Nazi orders for Jews to wear a star were hateful, but far from unique – a historian traces the long history of antisemitic badges

Growing up in Belgium, I’d hear the story of how my grandparents married during the Nazi occupation. It was not 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. So 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 were 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 Ph.D. 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.

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