At a Glance
LanguageEnglish — US
- The Holocaust
Friendship and Betrayal
Ellen Switzer was nine years old when Hitler became chancellor in Germany. Here, she recalls a classmate during the first years of Nazi rule who seemed to embody the qualities the Nazis valued most.
[Ruth’s] most appealing qualities were her total sincerity and her willingness to share whatever she had with a classmate in need. If the school was cold . . . Ruth would always lend you her sweater; she insisted that the cold air made her feel more alive. If you forgot your lunch, Ruth shared hers; she was not very hungry that day. Out of the same generosity that prompted her to share her clothing and her food, she also shared her ideas. Ruth was a totally dedicated Nazi.
She always had a large number of pamphlets, booklets, newsletters, and other materials in her book bag, along with her school supplies. If one wanted to discuss clothes or one’s problems with a teacher or a parent with Ruth, she was always willing to do so. But somehow, the discussion tended to turn political. . . . “Here, take this booklet, it will explain what I’m talking about,” she would often say, pressing into our hands yet another piece of literature, which often seemed surprisingly relevant to the problem we had been discussing. . . .
Some of us, especially those of us who were called “non-Aryan” (and therefore, thoroughly evil) in Ruth’s booklets, often asked her how she could possibly have friends who were Jews or who had a Jewish background, when everything she read and distributed seemed to breathe hate against us and our ancestors. “Of course, they don’t mean you,” she would explain earnestly. “You are a good German. It’s those other Jews, pacifists, socialists, and liberals who betrayed Germany that Hitler wants to remove from influence.” . . .
When Hitler actually came to power and the word went out that students of Jewish background were to be isolated, that “Aryan” Germans were no longer to associate with “non-Aryans” (i.e., those who were either Jewish or who had one Jewish ancestor, even though they themselves were Christians), Ruth actually came around and apologized to those of us to whom she was no longer able to talk. “The whole thing may be a misunderstanding,” she explained, “Maybe it will be straightened out later. But meanwhile, Hitler must know what he is doing, and I’ll follow orders.” Not only did she no longer speak to the suddenly ostracized group of classmates, she carefully noted down anybody who did, and reported them. 1
- In what ways was Ruth a good friend? How did she reconcile her kindness to her friends with her Nazi beliefs?
- How did Ruth’s universe of obligation change when the Nazis came to power? What factors do you think caused her universe of obligation to change?
- After World War II, in talking to a headmistress of her school about Ruth, Ellen Switzer learned that Ruth had served as a nurse in a concentration camp where "so-called experiments were carried out on helpless inmates." The headmistress said of Ruth: "She was not really a bad person, she was what I call an ideologue. Once she had come to believe in an idea—no matter how perverted, illogical and evil—she couldn’t let go. She’s now in prison and she’s probably still sure that what she believed was right."[footnote-link=1] Do you agree with that assessment of Ruth?
- 1Ellen Eichenwald Switzer, How Democracy Failed (New York: Atheneum, 1975), 89–91. Reproduced by permission from Curtis Brown, Ltd.
How to Cite This Reading
Facing History and Ourselves, "Learning to Be a Good German," last updated April 26, 2022.