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The Yellow Star

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A yellow Star of David badge bearing the German word Jude.

A yellow Star of David badge bearing the German word 'Jude' (Jew).

Picture from the USHMM, courtesy of Charles and Hana Bruml.

The yellow star, inscribed with the word "Jude," has become a symbol of Nazi persecution. Its likeness abounds upon Holocaust literature and materials. But the Jewish badge was not instituted in 1933 when Hitler came to power. It was not instituted in 1935 when the Nuremberg Laws stripped Jews of their citizenship. It was still not implemented by Kristallnacht in 1938. The oppression and labeling of the Jews by use of the Jewish badge did not begin until after the start of the Second World War. And even then, it began as local laws rather than as a unified Nazi policy.

Were the Nazis the first to implement a Jewish badge?

The Nazis rarely had an original idea. Almost always what made the Nazi policies different was that they intensified, magnified, and institutionalized the age-old methods of persecution.

The oldest reference to using mandatory articles of clothing to identify and distinguish Jews from the rest of society was in 807 CE. In this year, Abbassid caliph Haroun al-Raschid ordered all Jews to wear a yellow belt and a tall, cone-like hat.1

But it was in 1215 that the Fourth Lateran Council, presided over by Pope Innocent III, made its infamous decree. Canon 68 declared:

Jews and Saracens [Muslims] of both sexes in every Christian province and at all times shall be marked off in the eyes of the public from other peoples through the character of their dress.2
This Council represented all of Christendom and thus this decree was to be enforced throughout all of the Christian countries.

The use of a badge was not instantaneous throughout Europe nor were the dimensions or shape of the badge uniform. As early as 1217, King Henry III of England ordered Jews to wear "on the front of their upper garment the two tables of the Ten Commandments made of white linen or parchment."3 In France, local variations of the badge continued until Louis IX decreed in 1269 that "both men and women were to wear badges on the outer garment, both front and back, round pieces of yellow felt or linen, a palm long and four fingers wide."4

In Germany and Austria, Jews were distinguishable in the latter half of the 1200's when the wearing of a "horned hat" otherwise known as a "Jewish hat" -- an article of clothing that Jews had worn freely before the crusades -- became mandatory. It wasn't until the fifteenth century when a badge became the distinguishing article in Germany and Austria.

The use of badges became relatively widespread throughout Europe within a couple of centuries and continued to be used as distinctive markings until the age of Enlightenment. In 1781, Joseph II of Austria made major torrents into the use of a badge with his Edict of Tolerance and many other countries discontinued their use of badges very late in the eighteenth century.

When did the Nazis come up with the idea of re-using the Jewish badge?

The first reference to a Jewish badge during the Nazi era was made by the German Zionist leader, Robert Weltsch. During the Nazi declared boycott upon Jewish stores on April 1, 1933, yellow Stars of David were painted on windows. In reaction to this, Weltsch wrote an article entitled "Tragt ihn mit Stolz, den gelben Fleck" ("Wear the Yellow Badge with Pride") which was published on April 4, 1933. At this time, Jewish badges had yet even to be discussed among the top Nazis.

It is believed that the first time that the implementation of a Jewish badge was discussed among the Nazi leaders was right after Kristallnacht in 1938. At a meeting on November 12, 1938, Reinhard Heydrich made the first suggestion about a badge.

But it wasn't until after the Second World War began in September 1939 that individual authorities implemented a Jewish badge in the occupied territories of Poland. For instance, on November 16, 1939, the order for a Jewish badge was announced in Lodz.

We are returning to the Middle Ages. The yellow patch once again becomes a part of Jewish dress. Today an order was announced that all Jews, no matter what age or sex, have to wear a band of "Jewish-yellow," 10 centimeters wide, on their right arm, just below the armpit.5
Various locales within occupied Poland had their own regulations about size, color, and shape of the badge to be worn, until Hans Frank made a decree that affected all of the Government General in Poland. On November 23, 1939, Hans Frank, the chief officer of the Government General, declared that all Jews above ten years of age were to wear a white badge with a Star of David on their right arm.

It wasn't until nearly two years later that a decree, issued on September 1, 1941, issued badges to Jews within Germany as well as occupied and incorporated Poland. This badge was the yellow Star of David with the word "Jude" ("Jew") and worn on the left side of one's chest.

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