What made a Jew?

It's a complex question, primarily because borders in Central and Eastern Europe were moving back and forth in the 150 years preceding WW2, mostly because Poland was annexed for over a century by Germans, Russians and Austria-Hungary Empire. That said there were groups of people that could not be easily associated with any nationality.

What I have been considering:

Mother tongue

Hebrew, Yiddish but also Russian, German, Polish and Hungarian. However, not all Hebrew or Yiddish speakers were religious.


None of them had Israeli citizenship as Jews haven't had their own state before WW2. Polish, German, Russian, Hungarian and Austrian.


Clear but not much data about it.



On top of these categories, there came an assimilation. Poland used to be called Paradise for Jews (Paradisus Iudaeorum), so it is hardly surprising that many of Jews, despite their religion were primarily identifying themselves as Poles and not as Jews. Despite their religion.

many Jews by religion - almost 12% - considered Polish to be their mother tongue in 1931.[3][8] However, actually an even much higher percent of Jews by religion - over 25% - considered themselves to be ethnically (or in terms of national identity) Poles, according to the previous census of 1921.

What was a single objective measure to identify who was a Jew during WW2 across all nations, across all states, across all religions and all war activities?


  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Feb 21, 2018 at 14:19
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    I have changed the tenses to make this question more on-topic. In the future, realize that questions posed in the present tense are nearly universally off-topic. If you want to know how we should be doing things today or in the future, you probably want some other website.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Feb 21, 2018 at 14:59
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because a) question is in present tense; that is out of scope for history SE and OP has refused to work with mods to keep in scope. b) Without a context for why someone would want to identify a minority, the question is opinion based.
    – MCW
    Commented Feb 21, 2018 at 18:47
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    I wonder if your scope is too broad. across all nations, across all states, across all religions and all war activities? I am not convinced that all nations cared that much, but some did. Commented Feb 21, 2018 at 21:58
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    @MarkC.Wallace I don't understand your claim that the question is present tense. It says "what defined", it's past tense. I don't see any version which uses present tense in the edit history.
    – Bregalad
    Commented Feb 22, 2018 at 10:46

4 Answers 4


The "classification" of Jews in Nazi Germany (and occupied territories) was governed by the Nuremberg laws and based on "heritage." Basically, someone with no Jewish grandparents was considered non-Jewish; someone with one or two Jewish grandparents was considered "mixed," and someone with three or four Jewish grandparents was considered Jewish.

Because of the "ancestry" requirements, recent converts (in the past two generations) were not exempted (except by special dispensation of the Nazi party, and personally approved by Hitler). Jewish synagogues and Jewish communities kept detailed records of who was Jewish, so very few escaped the net. Such institutions gave their data to "state" (country) institutions controlled by Germany, and helped by outside third parties including IBM. The ones with the best chances of escaping were recent emigrants from one country to another, who were not well known by their communities.

The reason I cite the Nazis is because they controlled most of continental Europe during World War II, and the main "risk" of being a Jew fell on people in those Nazis controlled territories. What the Nazis felt about who was or was not a Jew was more "dispositive" of life and death than other, perhaps more conventional, definitions of Jewishness.

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    Interestingly, the definition of Jew in the Nuremberg laws didn't match the definition in Jewish religious laws. Therefore, the State of Israel had to word its legislation to make sure that nobody prosecuted as Jew under the Nuremberg laws would be rejected by Israel as non Jew.
    – Pere
    Commented Feb 20, 2018 at 11:59
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    @LangLangC: Added new sentence (second to last) to reflect your additional "layer."
    – Tom Au
    Commented Feb 20, 2018 at 15:05
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    "Because of the "ancestry" requirements, recent converts (in the past two generations) were not exempted" - I'm not sure I understand this part. If I was a recent convert to Judaism and had no Jewish grandparents then surely I would be exempt? Or is this talking about people converting to a different faith (eg Christianity) who were thus still counted as Jewish?
    – Chris
    Commented Feb 20, 2018 at 17:00
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    @Chris Whille there were these "rules" and laws, they were mainly applicable to Germany. Conquered territory was in anomia. Recent converts were at least considered self-identified enemies of the Aryan race. A blond Jew (by these rules) in the Netherlands, recent migrant after last census, innocent name, not in the official registers/ known to neighbours as such would have had a comp. good chance to survive. Application of these rules was a bit more chaotic than often believed. See the bio of the ideal Wehrmacht soldier Werner Goldberg's father. Commented Feb 20, 2018 at 17:16
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    "The 1933 census, with design help and tabulation services provided by IBM through its German subsidiary, proved to be pivotal to the Nazis in their efforts to identify, isolate, and ultimately destroy the country's Jewish minority." Commented Feb 20, 2018 at 19:50

