Throughout their long diaspora, Jews have flourished when treated fairly and allowed to compete. Such was the case in Germany with the creation of the German Empire in 1871. Suddenly, Jews enjoyed full citizenship rights. At the same time, they gained access to a previously unavailable livelihood when the practice of law was delinked from the civil service. A private, independent legal profession swiftly emerged, and with their tradition of Talmudic discussions and analysis, Jews quickly found a new niche.
Up until the 1920s, the number of Jewish lawyers increased continuously and included women in their ranks. Subsequent generations took over the private practices of their fathers or started their own. In the big cities, the share of Jewish lawyers was higher than in smaller towns with a court. In Berlin, for example, on January 1, 1933 more than half of the 3,400 lawyers were of Jewish origin.
However, they did not identify as Jewish lawyers: they were German, lawyers and Jews, in that order. Many of them had been soldiers during the First World War; others had renounced their Jewish faith and some had even been baptized. In the area of jurisprudence, they contributed to the development of renowned legal journals and to the establishment of professional organizations.
All that came to an abrupt halt with the rise of Hitler and the dissolution of the democratic state. Overnight, Jews were excluded from all areas of social life. In March 1933, a decree was issued which refused all Jewish judges, public prosecutors and lawyers entry to the courts starting the very next day.
From 1933 until 1938, the National Socialists chipped away at Jewish access to the law. Finally, in 1938 all except a very few were banned altogether from practicing their profession. Those few could only act as “legal consultants” for Jewish clients. Essentially, there were no more Jewish lawyers in Germany. The Nazis had achieved their goal of making the legal profession “entjudet” (free of Jews).
“Lawyers Without Rights: Jewish Lawyers in Germany Under the Third Reich” is a sparse, densely informative exhibit jointly sponsored by the German Federal Bar and the American Bar Association. Since the fall of 2012, it has toured all over the world. With the support of the Vilna Shul, it is on display in the John Joseph Moakley Courthouse lobby through September 30.
Most of the show’s panels are devoted to the stories of individuals who lost their livelihoods, and in many cases their lives, during those darkest of times. These intimate portraits, and the fragile accompanying photographs and documents, are the heart and soul of the exhibit.
Margarete Berent’s story is one of perseverence. The 1914 dissertation on family law that she wrote to complete her law studies actually served as the 1958 model for the legal reform of inheritance and property laws in the Federal Republic of Germany. Berent was unable to practice law until 1919, when women were first allowed to take the bar exam. By 1925, as the first Prussian female lawyer, she had a thriving practice in Berlin. By 1939, she had fled to Chile, and by 1940 she was living in New York as a housemaid and postal worker. Undaunted, she went to New York University Law School at night and began working as a lawyer again in 1950, at age 63.
If the exhibit sounds dry and factual, that’s because it is. There is little excitement generated by posters on easels and trifold office wall mounts. Excitement, however, is not the point; contemplation and solemnity are. We mourn anew the senseless loss of our fellow Jews and reflect about a time when a nation completely abandoned individual rights and the rule of law. To do so in the lobby of a United States courthouse is all the more moving.
It may be a coincidence that Berent’s easel stands beside an inlaid panel of Daniel Webster’s famous quote, “Justice is the great interest of man on Earth. It is the ligament which holds civilized nations together.” Then again, it may not.
Go to lawyerswithoutrights.com for more information.
Pictured at top: Jewish lawyer Dr. Michael Siegel was forced to march through Munich barefoot after complaining to the police.