Throughout the Jewish world, there were meetings this week to commemorate Kristallnacht – the night of the broken glass – which took place November 9 to 10, 1938. That night, most synagogues throughout Germany, Austria and the by then annexed Czechoslovakian Sudetenland were plundered and set alight. Thousands of Jewish businesses were destroyed and almost 30,000 Jews were sent off to concentration camps.
I saw it all. But why did it happen on that particular night? What caused this outrage? It was the worst pogrom in Germany before the policy of extermination that was formulated at the Wannsee Conference held in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee on January 20, 1942, in the presence of Adolf Eichmann and other high-ranking Nazis.
The trigger for these atrocities can be found in events that occurred earlier. In 1938 the Polish authorities were concerned about repercussions from the German annexation of Austria in March of that year and about the increased persecution of German and Austrian Jews.
It was not the welfare of the Jews that concerned the Polish authorities; their fear was that the many Polish nationals among the German and Austrian Jews would either want or be forced to return to Poland.
So in mid-October the Polish government issued a denationalization 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 in their passports from the Polish consulates.
Not surprisingly, Jews were refused this facility.
German policy at the time was not yet mass extermination of Jews, but rather to get them out of Germany. When the Nazi regime learned that Polish officials would not stamp the passports of Jews, thereby making all of them stateless without passports, it was concerned about the Jews having to remain in Germany. So SS Reichsführer (field marshal), chief of police and the Gestapo Heinrich Himmler ordered that all Polish Jews be immediately and forcibly repatriated to Poland.
During the small hours of October 28, 1938, about 30,000 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, they were transported to the Polish border in sealed trains.
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 helplessly in no-man’s-land.
A Jewish welfare organization was 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 increasingly dejected, hungry and tired mass.
The largest number were interned in Zbaszyn, a small Polish border town, before being moved some months later to the Warsaw Ghetto. My own father was among them. At the time I was at a Jewish school in Mannheim, some 65 km. from my home in Karlsruhe. Had I been there, I too would have suffered 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. She herself was not arrested on that occasion but at a different time. Fortunately, she survived the concentration camps and so was able to relate the events to me.
Among those deported to Poland on October 28 were the Grynspans from Hanover. Their 17-year-old German- born son Hershel, who was living illegally in Paris, received a postcard from his family telling him of their deportation and desperate plight. He became so angry and enraged that he called at the German embassy in Paris, asked for the ambassador. When taken to Ernst vom Rath, the embassy’s 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 two days later known as Kristallnacht.
It is documented that plans for such an outrageous crime had been made in great detail and that Himmler only waited for a suitable moment to implement them.
On that fateful Thursday morning, even before I arrived at school, which was in the synagogue premises, smoke hung in the air and there was more activity than usual in the streets. Then I saw it all.
During the torching of the synagogues the firefighting service was at hand – not to douse the flames, but to cool and protect neighboring German properties from being damaged.
I left Mannheim on that fateful day to travel back to my home, and even remember that I caught the 3:22 p.m. diesel train. Ask me what I had for lunch yesterday and I would have difficulty remembering, but that day is etched in my mind.
One other fact is worth mentioning.
After the event in my hometown, the remains of some walls of one synagogue constituted a danger to the public, and so to add insult to injury, the Jewish community was ordered to pay for the demolition.
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 assumed that he did not survive the war.
Let us never forget the brave Hershel Grynspan and the events that befell our people.
The writer, who is 93 years old, is the senior journalist and broadcaster of Israel Radio Arutz 7 (in English). He also broadcasts The Walter Bingham File on Israelnewstalkradio.com