Why Jews Didn’t Leave Europe

Leon Botstein is an American conductor and scholar who serves as president of Bard College. In this interview he discusses why Jews didn’t leave Europe, particularly Germany, after Hitler came to power in 1933. “The Nazis were not as organized as the American film industry describes them,” he says. “In the breach, segregating the Jewish population was the first order of business.” Indeed, Hitler even ordered that Jewish classical musicians be fired from their groups in the early months of 1933. However, says Botstein, most German Jews didn’t question that they would live and die in Germany. They thought Hitler was temporary or that he was so extreme that there would be a reaction against him. “There was always two Germanys,” Botstein cites, “There was the Germany of high culture…and the Germany of the beer hall and…of blood-and-soil nationalism, which eventually triumphed.”

Anti-Semitism or even radical anti-Semitism wasn’t a surprise to Germans at the time,  even after Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass in 1938) and the outbreak of World War II in 1939, according to Botstein.  “People knew things would be terrible, but no one imagined to what extent,” says Botstein.

Orchestra of Exiles premieres Sunday, April 14 at 10 p.m. ET on PBS.