“Jewish Homes” in Prague, Autumn 1940

When the Jews of Prague picked up the community's official newspaper, The Jewish Bulletin, on Friday the 13th of September 1940, they could not have missed the announcement printed in bold type on the righthand side of the front page.  The New Regulation for Jewish Renters in Prague succinctly stated that the SS Central Office for Jewish Emigration had decreed: Jews in Prague are no longer permitted to rent vacant residential properties.  From then on, Jews in the capital would only be allowed to move into residences currently or previously occupied by other Jews.1 For more than year the Jewish Community's Housing Department had already struggled to find accommodations in Prague for a growing number of Jews. Those efforts had faced numerous challenges, including German officials' haphazard seizure of Jews' homes and the reluctance of many landlords to take on non-Aryan tenants.  The New Regulation for Jewish Renters in Prague, however, represented a particularly ominous step in the persecution of the Bohemian and Moravian Jews. For the measure was just one of several critical decrees in autumn 1940 that redefined housing in the Protectorate and forced Jews into a ghetto without walls.

From the onset of the Munich Crisis through the summer of 1940, Jews from around Bohemia and Moravia had moved to Prague in considerable numbers to flee rising antisemitism in their home towns and to seek avenues for emigration from their homeland. First, in 1938 came the Jews of the Sudetenland. In the months that followed the March 1939 German occupation Jews from around the Protectorate also relocated to the capital city in response to Nazi repression elsewhere in Bohemia and Moravia. Although the SS Central Office for Jewish Emigration's original plan to concentrate all Protectorate Jews in Prague was suspended with the outbreak of the war, the Jewish Community reported in September 1939 that the scale of individual migration of provincial Jews continued to grow. 2 In response, the community established a special Housing Department to find accommodation for new arrivals to the city. 3  By late October 1939 the department reported the arrival of  numerous Jews from the provinces, for whom suitable rooms were found only with considerable effort.4

The task was complicated by a concurrent increase in the number of native Prague Jews who needed housing. Some had apparently cancelled their leases in expectation of emigration, only to find that they could not arrange the permissions and visas necessary to leave the Protectorate. Overall, the community reported a great need for smaller residences, a sign of the growing impoverishment of Jews who, fired from their jobs and with their assets frozen, could no longer afford their current rents.5 With the New Year of 1940, another wave of applicants deluged the Housing Department. The community's weekly report noted: the circumstance, that more and more Aryan landlords are no longer willing to have Jews as tenants, forces the interested parties to give up independent searches for apartments and turn to the community for help instead.6 Over the next several months, news of cancelled leases and capricious, rapid evictions became a staple in the community's weekly reports to the SS Central Office. Whether landlords evicted Jews because of antisemitism or a belief that they could find better paying, and lower risk, Aryan tenants, the development placed an even larger burden on the community.  By the beginning of spring 1940 the Housing Department pleaded in its report to the SS Central Office: The situation of the Prague housing market is become more and more critical by the day and is now already assuming a catastrophic state.7 Later that month the city of Prague exacerbated the predicament when it suddenly cancelled the leases of all Jews in municipal apartment buildings.8  By the end of June 1940, the Housing Department of the Prague Jewish Community reported that 11,648 Jews had sought its assistance.9   

Only three days before the announcement of the New Regulation for Jewish Renters in Prague, the SS Central Office ordered the Jewish Community leadership to provide a full accounting of all residences inhabited by Jews in Prague.10  The timing of the two measures was hardly coincidental: The German occupiers wanted a clear accounting of all residences where Jews lived in order to be able to limit them to moves between them and to lay the groundwork for the seizure of the properties. Critically, the SS Office demanded not a list of properties owned by Jews, but of all those where Jews resided, regardless of who had legal title to the property. The plan to appropriate control over all such Jewish residences became publicly clear on 7 October 1940, when the Reich Protector's Office announced that the SS Central Office must give approval before a landlord could rent any residence previously occupied by a Jew. In other words, a property was to be considered a Jewish residence if a Jew currently lived within its walls, regardless of who owned it. A Czech newspaper explained to bewildered Aryan landlords: The order speaks of residences rented to Jews and does not thus distinguish between whether the landlord is a Jew or an Aryan.  Only the race of the renter who last lived in the residence is decisive.11   The decree thus essentially racialized the bricks and mortar that encased living spaces and summarily restricted the power of numerous non-Jews (both Czech and German) to dispose freely of their own property.  

