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Henry Moss Shares his Recollections of Prewar Jewish German Life With SCW Honors Students

Mr. Moss speaking to Honors students

On Monday, September 11, students from the S. Daniel Abraham Program at Stern College for Women were privileged to hear from Henry Moss, a remarkable man whose memories span nearly a century. He shared his recollections of prewar Jewish German life and his family's experiences in the lead up to the second world war, as well as other historical events. The well-attended gathering offered students a unique opportunity to hear from someone with a front row seat to some of the last century’s most significant events as well as gain insight from his story. 

Mr. Moss was born in Berlin, Germany and moved to NYC in 1936 at the age of twelve. He began his talk with a discussion about the end of World War l, Kaiser Wilhelm’s decision to abdicate the German throne at that time, Germany’s surrender in that war as well as its aftermath that led to World War ll. All of those events, he explained, led to a void in the German government and fighting erupted between two groups that wanted power - one in which Adolf Hitler was a member. At the time, the German economy was also doing poorly, with German money practically worthless by the 1920s. Due to that and other factors, a rise in anti-Jewish sentiment took place within Germany, including the blaming of Jews for the country’s loss in the first war. Mr. Moss described Hitler’s slow rise to power: gathering allies in the 1920s, seizing opportunities in the 1930s to get to the top seats of power, and giving himself emergency authority that allowed him to become a dictator in a country with a democratic government. Once Hitler came to power, he gathered an army to reconquer former German territory lost in the previous war, revoked Jewish citizenship and established other anti-Jewish laws. These actions eventually led to World War II and the Holocaust.

He talked to the students about his time as a child, spending those years in a part of Berlin he described as a “Brooklyn-like area,” and described those early years as an “easy childhood.” He discussed summers in the Baltic Sea area and how his father got a new job as a quality assurance engineer, which he then lost in 1935. His family was Conservative Jewish, and he described the synagogue they went to as modern, beautiful and “built like an amphitheater,” (yet it was ultimately destroyed). He also attended public school, but when Hitler passed the Nuremberg Laws, he had to leave the school and was switched to a Jewish one. At one point, Mr. Moss recounted a pivotal story that affected him greatly: he, who didn’t look Jewish, was walking with a friend who did look Jewish, but was not. A young girl passed them and told Mr. Moss that he should be ashamed for being a friends with a Jew. The girl then hit his non-Jewish friend and chased him away. Mr. Moss described himself as being “dumbstruck” at the episode and the memory of it stayed with him throughout his life.

Beginning in the 1930s, his mother wrote to an uncle in New York asking if the family could emigrate and stay with him, because even though Hitler had not instituted his anti-Jewish laws, she nevertheless was not fooled by him and his intentions. However, America was still suffering through the depths of the great depression and the uncle repeatedly told her to wait. Finally, in 1936, Mr. Moss’ uncle agreed to his mother’s request, and he and his family came to the United States. In an ironic twist, he told the students he did not regularly experience antisemitism as a child in Berlin but did so in the United States. However, he described the kind in this country as being more superficial (for instance, being called “Jewboy”). 

The event with Mr. Moss could not have been more timely, as antisemitic attacks are rising in the United States and around the world. The students received great insight from his talk, as well as hope for the future as they were inspired by his personal history and more importantly, his perseverance.

Many thanks to Vered Gottleib for her help with the writing of this article.