The beginning of the end of German Jewry

1933

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Saturday
2 December 1933

Fritz Ritter’s membership card for the Cultural League of German Jews

As member “no. 181” Fritz Ritter was among the first to join the Cultural League of German Jews, which was founded in July 1933. By mid-December its membership had grown to 18,491, reflecting not only the Berlin-based organization’s extraordinary popularity with the Jewish population, but also the high level of solidarity among German Jews in a time of increasing social discrimination.

Fritz Ritter was born in Vienna and, after serving in the military in the First World War, became an actor. During the Roaring Twenties he performed in theaters in various German cities, above all in Munich and Berlin. Among other prominent roles, he played one of the beggars in the premiere of Brecht’s Threepenny Opera.

But when the Nazis assumed power, Ritter’s theatrical engagements came to an end. Under the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service, issued in April 1933, he was no longer permitted to perform in municipal theaters. Furthermore, as a “non-Aryan,” Ritter was denied admission to the Reich Theater Chamber—the equivalent of an occupational ban.

The establishment of the Cultural League brought new opportunities. The organization funded its work through membership dues. For 2.50 reichsmarks a month, members received a subscription entitling them to attend three of the league’s events. Due to his contributions to the league’s cultural program, Fritz Ritter was not subject to this fee. As his membership card states, he was “exempt from payment” as a “member of the house.” His status may also have been the reason the document is filled out so sloppily (even his signature is missing). Ritter was a well-known figure and showing his card was probably a mere formality. In December 1933 he performed in Shakespeare’s Othello in the Berliner Theater on Charlottenstrasse, the Cultural League’s stage. The play was the league’s third major production following Nathan the Wise and The Marriage of Figaro.

At the end of its first year, the Cultural League had good reason to be proud of its achievements. It had organized a total of 538 events, including 201 theatrical evenings, 69 operas, 117 concerts and 127 lectures. The following year Ritter performed not only at the Cultural League in Berlin, but also at its offshoots in other German cities. In 1935 there were thirty-six of these local and regional cultural leagues united under an umbrella organization.

Jörg Waßmer

Categorie(s): artists and writers | associations | Berlin | occupational ban
Fritz Ritter’s membership card for the Cultural League of German Jews, Berlin, 2 December 1933
Leo Baeck Institute, Fritz Ritter Collection

Decline of the Cultural League

In 1935 the Cultural League of German Jews was forced to change its name to the Jewish Cultural League. The reason: under the Nuremberg Laws there was no longer any such thing as a “German Jew.” The league’s program was now subject to control by the Reich Propaganda Ministry, whose goal was to “de-Germanize” the repertoire. These efforts are reflected in Fritz Ritter’s surviving employment contracts. In 1937 he performed in the play Der Golem (The Golem) and on 4 November 1938 rehearsals began for Benjamin, wohin? (Where to, Benjamin?), in which Ritter played the role of the “Terrible Jew.”

These rehearsals ended abruptly on 8 November 1938 when—just one day before the November Pogroms—the Ministry of Propaganda ordered the closure of all Jewish institutions. Due to this “circumstance, which constituted a force majeure,” the Cultural League terminated its contract with Ritter. A few days later, the Berlin organization was forced to resume its activities once again, but its offshoots in the rest of Germany were banned. However, the Cultural League was already in decline. Increasing difficulties were caused not least by the emigration of many of its artists and staff members.

Like many of his colleagues, Fritz Ritter also gave up acting. From December 1938 to May 1939 he took part in a training program at the Healthcare Center of the Jewish Community and then immigrated to the Bahamas with his wife, the painter Ida Lauinger (1900–1978). On 11 September 1941—while the Ritters were struggling to earn a living in the Bahaman capital of Nassau—the Berlin Gestapo closed the Cultural League for good in Germany.

After the Second World War, the Ritters moved to the United States. Fritz Ritter changed his first name to Frederick, went to university and eventually became a professor of German language and literature in Chicago. In addition to teaching, he frequently gave recitations of German works in the original.

Letter of dismissal sent to Fritz Ritter by the Jewish Cultural League, Berlin, 8 November 1938
Leo Baeck Institute, Fritz Ritter Collection 
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