Stories of Jewish lawyers in Nazi Germany are both tragic and inspiring

Sitting in the reception room of the Law Society’s representative office in Brussels last week (where I was covering a conference), I happened upon an excellent pamphlet produced by the German Federal Bar and the American Bar Association, ‘Jewish Lawyers in Germany under the Third Reich.’

German-Jewish lawyer Dr Michael Siegel forced by Nazi police to walk through the streets of Munich barefoot with a board round his neck that read: "I will never complain to the police again"

When Hitler came to power in January 1933, more than half of Berlin’s 3,400 lawyers were of Jewish origin. All of them, alongside the thousands of other Jews practising law throughout the rest of Germany, were forced to re-apply for admission to the national bar. At which point, only German-Jewish lawyers who had qualified before 1914, or who had fought at the front line in the First World War, were granted the right to continue in their profession. And in November 1938, even this select group was banned from practising. Many German-Jewish lawyers would subsequently be murdered in concentration camps.

Others managed to flee to the US, where some, like the late Coudert Brothers lawyer Ernst Stiefel, eventually re-qualified as US attorneys. Before being admitted as a lawyer in the States, Stiefel — who had been a renowned expert in insurance law in Germany — completed spells as a chauffeur, busboy and dishwasher in New York, having undergone a period of internment as an “enemy alien” in the UK.

Another amazing story detailed in the pamphlet is that of Hanna Katz, who for five years was the only Jewish woman in Hitler’s Germany allowed to practise law. With women only admitted to the German legal profession in the 1920s, the ban on German-Jewish lawyers who had qualified after 1914 meant no female Jewish lawyers could continue in their jobs after 1933.

But competition specialist Katz held a coveted position on the board of the international law association — which, to the frustration of the Nazis, would have gone to a British lawyer if she had been disbarred. So an exception was made for her. Katz was, however, subject to the 1938 general ban prohibiting all Jewish lawyers from practising. Two years later, she secured the necessary documentation to fly to Portugal, and then take a boat to the US. Her husband and their four children were murdered by the Nazis.

I’ll pick out one more of the stories here (the full pamphlet is available here). On September 25 1938, at around 2am, Berlin lawyer Wilhelm Dickmann got a phone call. “Hello, I understand that you are going on your vaction tomorrow. I just heard the latest weather report. The weather will change radically in the morning, so it would be advisable to take the earliest possible flight out.” The caller, who Dickmann didn’t recognise, then hung up.

That night Dickmann bid farewell to his sister and father — who he would never see again — and fled, first to Copenhagen, and then New York. After a number of odd jobs, Dickmann re-qualified as a US lawyer, and joined the US army. As an American officer, Dickmann — now using the name William Dickman — returned to his hometown of Berlin in 1945. Two years later, as a staff member of the American high commissioner general Lucius Clay, he wrote the Control Council Law No. 26 that decreed the dissolution of Prussia.

Alex Aldridge is a journalist specialising in law and education