Inadvertently, however, the Nazi racialization of residential space also handed Jewish tenants a means to defend themselves against unscrupulous landlords. In a form of passive resistance, across the Protectorate Jewish community officials seized upon the 7 October decree to protect their constituents. When Marie Bader's landlord in Prague tried to force her to move, she reached out in desperation to a contact in the Jewish Community, who told her not to worry because she lived in a Jewish apartment that could be rerented only with the approval of the SS Central Office. Bader explained in a letter to her beloved in Greece: Since yesterday I know for certain that I can keep my flat, indeed must keep it, and that the owner cannot demand that I move out because she has absolutely no right to dispose of it.12 Outside of Prague, local Jewish officials used the same tactic to fend off aggressive landlords. In the Slaný district an elderly woman who faced eviction wrote the Jewish community representative: In a hopeless state I turn again to you and ask for advice… I’m terrified… I’m abandoned.13 The official responded: Be so good as to inform your landlady that, according to the order of the Reich Protector for Bohemia and Moravia from 7 October 1940, it is necessary in regards to the disposal of apartments vacated by Jews to request the approval of the Office for Jewish Emigration in Prague.14  The Jewish Community in Holešov similarly explained to a Jewish representative in nearby Bystřice pod Hoštejnem that, though Jews no longer had any tenants' rights, he should inform the landlord… that he would gain no advantage from the eviction of this family because the home cannot…be rented again and so it would be more advantageous to him if he left the family in the home. 15  

The Jewish Community's efforts to protect Jews from eviction by private landlords could not, however, protect them from the SS Central Office, which over the next two years used the property lists to carry out the mass concentration of Jews into fewer and fewer apartments in specific districts of the capital city and in specific towns throughout the Protectorate. Autumn 1940, not coincidentally, also brought a radical restriction in the freedom of movement of the territory’s Jews. Three days after the 7 October Reich Protector's decree, at the Germans' behest the Protectorate Interior Minister, Jaroslav Ježek, issued a directive that made it illegal for Jews to change their place of residence without prior approval from the authorities. The independent relocation of Jews from the provinces to Prague had officially come to an end. Thereafter the authorities punished Jews who moved on their own initiative, including, for example, Evžen Markovits, whom the police arrested in August 1941 for relocating within the city of Prague without prior authorization. For Markovits that was just one of several arrests he endured, which ultimately contributed to his direct transfer in June 1942 from the jail of the Prague police to the SS collection site in the city's Holešovice district and thereafter on to the Theresienstadt Ghetto and, ultimately, his murder in German-occupied Belarus.   

    

evzenmarkovits.jpg

Evžen Markovits in 1940 (Photo: Národní archiv ČR, fond Policejní ředitelství)

 

Remarks

1:

Jüdisches Nachrichtenblatt/Židovské listy II, 13 Sept 1940, s. 1.

2:

Jüdische Kultusgemeinde (JKg) Prague, Wochenbericht 6/1939 (27.8-1.9), s. 7. Yad Vashem Archives (YVA), 07 CZ/53.

3:

The Housing Department was part of the Jewish Religious Community s Division of Social Welfare, which by 1942 employed 312 employees. Helena Krejčová, Jana Svobodová, and Anna Hyndráková, Židé v Protektorátu: Hlášení Židovské náboženské obce v roce 1942. Dokumenty (Prague: Ústav pro soudobé dějiny, 1997), p.  18.

4:

JKg Wochenbericht 14/1939 (21-27.10), s. 4. YVA 07 CZ/53.

5:

JKg Wochenbericht 11/1939 (30.9-6.10), s. 5; JKg Wochenbericht 12/1939 (7-13.10), s. 5; JKg Wochenbericht 22/1939 (15-21.12), s. 7. YVA 07 CZ/53.

6:

JKg Wochenbericht 2/1940 (7-12.1.40), s. 9.  YVA 07 CZ/54.

7:

JKg Wochenbericht 14/1940 (30.3 – 5.4.40), s. 9-10. YVA 07 CZ/55.

8:

JKg Wochenbericht 17/1940 (20-26.4.40), s. 5; JKg Wochenbericht 19/1940 (4-10.5.40), s. 4. YVA 07 CZ/55.

9:

JKg Vierteljahresbericht, II. Vierteljahr 1940, s. 22. YVA 07 CZ/55.

10:

JKg Vierteljahresbericht, III. Vierteljahr 1940, s. 26. YVA 07 CZ/56.

11:

Pronajímání bytů Židům, Lidové noviny (30 Oct. 1940), Moravský zemský archiv Brno, f. B26, k. 2366, inv.č. 2132, Předpisy o židech, p. 1048.

12:

Letter dated 4 January 1941. Marie Bader, Life and Love in Nazi Prague: Letters from an Occupied City, ed. by Kate Ottevanger and Jan Láníček (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019), 51-52.

13:

Archiv Židovského muzea Praha (AŽMP) [Archives of the Jewish Museum in Prague], f. Židovská náboženská obec (ŽNO) Slaný, inv. č. 66, sign. 102903: Bytové záležitosti (1940-41).

14:

AŽMP, f. ŽNO-Holešov, poř. č. 34, sign. 62696, Změny bytů (1942), s. 1534.

15:

Pobyt židů v lázních a letoviskách a zákaz změny bydliště, Presidium Ministerstva vnitra č. E-3443-2/10-40 (10 Oct. 40), NA, f. Ministerstvo vnitra – Nová registratura, k. 12041, sign. E-3443, s .315.

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