Growing up in Belgium, I’d hear the story of how my grandparents married during the Nazi occupation. It wasn’t a time for celebrations, particularly for Jewish families like theirs. Naively, though, they thought marriage would protect them from being separated should they be deported. In June 1942, they went to city hall with their loved ones—“decorated,” as my grandmother would say, with yellow stars.
Hearing that story as a child, I imagined them in dark clothes with shiny stars, each one a human Christmas tree—a celebratory image that only existed in my brain. Her most vivid memory of that day was the looks in people’s eyes: stares of curiosity, pity and contempt. The yellow star had transformed them, in onlookers’ eyes, from joyous newlyweds into miserable Jews.
Decades later, I completed a PhD on the history of forcing Jewish people to wear a badge. My grandmother called to congratulate me—and, I soon understood, to unburden herself of a story she’d never told before.
When the Nazis issued the law forcing Jewish Belgians to wear a yellow star in May 1942, my grandmother’s future father-in-law declared he would not wear it. The whole family tried to persuade him otherwise, fearing the consequences. In the end, my grandmother stitched the star on his coat.
I could hear her voice trembling on the phone as she told me she still could not forgive herself. My grandparents’ wedding two weeks later would be the last time she saw her father-in-law: He died in 1945 after being released from a transit camp and a detention home for elderly Jews, spending two years in terrible conditions.
Yellow wheels and pointed hats
In lands under Muslim rule, non-Muslims had been required to wear identifying marks since the Pact of Umar, a ruling attributed to a seventh-century caliph, though scholars believe it originated later. For Jews, these were usually a yellow belt called zunnar or a yellow turban.
In Europe, forced markings for Jews and Muslims were introduced by Pope Innocent III at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. The pope explained that the markings were a means to prevent Christians from having sex with Jews and Muslims, thereby protecting society from “such prohibited intercourse.” But he didn’t specify how Jews’ or Muslims’ dress had to be different, resulting in various distinguishing signs.
Ways to make Jews visible in the cities and towns of medieval Europe abounded, from yellow wheels in France to blue stripes in Sicily to yellow pointed hats in Germany to red capes in Hungary to white badges shaped like the Ten Commandments tablets in England. Since there were no large Muslim communities in Europe at the time, aside from in Spain, the regulation applied only to Jews in practice.
In northern Italy, Jews had to wear a round yellow badge in the 15th century and a yellow hat in the 16th century. The reason typically given was they were otherwise undistinguishable from the rest of the population. For Christian authorities, unmarked Jews were like gambling, drinking and prostitution: All represented the moral failings of Renaissance society and needed to be fixed.
Pretext for persecution
As I explain in my book, Marking the Jews in Renaissance Italy: Politics, Religion and the Power of Symbols, Jews were often arrested for not wearing the yellow badge or hat, sometimes while traveling away from home in places where no one knew them.
Clearly, then, Jews were recognizable from Christians in other ways, including their accents or behaviors, as well as the distinctive headwear and earrings worn by some Jewish women. The true aim of forcing Jews to wear emblems was not merely to identify them, as authorities claimed, but to target them.
Laws imposing a badge or hat were used to threaten and extort Jewish communities. Jews were willing to pay considerable sums to retract such laws or soften their provisions. They requested exemptions for women, children or travelers. When communal negotiations failed, wealthy Jews tried to negotiate for themselves and their families on an individual basis.
Badge laws were frequently reissued, which has led scholars to conclude their enforcement was inconsistent; after all, a legal directive that is steadily applied does not need to be reimposed. But the risk of arrest and extortion hanging over the heads of Jewish communities, coupled with Jews’ willingness to pay or negotiate to avoid these consequences, meant badge laws had adverse effects on Jewish life even when not enforced.
In the Duchy of Piedmont in modern-day Italy, for example, Jewish communities banded together to pay additional taxes, sometimes several times in the same year, to receive exemptions from wearing the Jewish badge. Though the Jews’ cohesion was remarkable, it had a high cost, as these communities ended up ruined and leaving the duchy.
When Italian Jews asked authorities to cancel or at least amend badge laws, they were not primarily worried about being recognized as Jews. The problem was being mocked or attacked. Violence had accompanied badge laws since their inception: Just a few years later, Innocent III wrote to French bishops that they needed to take every possible measure to ensure the badge did not expose the Jews to the “danger of loss of life.”
Yet harassment continued. Sometime in the 1560s, for example, the governor of Milan received a letter from Lazarino Pugieto and Moyses Fereves, bankers from Genoa, explaining that bandits had robbed them after recognizing them as Jews based on their badges. In 1572, Raffaele Carmini and Lazaro Levi, representatives of the communities of Pavia and Cremona, wrote that when Jews wore the yellow hat, youngsters attacked and insulted them. And in 1595, David Sacerdote, a successful musician from Monferrato, complained that he could not play with other musicians when wearing a yellow hat.
“There was a time when nobody noticed me”
Centuries later, the yellow star had the same effect.
During the era of Jewish Emancipation, which lasted from the late 18th into the 19th century, Jews finally received equal citizenship in the European countries in which they lived. The last distinctive badge or hat laws were also abolished then.
The Nazis, however, brought these regulations back to nations they occupied. In Poland, they forced Jews to wear a white armband with a blue star, while in Western Europe, it was a yellow star with the word Jew—Jude, Juif or Jood—inside. In Belgium and France, the stars were introduced in May and June 1942, shortly before the large-scale deportation of Jews began in these countries.
Max Jacob, a French Jewish artist and poet, wrote of experiencing a vision of Christ, and he converted to Christianity in 1909. During the Nazi occupation of France, he was nonetheless classified as a Jew and forced to wear the yellow star.
In the 1950 prose poem “Love of the Neighbor,” he wrote about the deep shame he experienced.
“Who has seen the toad cross a street?” he asked. No one had noticed it, despite the animal’s clownish, grimy appearance and weak leg. Jacob added, “There was a time when nobody noticed me in the street; now the children jeer at my yellow star. Happy toad! You have no yellow star.”
The Nazi context differed significantly from Renaissance Italy’s: There were no negotiations or exceptions, not even for large payments, and the marker was just one step in a systematic campaign of genocide. But the mockery, the loss of status and the shame remained.