The year is 1933 and Hitler’s rise to power is imminent. Days earlier and the Nazis had exploited the burning of the Reichstag, home of the German parliament, for votes.
Armed security forces patrolled public buildings. On the streets, Sturmabteilung (SA) ‘brown shirts’ had their violence legitimised by decree. Political violence and intimidation, however, did not grant Hitler his parliamentary majority. The March 5 elections gave the Nazi Party 43.9 per cent of the vote and 288 parliament seats out 647.
On March 10, 1933, Dr Michael Siegel visited a Munich police station on behalf a client. Dr Siegel was one of roughly 4,000 Jewish lawyers in Germany. They held senior positions in the court system, bar association and justice ministry. In 1933, racist laws pushed saw many lose their jobs. The indignity of this discrimination was was compounded by further arrests and violence.
Dr Siegel had entered a Munich police station on behalf of Max Uhlfelder, the Jewish owner of a large city-centre store. Nazi Party members had taken positions of office in Munich a day earlier. Heinrich Himmler, the SS commander, now commanded the Police Authority. The Swastika flew atop public buildings. Nazi paramilitaries had smashed Mr Uhlhelder’s shop windows and deported him to Dachau concentration camp.
Instead of listening to Dr Siegel’s complaint, the police assaulted him. SA ‘brown shirts’ had perforated Dr Siegel’s eardrum. The force of their punches had broken several teeth. They had cut his trousers from the knee down.
Dr Siegel was then made to walk the streets of Munich bloody and barefooted. Surrounded by ranks of SA paramilitaries, Dr Siegel wore a sign that read: “I will never again complain to the police”.
Some debate the actual wording of the sign. Dr Siegel had told his children that it read: “Ich bin Jude aber ich will mich nie mehr bei der Polizei Beschweren”(I am a Jew but I will never again complain to the Police).
Heinrich Sanden, the photojournalist who immortalised this humiliation, disagreed. Dr Siegel soon became an international symbol of the antisemitic persecution in Germany. He did not learn of the photo until the 1970s.
Despite the growing climate of antisemitic violence and discrimination, Dr Siegel and his family remained in Munich. He had passport revoked in 1934 and reinstated in 1935. Local farmers warned Dr Spiegel about the impending Kristallnacht on November 9, 1938. He fled to Luxembourg and returned some weeks later, only to lose his legal license. Few Germans protested this flagrant discrimination.
At the start of 1939, the Siegel family left their home and found other accommodation. Their new ground floor served as an emergency synagogue, the Nazis had razed the city’s main synagogue. Dr Siegel’s 18-year-old son Peter and 14-year-old daughter Beate soon emigrated to England.
Dr Siegel and his wife Mathilde sought asylum in Peru but were rejected. In a remarkable stroke of luck, a student teaching Dr Siegel Spanish was a nephew of the Peruvian Minister of the Interior.
The arduous road to Peru began in 1940. They travelled through Lithuania, Siberia, Russia and Japan before arriving in Peru. Dr Siegel took up work in a Lima bookstore. In the post-war years, he worked to establish an embassy for the Federal Republic of Germany in Peru’s capital, Lima. He soon became the Rabbi of the German-Jewish community in Lima. By 1953, Dr Siegel could again practise law in Germany, despite the geographical difference.
Dr Siegel helped German Jewish refugees in Peru and other parts of Latin America.
In 1971, at the age of 89, he received the Grand Cross of Merit of the German Republic ‘in recognition of his exceptional services to the state and people’. He accepted the award on behalf of all German Jews in Lima.
In spite of his growing age, Dr Siegel never stopped pursuing restitution cases. He died in 1979 at the age of 96.
Dr Siegel never forgot the ordeal he faced in Munich. In a 1987 article, The Association of Jewish Refugees retold the story of Dr Siegel’s life and journey to Peru.
The authors, H.P. Sinclair and M.B. Green, wrote that Dr Michael Siegel had one thought in his mind: ‘I shall survive you all’. And he did. But according to Sinclair and Green, he bore no grudge against the German people. For he had known ‘too many decent ones for that’.