goods. Jews were called to report, searched and then killed or effortlessly shipped to concentration camps.

Complying with identification and reporting made the Nazi task far easier, while counterfeit papers would have frustrated the Nazi task. Disruption of public facilities such as fires or attacks on utilities could have delayed Nazi efforts. French and Americans were unsuccessful in Vietnam, Russians in Afghanistan, and even the Nazis in Greece. A friend who was a Navy Seal could have probably done more damage than any group of 50,000 had done.

A candid discussion is important in discussing Israeli actions and policies. It would undo this perception of Jewish toughness and belligerence, the history of the holocaust is one of Jewish weakness and compliance, reliance on false promises, overconfidence in the morality of those who promised to kill Jews, mistaken beliefs that if things got bad the world would intervene and help.

Today's success of Israel now 3/4 of a century reflects a recognition of reality, and rejection of the policies that occurred during the holocaust.


(5) Bobby5000, October 6, 2017 3:27 AM


One sad lesson was that Jewish cooperation was used to kill them. Had the Jewish community arranged for guns, false identification, clothing of German officers, and engaged in disruptive acts of resistance, the extent of suffering and death would have been far less. That is the meaning of never again, and when Jews were faced with countries marshalling against them, fierce opposition in 1967 ensured a different result than 25 years before.

Tzipporah Jael Vannorman, October 8, 2017 2:51 PM

Never Again

Thank you, Bobby5000, for understanding and expressing the unfortunate role we (our ancestors for those of us not born during that horrible time) had in the demise of millions of our families and friends during the holocaust. Why some of our M.O.T. don't seem to understand this today is beyond my comprehension.

Bobby5000, October 10, 2017 12:47 AM

Never again

These were profoundly difficult times, and one cannot say he would have done differently. A critical point is to explain how and why Israel acts as it does. As Menacham Begin, said, now when someone says he comes to kill the Jews, we believe it.

Pleasant words to one's face, as Eichmann, by most accounts a polite and courteous man provided, are less important than actions. Strength and confronting evil are important.

Never again has been the watchword of 7 decades of Israeli prosperity and security.

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