Section: Life before the Holocaust

Pre-war Jewish life

Wolfgang Josephs (later known as Peter Johnson) and his father in 1920.
Alfred Joesphs with his brother-in-law before the Second World War.

Prior to the Holocaust, there were thriving Jewish communities across the world.

The largest population of Jews before the Holocaust was in Eastern Europe, with a community of 3,000,000 in Poland, 2,525,000 in Russia, and 980,000 in Romania. The size of this Jewish population in these countries meant that they made a huge contribution to the culture. Hayim Nahman Bialik, a Ukrainian Jew who is widely regarded as the father of modern Hebrew poetry, is just one example of this contribution.

In Western Europe, in countries such as Britain and Germany, many Jews were assimilated into the culture of the country in which they lived. Most of these countries had sizeable Jewish communities, with 300,000 Jews living in Britain, and 565,000 living in Germany.

As Joseph Leftwich declared in 1936, ‘There is, in fact, no group of people more attached to their native soil than the Jews. In Germany, the Jews have been continuously resident in the country since at least the year 320 and probably much longer’.

In cities and large towns in Eastern Europe, such as Warsaw in Poland, younger Jews fully embraced the country’s culture whilst simultaneously observing some Jewish traditions with their families.

However, not all of Europe was as assimilated, or partially assimilated, as Western Europe and the larger towns and cities of Eastern Europe.

For example, cultural separation was more apparent in rural areas of Eastern Europe, such as Poland and Russia. Here small towns or villages called ‘Shtetls’ comprised mainly of Jews. In Shtetls, people aimed to live a simple, traditional, life focused around religion, community, and family.

After the Nazi’s came to power and antisemitism intensified, all Jewish life in Europe was to change forever. This section gives a few examples of the diversity of Jewish life prior to the Nazi destruction.

August Tuchmann

Born in Bavaria in 1833, August Tuchmann was a Jewish businessman. He owned a sawmill in Dessau, North-East Germany, and managed a team of over thirty staff. He had a large family: nine siblings, and eight children with his wife, Joanna.

August kept a diary for most of his adult life. Here he recorded his daily tasks and large events.

As you can see from the excerpts above, he focused on writing about running his business, travelling, family concerns, health, and religion. In the third excerpt, August also discusses the continuous antisemitism he and his family faced.

Erich Schulhof

Erich Schulhof was born on 16 July 1909 in Olomouc, Czechoslovakia.

Erich completed his education and apprenticeship before going on to do military service with the Czech army in 1929. He then returned to the family business where he became the manager of his uncle’s leather goods factory.

In his spare time, Erich was a keen musician. He was also extremely interested in foreign languages, becoming fluent in four.

Following the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia and the implementation of their racial laws, Erich was no longer able to work for the family business.

Above, you can see a copy of his CV as he looked for a new job.

Erich was murdered in Auschwitz in 1943.

Kurt Paucker

Kurt Paucker was born to a Jewish family in Berlin in 1924.

After experiencing increasing antisemitism in the 1930s, his parents sent him to Jewish school in France, where he escaped the occupying forces and led a group of refugees across the Swiss border. He then made his way to America, where he settled and became a scientist.

After his death in 1980, Kurt was remembered by his brother, Arnold, at his memorial. Arnold recollected their memories of life growing up as Jews in 1920s and 1930s Berlin. You can read excerpts of this above.

Gerty Simon

Gerty (Gertrud) Simon (1887-1970) was a successful and well-regarded photographer from Berlin. Simon lived in the city with her husband, Wilhelm Simon (1885-1966), an assistant judge and senior lawyer, and her son Bernard (Bernd) (1921-2015).

In Berlin in the 1920s and 1930s, Simon had many prominent and notable subjects, such as Albert Einstein, Alfred Kerr and his daughter Judith Kerr, and Käthe Kollwitz. Simon was part of the thriving cultural scene in Berlin and photographed many of its leading lights such as actress Lotte Lenya and artist Renée Sintenis.

When the Nazis rose to power in 1933, Simon found herself at particular risk of persecution, because of  her religion (she was a Jew) and because  many of the people that she photographed were socialists or anti-fascists who were opposed to  the Nazis. Gerty Simon emigrated to Britain in 1933 with her son Bernard, whose school had also been relocated.

Once in Britain, Simon quickly re-established herself and continued to photograph high-profile individuals such as the actress Peggy Ashcroft and politician Aneurin Bevan. On 13 November 1934, just over a year after she emigrated to Britain, Simon’s work formed an exhibition at the Storran Gallery in London entitled London Personalities.

Wilhelm Simon stayed in Berlin in 1933 following his wife and son’s emigration. However, he was persecuted by the Nazis as a Jew  and reduced to working as a notary. In 1938, following a period in hiding after Kristallnacht, Wilhelm Simon was able to escape Nazi Germany and he joined Gerty and Bernard in London. Wilhelm Simon died in 1966, Gerty Simon died four years later in 1970.

Rabbi and Rabbitzen

Mark Gertler’s painting ‘Rabbi and Rabbitzen’, painted on the eve of World War One.
Mark Gertler’s painting ‘Rabbi and Rabbitzen’, painted on the eve of World War One.

Courtesy of The Ben Uri Gallery.

The picture depicts what simple life may have been like for Jewish people during the 1910s.

Painted on the eve of World War One by Jewish artist Mark Gertler, ‘Rabbi and Rabbitzen’ is painted in a modernist style. It depicts a couple with their arms interlinked at a kitchen table. Unless we read the title of the work, we would not know they were a Rabbi and Rebbitzen .


Mark Gertler (1891-1939)

Gertler was the youngest son of poor Jewish immigrants from Austria who settled in London’s East End.

In 1908, he was among the first Jewish working-class students of his generation to enrol at the Slade College of Art.

In the 1930s, he found it hard to sell his work and was forced to teach part-time. On 23 June 1939, depressed by ill health, a badly received exhibition, lack of sales and fear of imminent war, he took his own life.

The Shtetl

Chana Kowalska’s painting ‘The Shtetl’ painted in 1934, shows a traditional Shtetl in Eastern Europe in the 1930s.
Chana Kowalska’s painting ‘The Shtetl’ painted in 1934, shows a traditional Shtetl in Eastern Europe in the 1930s.

Courtesy of The Ben Uri Gallery.

Painted by Chana Kowalska in 1934, this painting depicts a traditional Shtetl in Eastern Europe during the 1930s.

A Shtetl is the Yiddish word used to describe the small towns or villages of primarily Jewish communities. Shtetls were commonly found Eastern Europe during the 19th and 20th centuries. The Shtetl was seen as a rural market settlement, with residents living a simple life centered on religion, community, family and tradition.

Survivor video accounts

Below you can find three video accounts of Holocaust survivors remembering their childhood in Jewish families.


Freddie was born in Vienna, Austria in 1921, living with his parents and two brothers.

Here he talks affectionately about his childhood, focusing on family life and his hobbies.



Jack was born in 1929 in the bustling town of Novogrudek, in Belarus.

Here Jack describes the cultural richness of Jewish life in the town before the Soviet Army arrived during September 1939.


Joan was born to Polish parents in Brussels during February 1940.

Here Joan explains her family background, how her parents met and other aspects of life before the war.


What happened in June