From what I heard (Russian with some family stories about WW2 from the Red POV), it was much simpler on the East Front from 1941 to 1943 at least. Once you are in custody of Nazis or local Nazi helpers, and:

  • you are a communist
    • by admitting this
    • or having the member's book on you
    • or by declaration the local Nazi helpers, your neighbour, whatever
  • you are said to be a Jew
    • by admitting this
    • or having a documents with nationality stated on you
    • or you look like a Jew
    • or by declaration the local Nazi helpers, your neighbour, whatever
  • you are circumsized
    • they literally checked for this, like, "everyone, pull your pants off"

you get shot.


There is no common accepted notion of what a Jew means. Some people think it is religion, other people think that this means descendence from people who were Jews. (I do not think anyone bases this notion of citizenship of language: the population of Israel is diverse, and people called Jews can have any native tongue).

The need in strict, legal definition arises only if one wants to discriminate some category of people, as @mart wrote correctly in his/her comment. In Germany, official definition was in "Nuremberg laws", it is stated in the answer of Tom Au. Applying this definition requires some genealogy research. It was indeed applied in Germany and in some occupied countries. However in Eastern Europe this was not practical. So they used identity papers issued by the occupied countries.

As most of the Jews killed by the Germans during WWII were from Eastern Europe, it is the Eastern European definition which is most relevant "in the context of WWII".

According to the Soviet constitution "all nations were equal" and any discrimination was prohibited. But this was contradicted by the practice: Soviet interior passport (ID) had the famous "line 5": "nationality". And there it was written that you are a Ukrainian or a Russian or or a Kazakh or a Jew.

"Nationality" in Soviet Union was decided when one obtained his/her first passport (age 16) but it had to be one of the "nationalities" of your parents. So if your both parents were Jews, you had no other choice. If only one, you had a choice. I suppose that similar rules (perhaps slightly different) existed in Poland and other East European countries. Some countries wrote instead "confessionality" in the ID papers. It is these documents that the Germans used to identify the Jews in Eastern Europe in most cases.

In Israel, the notion of Jew has TWO different legal definitions. One is that makes you automatically eligible for immigration to Israel. It intentionally coincides with the Nuremberg law: one has to have at least one Jewish grandparent. The idea was that exactly those who were persecuted by the Nazis, have right for Israeli citizenship. Another definition is religious: according to the religious law, you are a Jew if your mother is Jewish, or if you converted to Judaism. This is written in your Israeli ID papers.

So you may be eligible for immigration to Israel but do not automatically become a Jew in Israel.


A look at the minutes of the Wannseekonferenz ('Wannsee Conference') might be an instructive thing to consider for this question. It is fairly long in full but perhaps the part that talks about what constituted a Jew in this context will work. The Nuremburg laws weren't the full extent of it (and yes indeed they used the term half-breeds) even for the Final Solution of the Jewish question:

In the course of the proposed final solution, the Nuremburg laws shall be the basis whereby the assumption of the completed clean up of the problem also would include the solution to mixed marriages and the half-breeds. Heydrich discussed at first theoretically the following points in view of a letter from the chief of the Reichs Chancellory:

I) Treatment of Half-breeds First-degree

Half-breeds of the first degree are in view of the final solution of the Jewish question to be equal to the Jews.

Exclude from this treatment:

a) Half-breeds first degree married to people of German blood, from which union their children (half-breeds second degree) came forth. These half-breeds second degree are essentially to be put on a par with Germans.

b) Half-breeds first degree who have received an extraordinary exemption from the highest places in the Party and the government.

Every single case has to be investigated, whereby it is not precluded that the decision may be unfavourable to the half-breed.

A prerequisite for an exemption must be based exclusively on the accomplishments of these half-breeds themselves. (Not on any merits of their German-blooded parents or marriage partners.)

Those half-breeds first degree who are exempted from the evacuations will be sterilised in order to clean up once and for all the half-breed problem and to prevent any offspring. The sterilisation is to take place voluntarily. It is a prerequisite to remain in Germany. The sterilised half-breed is from then on exempt from all laws concerning Jews to which he had been subjected up to now.

