It was early morning on November 10, 1938, the day after Kristallnacht. Streetcars moved slowly down Aachenerstrasse. They rolled past piles of shattered glass from storefront display windows and heaps of goods that mobs had looted from Jewish-owned stores and thrown into the street. Those passengers on the trolley who looked up from their newspapers saw—many with approval and some with horror and guilt—the word “Juden” scrawled on Jewish homes and commercial buildings. The air in Cologne was thick with smoke from the smoldering embers of Jewish homes and synagogues. The acrid plumes of smoke and bits of silvery ash curled slowly upward marking the spots where Nazi-inspired mobs had set match to fuel. The resulting fires had consumed livelihoods, homes, and any sense of belonging to which Germany’s remaining Jews had been clinging. The city looked like a war zone, which in truth it was, a battlefield in the simmering war the Third Reich had launched against Germany’s Jews that was now coming to full boil. 

The SS pounded on the door of 412 Aachnerstrasse. Max, who had been shaving, wiped the soap from his face and opened the door. Without explanation, the officers arrested him. They said only: “Come with us.” And suddenly Max and the grey-clad officers were gone. Max’s daughters Renate and Erica had no idea what this meant; they were bewildered by their father’s arrest. 

Max’s wife Trude, however, knew and she was filled with dread. She understood all too well what this might portend, not only for her husband Max and their family, but also for other Jews in Cologne. She immediately telephoned a colleague of Max’s who had sons the same ages as Renate and Erica in order to warn him. Trude was too late; the SS had already arrested him. 

Trude hastily packed two small bags for the girls. Although it was unusual for women to drive in Germany in 1938, Trude knew this was no time to adhere to custom. She had bucked convention by going to college, so she did not fear driving, nor was it something she was willing to forego in a crisis. She put the girls into the family’s Opel sedan and drove through Cologne to pick up their friend’s sons. 

She drove the children out of the city and, she hoped, away from the Gestapo. What went through her mind as she drove? Perhaps she thought she should drive straight to Holland to get out of Germany. Maybe her best strategy was to try to save the children and herself and hope that somehow Max and his colleague would be released and could join them. But the border police would almost certainly detain her and the children since they did not have passports; the Nazis had seized their passports months earlier. Any effort to flee the country might result in all of them being arrested to await who knew what fate. Perhaps she should hide the children and return to Cologne to try to get Max released, but in doing so risk having all of them imprisoned. She drove onward with no good answer. Fear gripped her mind as tightly as her hands gripped the wheel; her lips were as white as her knuckles…

Jews in Cologne

The city of Cologne was established along the banks of the Rhine River, in what eventually became western Germany, during the first century A.D. The city began as a Roman outpost named Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium. The city’s name was derived from the first word of the Roman designation for the outpost—Colonia. “Cologne”—the French version of the name—eventually became standard usage for the city’s name in English, as opposed to the German spelling of “Köln.” 

Researchers have found references to a Jewish population in Cologne as far back as 321 A.D. Jewish merchants frequently followed Roman legions as the legions moved northward through the Roman empire. The merchants often established small communities on the banks of the Rhine alongside Roman encampments and fortifications. Cologne, one of those Roman encampments, soon had a small Jewish community. The first Jews to arrive in Germany, “the country known as ‘Ashkenaz’” in the Hebrew of the time, were merchants. However, there are no further written references to a Jewish presence in Cologne until the Middle Ages, so it is not clear there was a continuous Jewish presence in Cologne from the 4th to the 11th century.

During the Middle Ages, Cologne was a major center of east-west trade in central Europe. Jews had a presence in Cologne during this time. In fact, the Jewish community became large enough that it built a synagogue in approximately 1000 C.E. “By 1075, the town had a designated Jewish Quarter.” However, Cologne’s Jews were subject to recurring periods of oppression, murder, and destruction of property. In 1096, during the First Crusade, several pogroms resulted in the murder of hundreds of Jews, while others were forcibly baptized. 

“[T]he Church enacted discriminatory measures against them in the early 13th century by ordering clergymen to restrict business transactions between Christians and Jews. Jews were also forced to wear a distinctive yellow badge…to pay heavy taxes and were forbidden to hold public office.” The local populace attacked and murdered Jews during the Black Plague in the 14th century, accusing them of bringing the plague and poisoning local wells in order to sicken the area’s inhabitants.

In 1424, Cologne’s city council barred Jews “for all eternity;” the council justified its action by claiming the city’s Jews were responsible for crime and poverty. The council confiscated Jewish properties, including the Jewish community’s lone synagogue, which the city converted into a church. No longer able to reside in the city, Cologne’s Jews settled in neighboring villages. The largest such community was in the town of Deutz, which was immediately east of Cologne on the far bank of the Rhine River. The Jewish community of Deutz was comprised mainly of people with limited means. Jews were not restricted to a ghetto in Deutz, but rather were allowed to live among the community at large. Cologne, however, restricted Jewish access to the city. Cologne allowed Jews to cross the Rhine during daylight hours, but only to do business; the city required that Jews return to their homes in Deutz in the evening. In light of the ongoing hostility to their community, many Jews left the area entirely and resettled to the east in Poland and Lithuania.

