In post-WWII Nuremberg and New York, Purim’s future once hung in the balance

While American Jews debated the meaning of the holiday after the Holocaust, Hitler’s top ‘Jew-baiter’ — Nazi publisher Julius Streicher — invoked Purim from the Nuremberg gallows

At the gallows on October 16, 1946, the hanging of “Der Stürmer” publisher Julius Streicher did not go as planned.

Allegedly, the hangman “botched” the 15-minute execution in order to inflict more pain on the unrepentant Streicher. During that time, the condemned Nazi rattled off some memorable epitaphs, including one connecting him to the villain of Purim.

“Streicher’s yelling ‘Purim Fest, 1946’ on the gallows and then his last shout, ‘The Bolsheviks will hang you one day,’ epitomized his attitude during the whole trial,” said historian Andrew Nagorski.

Unique among the defendants at the post-war 1946 Nuremberg Trials, Streicher was executed for having “incited murder and extermination.” As shown in court, Streicher was also kept informed of the “Final Solution” with reports and photographs.

“Streicher never betrayed any doubts about the system he so vociferously served or its monstrous crimes,” Nagorski told The Times of Israel. “That [attitude] hardly inclined the tribunal to mercy.”

Julius Streicher at the Nuremberg Trials in 1946 (USHMM)

Twenty-two years before his execution, Streicher wrote about “Das Purimfest” as an example of Jewish depravity. By shouting “Purim Fest 1946″ from the gallows, Streicher seemed to align himself with Haman, who — like Streicher — was hanged along with ten co-conspirators after failing to destroy the Jews.

“It wasn’t [Streicher’s] power, because that didn’t last and he was stripped of his Nazi Party titles already in February 1940,” said historian Efraim Zuroff, the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s lead Nazi-hunter.

“But Streicher was a total fanatic when it came to the Jews and that was the reason he was hanged in Nuremberg as an accessory to murder, even though he had no role in the planning of the Holocaust, and in implementing its logistics,” Zuroff told The Times of Israel.

Hitler’s loyal ‘Franken-Fuhrer’

Beginning with Adolf Hitler’s failed “Beer Hall Putsch” in 1923, Streicher became the dictator’s most cherished “Jew-baiter.” When the Nazis came to power one decade later, multi-millionaire Streicher continued to fuel the regime’s anti-Semitic policies.

Targeting children and their parents alike, Streicher published the 1938 book, “The Poisonous Mushroom,” designed to help students “recognize the Jewish poison-mushroom,” according to publicity.

German youth read ‘Der Sturmer’ in custom-made display cases built throughout Germany (public domain)

“[This tale] shows the many shapes the Jew assumes,” wrote Ernst Hiemer, chosen by Streicher to write the book. “[The tales] show the depravity and baseness of the Jewish race. They show the Jew for what he really is: the devil in human form.”

To illustrate the “poisonous Jew” in his various forms, Streicher deployed cartoonist Philipp Rupprecht, better known as “Fips” to readers of Streicher’s weekly “Der Stürmer.”

With a peak publication of 600,000, “Der Stürmer” helped Streicher ignite anti-Semitism on an unprecedented scale. Copies of the publication with grotesque illustrations of Jews were displayed in custom-made cases throughout Germany.

Julius Streicher holds court with fellow Nazis and journalists (public domain)

Within Hitler’s inner circle, Streicher was considered “too extreme” an anti-Semite. For this distinction, Hitler made his boastful paladin the governor-potentate of Franconia, home to Streicher’s native Nuremberg. Nicknamed “Franken-Fuhrer,” Streicher made sure Nuremberg’s synagogue was destroyed months before Kristallnacht.

Throughout his career, Streicher frequently compared Jews to “locusts that need to be exterminated.” In 1939, before Hitler invaded Russia, Streicher called for a “punitive expedition” to “exterminate root and branch” the country’s Jews.

‘When Hitler is gone’

Across the Atlantic in the United States, Purim had been falling out of favor even before learning of the Holocaust, with rabbis “laboring mightily to improve decorum in their synagogues.”

Purim and its rowdy “spiel” performances did not go with the image Jews sought to project to their neighbors. Conservative rabbi Mordecai Waxman wrote “the Purim spiel is now a thing of the past,” referring to the skits as “crude and primitive.”

American soldiers hold Purim at the former castle of Joseph Goebbels, 1945 (public domain)

When Nazi Germany started to implement the “Final Solution” in 1941, American Jews became even more concerned about Purim. Just a few decades earlier, the holiday had been as popular as Chanukah.

“My sense in World War II, a bleak time for Jews, is that they wondered if there would still be merriment in the face of the horrific catastrophe that they were beginning to appreciate,” said historian Jonathan Sarna.

“Of course, being a Jew means appreciating both Tisha b’Av and Purim — both mourning and joy,” Sarna told The Times of Israel.

By 1943, news of the unfolding Holocaust was on the radio and covers of newspapers. The influential publisher of “The Sentinel,” A.A. Freedlander, said Purim would no longer be needed after the war.

Purim celebration in 1955 (public domain)

“When Hitler is gone we shall celebrate another Purim in commemoration of his defeat, but let it be our last such festival, for we shall no longer be the defenseless, homeless, helpless folk whose very weakness invited attack,” wrote Freedlander in an editorial on March 18, 1943.

In particular, Freedlander pointed to the emerging Jewish state as being a source of inspiration for “hundreds of thousands of Jews” in the US.

“More has to be considered this year than the utter crushing of Hitler as of Haman before him,” wrote Freedlander. “In our times we begin to see the restoration of national dignity to our gypsy people. …[Building the state] exceeds every other [task] in importance as Purim is observed this year.”

Israelis enjoy a Purim parade, the largest in the country, in the city of Holon, during the Jewish holiday of Purim, March 21, 2019. (Flash90)

Contrary to the predictions of Freedlander and Waxman, American Jews did not give up on Purim. In recent years, activists have connected Purim to numerous social and charitable causes, while the “spiel” — including spiels that make fun of Hitler — has never been abandoned.

Said Nazi-hunter Zuroff, “I sometimes wonder whether we Jews are doing the right thing when we publicize the Nazi war criminals and their crimes. After all, we say ‘Yimach shemo,’ about our enemies — May their names be blotted out,” he said.

“But having said that, we realized after the [Holocaust] that the only way to help prevent such tragedies, is to make sure that as many people as possible know exactly what happened, and who was responsible for this enormous tragedy/disaster,” Zuroff told The Times of Israel.