2) Treatment of Half-breeds Second Degree

The half-breeds second degree categorically are to be with the German-blooded with the exception of the following cases in which the half-breeds are put on the same footing as the Jews:

a) Descent of the half-breed second degree from a bastard marriage (both parties half-breeds).

b) Special unfavourable appearance of the half-breed second degree in which his outer appearance makes him look Jewish.[1]

c) Particularly poor record with the police and political arm of the Party of the half-breed second degree, which shows that he acts and feels like a Jew.

In these cases there shall also be no exceptions if the half-breed second degree is married to a full-blooded German.

3) Marriages between full-blooded Jews and full-blooded Germans

Each of these cases must be judged simply and determination made if the Jewish partner should be deported or if he will be sent to an old-age ghetto because of the detrimental effect on the German relatives of this mixed marriage.

4) Marriages between half-breeds first degree and full-blooded Germans

a) without children If there are no children from this marriage the half-breed first degree will be either deported or put into an old-age ghetto. (Same treatment as marriages between full-blooded Jews and full-blooded Germans, point 3).

b) with children

If there were children in the marriage which are half-breeds second degree they will - if they are put on the same footing as Jews are - be deported together with the half-breeds first degree or sent to an age-old ghetto. If in special cases those children are put on the same footing as the Germans they are to be excluded from the evacuation and with them also the half-breeds first degree.

5) Marriages between half-breeds first-degree and half-breeds first degree or Jews

In these marriages (including the children) all parties will be treated like Jews, and therefore deported or respectively sent to an old-age ghetto.

6) Marriages between half-breeds first degree and half-breeds second degree

Both marriage partners will be deported without consideration if there are children or not, or sent to an old-age ghetto. This is because children as a rule show a stronger Jewish blood content as Jewish half-breeds second degree.

SS Major General Hofmann is of the opinion that sterilisation must be widely used, particularly since the half-breed, if given the choice between deportation or sterilisation, will prefer to submit to sterilisation.

State Secretary Dr. Stuckert stated the practical execution of the above-mentioned solution possibilities to clear up the question of mixed marriages and half-breeds will cause a never ending amount of administrative work. In order to take into account also the biological facts, State Secretary Dr. Stuckert proposed proceeding to forced sterilisation.

In order to simplify the half-breed problem, further possibilities should be contemplated toward the goal that the legislature just needs to say, 'These marriages are terminated.'

It goes on but that is what it says about what constitutes a Jew with respect to deportation which of course had an ultimate outcome in most cases. And even when they're worked there was no problem in their mind if they're worked to death. What they didn't think too well about was the fact they forced prisoners to help with the manufacturing of arms which helped matters in certain uprisings e.g. the Kapo uprising of Auschwitz where they disabled a crematorium (which was what the Germans called the gas chambers).

If there are any odd things in the transcription or otherwise it's my fault; I just got the ashes back from my beloved dog who I had to put down on the 27th of January and so I was in tears for a good while.

[1] You might find the article on the BBC interesting:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-30811763 (The Jew who got a job offer from the Nazis). This is part speculation on my part but I wouldn't be surprised if a some part of the looks/acts/etc. like a Jew is to do with Alfred Rosenberg for his ideas were insane; then again pseudo-science is still widely used and they weren't exactly the first or the last to use that kind of rubbish 'science'; in recent time I have seen similar for identifying homosexuals I believe it was. It reminded me of the above.

  • crematorium and gas chambers are separate things Commented Feb 23, 2018 at 15:19
  • @MarianPaździoch Apparently you've not read the memoirs of Rudolf Höss then. He used the term for gas chamber so you're absolutely incorrect. I was pretty sure I even noted this but if not I am noting it now. And why my post was edited I do not know but I'll take a look. Ah, to add a highlight I guess it was. (Oh, and btw, the minutes of the Wannseekonferenz is actually in at least one of the editions of his memoirs.)
    – Pryftan
    Commented Feb 23, 2018 at 16:50
  • @MarianPaździoch Actually I just took a look again as well as some of the diagrams of Auschwitz-Birkenau and there is some ambiguity here. It might be said that the crematoria included both the gas chambers and the ovens for each crematoria had more than one oven; one for instance had five. Otoh they didn't always burn the bodies but that's another story entirely. I would say that they included both is probably the most correct given both what he wrote as well as the diagrams drawn by someone else.
    – Pryftan
    Commented Feb 23, 2018 at 19:44

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