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'Marking' Jewish People

in Europe during World War II  

by Ayana Sassoon

The orders to 'mark' the Jews in Europe were given in most of the countries that were under Nazi occupation. However, the orders differed from one another in the date of the decree, the shape and size of the marking itself and the age at which Jewish people were required to wear the symbols to distinguish them from other members of the society. In addition, in every country Jewish people were forced to carry or wear these signs for different lengths of time.
Star of David / Yellow Star - Warsaw
A boy selling armbands on a street in the Warsaw Ghetto.
NIOD Collection - 215158

The first marking decree was introduced in the Polish city of Włocławek as early as September 25th, 1939, and the second in Łódź on November 18th. Both cities were in the territory of Poland annexed to the Reich (Wartheland). On November 23, 1939, the "Regulation Concerning the Marking of the Jews in the General Government" was published, and established that in these territories those ten years of age and older must "wear a white ribbon with a Star of David on the right sleeve of the clothing and on the upper garment”.[1] These were the first regulations of their kind to mark Jews, and they were copied in different ways in almost all the territories that the Third Reich held during its years of existence, for different periods of time in each place.

In the Western and Eastern European countries, the marking measures were introduced before the deportations, and coincided with the acceleration of the "Final Solution". In the Western countries, the marking was part of preparations for the transports to extermination camps. It was considered "another step on the way to solving the Jewish problem in all the occupied territories in the West", as Helmut Knochen, the commander of the SD and Sipo in occupied France and Belgium, wrote in a letter to Eichmann's office with the decision on the marking in these countries in March 1942. Thus, while in Poland the marking regulations were enacted less than two months after its occupation by the German army, a similar regulation was established in the territories of the Reich (Germany and Austria) only about two years later, in September 1941, in preparation for the beginning of the deportation of the Jews from the territory of the Reich. In the neighboring western countries, the Netherlands, Belgium and France, the orders were imposed only about seven months after the Jews of the Reich were marked , two years after Germany conquered them, in the spring of 1942.[2]

Star of David / Yellow Star - Berlin 1941
On 19 September 1941, Jewish people in Germany were forced to wear yellow stars sewn on to their clothing.  This photograph was taken in Berlin on the 30 September 1941.
NIOD Collection - 4853
The wedding of Edie (Elias) van Biene and Sara (Sonja) Rood, in the Nieuwe Molstraat Synagogue, The Hague, 26 July 1942. NIOD Collection - 96943

The marking of the Jewish population was not always the result of German initiatives - some of the countries that cooperated with Germany, such as Croatia, Hungary and Bulgaria, enacted laws on their own that obliged the Jews to carry an identification mark. In Romania, too, marking was the fruit of local initiatives - in different regions and cities Jews were ordered to wear a distinctive sign for varying periods of time and on different dates in the summer of 1941, while in other areas the Jews did not wear an identifying mark at all.

Star of David / Yellow Star - Zagreb
Star of David / Yellow Star - Zagreb
Zagreb, Croatia, 11 June 1941. The Jews in Croatia had to wear the yellow star since 30 April 1941. The sign on the patch, Ž, stands for “ŽIDOW”, “Jew” in Croatian. The fabric patch was replaced by a metal circle with the same letter less than two months later.
NIOD Collection - 2110421105

There were also countries under the Nazi occupation where no marking measures were introduced at all. In Vichy France, the German authorities encountered the government's opposition to this step, and indeed in the south of France, a distinctive sign was not introduced as long as the Vichy regime existed. In Algeria, the governor-general initiated the measure, and ordered the Jews of the colony to sew armbands with a yellow patch on them. Only the Allied landings in North Africa a few days later prevented this. In Denmark, due to the "policy of negotiation" that the country conducted with the Nazi authorities after its surrender, and due to the Danish government's firm position on the issue of the treatment of the Jews, no steps were ever taken to mark the Jews. In Italy no order was issued to mark the Jews either.

The colour and shape of the marking also changed from place to place. For example, in the General Government, the Jews wore a white armband on their right arm sleeves, while in the district of Wartheland, which was annexed to Germany, the Jews wore a yellow patch on their chests and backs after about a month in which they were ordered to wear a yellow sleeve armband.[3] A similar marking was introduced in July and August 1941 in some of the territories of the Soviet Union captured in Operation Barbarossa. In Western European countries (Germany, the Netherlands, France and Belgium) Jews had to wear a yellow patch on the left-side of their chest, inscribed with the word "Jew" in the local language or the letter 'J' in Belgium, to match both French and Dutch, from the age of six. A similar marking was introduced in Hungary and Romania. In Bulgaria it was customary to wear a yellow button in the shape of a Star of David.[4] The choice of the colour specifically for marking in most areas probably originates from the means of identification of the Jews in the Middle Ages with the colour yellow.

Jewish people at the Polderweg in Amsterdam awaiting deportation to Westerbork, 25 May 1943.
NIOD Collection - 96871

It should be noted that in almost all European countries where marking was introduced, alongside the official marking, alternative marking types were also introduced that were not stipulated in the regulations but developed locally. In most countries the severity of the punishment for those who did not wear the marking changed and increased during the war. In Warsaw, for example, at first, any Jew found without an armband was punished with beatings, then fines or prison sentences were imposed for different periods of time, and finally, those found without the mark were sentenced to death.

Ayana Sassoon is a PhD candidate at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. This piece is based on her MA dissertation: Jews reacting to the yellow badge: reflection through diaries [in Hebrew]. Her current research project concerns food in the Holocaust in Germany and the Netherlands. She can be contacted via email:


[1] "Marking of Jews in the General Government”, in: Documents on the Holocaust: Selected Sources on the Destruction of the Jews of Germany and Austria, Poland, and the Soviet Union, edited by Yitzhak Arad, Yisrael Gutman, Abraham Margaliot, translations by Lea Ben Dor, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press & Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 1996.

[2] Raul Hilberg, The destruction of the European Jews, 2nd Volume (Hebrew), Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 2012, p. 606.

[3] Christopher R. Browning, Origins of the Final Solution: The Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policy, September 1939-March 1942 (Hebrew), Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 2004, p. 152; Hilberg, The destruction, p. 190.

[4] The Mark of Disgrace (אות קלון), In: Israel Gutman (Ed.), The Holocaust Encyclopedia,  Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 1990, p. 59-64.

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