Germany was the home of Martin Luther, born in 1483 in the central German town of Eisleben. Luther became a professor of theology, a priest, an Augustinian monk, and, eventually, a leader of the Protestant Reformation. He challenged the authority of the Pope to speak the word of God. Luther translated the Bible into German, an event that helped spread the word of the church and standardize the German language. Luther was also a vicious anti-Semite. He wrote venomous texts blaming Jews for the death of Christ, deemed them blasphemers for not accepting Jesus, and advocated burning synagogues, destroying Jewish prayer books, seizing Jewish property, and killing Jews. Since his religious texts were widely read, Luther played a major role in spreading anti-Semitism throughout Germany. Centuries later, the Nazis used his writings to justify their murderous agenda against the Jews of Europe. 

In 1799, the first Jew since the 1424 expulsion requested and was granted permission to settle in Cologne. Within a few years, enough Jews lived there to establish a small congregation. They did so notwithstanding the fact that Jews in central Europe during the Middle Ages did not have civil or property rights. For example, Prussia, in what was later eastern Germany, did not permit Jews to become full citizens with equal rights until the late 1860’s. While Jews were allowed to settle in Cologne at the end of the 18th century, this was not due to a German epiphany about tolerance and equality. Rather, Jews were allowed to return to Cologne because the Rhineland, where Cologne was located, had come under French rule by virtue of Napoleon’s conquests. Napoleon had given French Jews full citizenship a few years earlier; he directed the authorities in the Rhineland to comply with French law and abolish many of their discriminatory laws that restricted Jewish life. 

As part of the French Revolution, the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen guaranteed freedom of religion and free exercise of worship provided those freedoms did not contradict public order. Napoleon came to power in 1799 and crowned himself emperor of France in 1804. He extended the Declaration’s dictates and overrode laws requiring that Jews reside in ghettos, removed limitations on Jews’ rights to own property and worship, and removed strictures barring Jews from practicing certain occupations. When Napoleon annexed German territory west of the Rhine, where Cologne was located, Cologne’s Jews became equal citizens in that part of Germany for the first time. Unfortunately, after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in June 1815, Germany reverted to its discriminatory treatment of Jews.

Thirty-three years later, the German revolution of 1848-49, in which many Jews participated, led to the Frankfurt Parliament issuing the “Basic Laws of the German People.” These laws stated that religious affiliation should not affect the civil and political rights of individuals; this allowed Jews to participate fully in German life for the first time. While Germany was still suffused with anti-Semitism, Jews, at least in purely legal terms by the end of the 19th century, had come much closer to being full German citizens. 

In 1815, the Congress of Vienna established the German Confederation, an association of thirty-nine German-speaking states, to coordinate the economies of German-speaking countries. The Confederation replaced the Holy Roman Empire which had been dissolved in 1806. The Confederation designated Cologne as a defensive “fortress city,” which led to the construction of two “ring belts” of fortresses around it. Cologne and the Rhineland were predominantly Catholic, as opposed to the German state of Prussia to the east which was overwhelmingly Protestant. The city grew rapidly in the 19th and 20th centuries; by the time of the first World War, it had some 700,000 inhabitants.

Being a Jew in Europe entailed living with risk as a constant companion. Nevertheless, by the time World War I began, German Jews were, by most standards, largely assimilated into German society. Germany’s Jews did not consider themselves to be distinct from other Germans; they certainly did not think that within a generation their non-Jewish countrymen would seek to annihilate them. Most German Jews thought of themselves as Germans at least as much as they thought of themselves as Jews. They were active in many professions and enjoyed Germany’s rich cultural life. “By the middle of the 19th century, Cologne developed into a scientific, economic, and cultural center, and the Jewish population had a strong part in this development.” “In Cologne, the late 1800’s marked the beginning of the vibrant Jewish community life that flourished from the 1920s to the early 1930s.” 

The Jewish Reform movement had begun in Germany in the 19th century. Reform rabbis wore vestments similar to those worn by Protestant ministers. Instrumental accompaniment became part of the services at Reform congregations; the Hebrew prayer book was replaced by one written in German. The Reform movement did not consider observance of Kashrut to be important. Reform Jews became more and more “German” and less and less “Jewish” in many aspects of their religious observances and daily lives. Germany’s Jews by and large believed themselves to be assimilated into and a part of the German population. The family of David and Emma Ichenhäuser in Cologne was just such a German-Jewish family.