Remembering Kristallnacht

By Elaine K. Alexander

November 9-10 marked the anniversary of Kristallnacht in 1938. Many people are familiar with “Kristallnacht” as a wide-spread, violent assault on Jews within the Third Reich. Fewer know the pogrom was a shattering and conclusive third act in the history of the Holocaust.

The opening act was staged during the last days of October 1938, when the Gestapo, armed with bayonets, forced 12,000 Jews onto trains bound for the Polish-German border. They had been well-established residents, who were now deprived of all but a single suitcase per person. In “Kristallnacht: Prelude to Destruction,” Martin Gilbert writes, “Everything [the Jews] had earned and accumulated” became booty for former neighbors and the Nazi state.

During the second act, many of the deportees were detained at the border, the largest number, some 7,000 Jews, at Zbaszyn, “on the cold, stone floors of the station and in nearby stables.” Heszel Klepfisz, in “The Inexhaustible Wellspring: Reaping the Rewards of Shtetl Life,” writes that the Jews of Eastern Europe were inspired by the notion that every Jew is responsible for every other Jew. And in Warsaw, for instance, the Jewish kehilla (community) quickly organized assistance.

But meanwhile, among the Zbaszyn refugees was one Grynszpan family-former German residents for 27 years. A 17-year old son, Herschel, was living in Paris, when he received from his sister, a postcard describing the family’s penniless state. In a Yiddish newspaper, the boy read more about the refugees’ desperate circumstances. In a state of outrage, Grynszpan bought a pistol, went to the German embassy on Nov. 7, and critically wounded the embassy’s “Third Secretary,” Ernst vom Rath. The next morning, while vom Rath was still alive, German newspapers reported the shooting and linked it to two others, three years and 14 years prior, as part of a murderous campaign.

The third act begins in Munich on the evening of Nov. 9 at a Nazi Party celebration, when Adolf Hitler and his Minister of Propaganda and Enlightenment, Josef Goebbels, learned of vom Rath’s death. From there, as Goebbels recorded in his diary, he himself incited the pogrom. There had already been some outbreaks of violence. Hitler urged these should continue without police interference. “For once,” said Hitler, “the Jews should get the feel of popular anger.” On Nov. 11, a British newspaper quoted the Nazi party line, “The deed of murder falls on all Jewry. Every individual must account to us…without mercy…for every pain, every crime, every nasty action of this criminal race against the Germans…”

The “orgy” of violence, which began early on Nov. 10, showcased the Nazi gift for bureaucracy; apparently, exhaustive lists of Jewish places had already been prepared in cities, towns and villages throughout Germany and Austria, which had welcomed German occupation in March, 1938.

The Brownshirts, a Nazi paramilitary organization, men in civilian clothes, school boy brigades and uniformed members of the SS (Schutzstaffel / elite guard) “smashed their way…into Jewish homes, slashed the [paintings], carpets and upholstery [and] tore down the curtains…Terrified children were turned out of their beds…” Furniture was hacked to pieces and pianos were heaved from upper story balconies to the street below.

Over 1,000 synagogues were vandalized or entirely demolished. Bonfires were made of prayer books and Torah scrolls. (One hundred years earlier, Heinrich Heine predicted: where they burn books, they will burn people.) Shoah survivor and Creve Coeur resident George Spooner was a boy of 10, living in Vienna, when he rounded a corner and saw his family’s “Polish temple,” one of 90 Vienna synagogues, reduced to smoking rubble. Amongst the casualties, synagogues that had been consecrated hundreds of years earlier: 1760, 1730, 1357. At Worms, Rashi had studied in the synagogue founded in 1014.

A large share of the violence was directed at thousands of Jewish businesses: hotels, restaurants, shops, department stores. Merchandise was looted or cast into streets and glass storefronts were smashed.

Jews themselves were beaten, shot and lynched. Street justice resulted in the murder of 91 Jews. But the arithmetic of destruction includes: an unrecorded number of suicides; 70 prisoners at Buchenwald summarily executed on Nov. 8 and 9; and nearly 5,000 casualties of some 30,000 arrested during November 1938 and detained at Buchenwald, Dachau and Sachsenhausen concentration camps.

At 5 p.m. on Nov. 10, Goebbels’ order to end the riot was broadcast widely on the radio, and Nazi Party leaders and police began sending the “sated” marauders home.

In winter of 1933, persecution of Germany’s 560,000 Jews (less than 1 percent of the population) became national policy. By 1938, dozens of laws had been enacted restricting Jews’ livelihoods, education, presence in public places, and intermarriage or sexual relations with Aryans.

The Kristallnacht pogrom set a Nazi pattern of using collective guilt and ferocious reprisal as a tool of terror.

Kristallnacht was an alarm bell, generating a tide of departure. George Spooner would leave within the year on a Kindertransport, when England mercifully opened its doors to 15,000 children.

Within the Third Reich and around the world, the Kristallnacht Pogrom, with its flagrant and centrally organized violence, was recognized as an ominous turning point in a war against the Jews. It was the Nazis, perhaps Goebbels, who gave the pogrom the euphemism by which it is commonly known, Kristallnacht (“Crystal Night”), as if the pavements which glittered with glass smithereens were a decorative tribute to a fallen German patriot rather than emblems of wanton destruction.

Elaine K. Alexander is a freelance writer in Creve Coeur. Both of her parents, Polish Jews, were sole Shoah survivors of their immediate families.