Reminiscences of ‘Kristallnacht’
When a knock on the door meant terror - Let us never forget the brave Hershel Grynspan.
Display of books in Yad Vashem Photo: Reuters
Throughout the Jewish world, there were/will be meetings to commemorate
“Kristallnacht,” – or the night of the broken glass – from November 9 to 10,
That night, most synagogues throughout Germany, Austria and the by
then annexed Czechoslovakian Sudetenland were set alight, thousands of Jewish
businesses were destroyed and almost 30,000 Jewish men sent off to concentration
The trigger for these atrocities can be found in the events of a
few years earlier. During 1938 the Polish authorities were concerned about the
German annexation of Austria in March of that year and also about the increased
persecution of German and Austrian Jews. It was not their welfare that concerned
them, but they feared that the many Polish nationals among them would either
want to or be forced to return to Poland. So in mid-October the Polish
government issued a de-nationalization law which annulled the citizenship of
Poles living abroad for more than five years, unless before the end of the month
they received a special stamp into their passports from the Polish
Not surprisingly, Jews were refused this
German policy at the time was not yet the mass extermination of
Jews, but to get them out of Germany; so when the Nazi regime learned that
Polish officials would not stamp the passports of Jews, thereby making all of
them stateless, without any nationality and hence without passports, they were
concerned about their having to remain in Germany.
Gestapo Chief Heinrich
Himmler ordered that all Polish Jews be immediately and forcefully repatriated
It was during the small hours of October 28, 1938, when about
20,000 men, women and children had to respond to the dreaded knock on the door.
They were arrested, permitted to hurriedly pack just one suitcase and with an
allowance of just 10 marks per adult transported to the Polish border in sealed
When the Poles became aware of this, they closed the border. “No
more Jews” was the order. With Polish machine guns facing them and German
bayonets behind them, these Jews were stranded in no-man’s land.
welfare organizations were allowed to hastily erect some shelter. The
circumstances were grim and food was short, while the Poles and Germans argued
for two or three days. Eventually the Poles were forced to accept this by now
dejected, hungry and tired mass of people.
The largest number were
interned in Zbaszyn, a small Polish border town, before some months later being
moved to the Warsaw Ghetto. My own father was among them, but I was fortunate to
have been away on the day of the arrests, and so escaped almost certain death.
At the time I was at a Jewish school in another town; had I been at home, I too
would have shared the same fate, because the Gestapo asked my mother where I was
and she told them that I had gone out and she did not know where to. She herself
was not arrested on that occasion but at a different time, and fortunately
survived the concentration camps and so was able to relate the events to
A 17-year-old German-born Polish Jew, Hershel Grynspan, who lived
illegally in Paris, received a postcard from his family telling him of their
deportation and desperate plight. He became so enraged that he called at the
German Embassy in Paris, asked for the ambassador, and when taken to Ernst vom
Rath, a third secretary, he drew a pistol and shot him. Vom Rath died of his
wounds on November 7.
This was the trigger for the “spontaneous” pogroms
three days later known as “Kristallnacht.”
It is documented that plans
for such an outrage had been planned in great detail and that Himmler only
waited for a suitable moment to implement them.
When Hershel Grynspan was
arrested by French police he protested: “Being a Jew is not a crime; I am not a
dog, I have a right to exist on this earth; wherever I have been I have been
hounded like an animal.”
There are conflicting reports about his fate,
but it can be safely assumed that he did not survive the war.
never forget the brave Hershel Grynspan z”l.
The writer is a resident of
Jerusalem and host of the radio show Walter’s World.