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VCU Menorah Review Winter/Spring 2014
Number 80
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

Shoah: The “First” Day

A Review essay by Paul R. Bartrop

The Night of Broken Glass: Eyewitness Accounts of Kristallnacht, edited by Uta Gerhardt and Thomas Karlauf. Cambridge: Polity Press

November 9-10, 2013 marked the 75th anniversary of the event in 1938 known as Kristallnacht. It was the most extensive act of Nazi persecution against the Jews prior to the outbreak of World War II.

After all those years, what more needs to be said about that awful night, and the days and weeks that followed? The night was dubbed by Nazis as the “Night of Broken Glass,” or “Night of Crystals” (Kristallnacht). The term we use today is a Nazi term of derision against the Jews, introduced by Hermann Goering amid much laughter. It was a term intended to humiliate the Jews. What was it about this event that prompted such desperation on the part of the Jews still remaining in Germany (which now included Austria and the German-speaking areas of Czechoslovakia, the Sudetenland)?

The event itself was far from spontaneous. The Nazi pogrom took place against Jewish stores, synagogues and community centers in what the Nazis referred to as “retaliation” for the fatal wounding of the Third Secretary of the German Embassy in Paris, Ernst vom Rath, by a sixteen-year-old Jewish youth, Hershel Grynszpan. Grynszpan’s parents and sister, originally from Poland, had earlier been forcibly relocated across the border between German and Poland, and were living in destitute and squalid conditions in the no-man’s land between the two countries. Frustrated and angry to the point of distraction, on November 7, 1938 Grynszpan sought to raise the consciousness of the world to the injustice meted out to his family and the two thousand other Jews who were in the same situation: hence his action, driven by desperation, in shooting vom Rath in Paris. It was an act born out of hopelessness, and it had terrible consequences for the Jews of Germany.

The Nazis saw it as a wonderful opportunity to launch a pogrom against the Jews, the better to intimidate them into leaving, once and for all. Quickly labeling Grynszpan’s act as the work of a criminal Jewish conspiracy, they arranged for the “punishment” of German Jewry through a wholesale pogrom against all Jews in the Reich. The attacks were carefully orchestrated. In 24 hours of street violence, 91 Jews were killed. More than 30,000 — one in ten of all Jews still remaining in Germany after five years of Nazi rule — were arrested and sent to concentration camps. Before most of them were released two to three months later, as many as one thousand had been murdered, 244 in Buchenwald alone. A further 8,000 Jews were evicted from Berlin: they included children from orphanages, patients from hospitals, and elderly folk from retirement homes. Eight hundred and fifteen shops and 29 major department stores owned by Jews were destroyed, and more than 260 synagogues and cemeteries were vandalized. In addition, it has been estimated that more than 7,500 Jewish-owned businesses were attacked. The actual cost of the damages inflicted was more than 25,000,000 Reichmarks, for which the Jews themselves were held liable by the Nazis, as well as a fine of more than one billion Reichmarks as “reparations.”

The possibility that there could ever be an accommodation reached with Nazism — a hope long held by many — now vanished for Germany’s Jews, and the painful truth which they had for so long tried to avoid broke through: they were being forced to quit the country and would have to leave Germany for other lands. Prior to the Kristallnacht many could not face up to that awful reality.

Some have termed the November pogrom “the day the Holocaust began,” the day after which nothing could ever be the same again for the Jews of Germany. It was certainly a turning point, a point of no return, following which the Jews could hold no illusions as to how the Nazis viewed the Jewish presence in the Nazi state — namely, that they would not be considered as members of the community, to be isolated, reduced to second class subjects (not considered as citizens), and encouraged at every opportunity to leave — by force, if need be.

The Night of Broken Glass, edited by Uta Gerhardt and Thomas Karlauf, bring together a collection of 21 eyewitness accounts by German Jews who lived through that horrible time. The collection is based on a 1939 project undertaken by three Harvard academics, the historian Sidney B. Fay, the psychologist Gordon Allport, and the sociologist Edward Hartshorne. In what became a competition, they offered a $1,000 prize for “the best unpublished personal life histories of persons who have experienced the effects of National Socialism in Germany.” A total of 263 personal accounts were submitted, from which the editors have taken the current selection.

These testimonies recount a wide variety of first-hand experiences and witness statements relating to the events of the night of November 9-10, 1938, but they also embrace other incidents and encounters with the Nazis. The most poignant of these relate to what happened to the Jewish men arrested and taken to the concentration camps, particularly Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald and Dachau. After undergoing Nazi terror tactics intended to intimidate them into leaving the country, the men were in most cases released, after several weeks or months, on the sole condition they emigrate and leave most of their property in Germany.

Of course, after November 1938 this was far from easy. As we know, the way was to be barred for the Jews of Germany and Austria on so many occasions, and in so many ways, that Chaim Weizmann, later the first President of Israel, was known to make the famous statement that the world was at that time divided into two places: those where Jews could not live, and those where Jews could not enter.

The value of the accounts in this volume rests in the quality of their detail and their closeness to the events they are relating. It is a book worth reading, and a valuable first-hand collection that definitely adds to our understanding of this, arguably “the first day” of the Shoah.

Paul R. Bartrop is Professor of History, director of the Center for Judaic, Holocaust, and Genocide Studies at Florida Gulf Coast University, and a contributing editor.

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Updated: Jan. 24, 2013

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