The October 1938 precursor to Kristallnacht

When a knock on the door meant terror for 'stateless' Jews in Germany.

hershel grynspan 88 (photo credit: )
hershel grynspan 88
(photo credit: )
Throughout the Jewish world, gatherings will soon be held to commemorate Kristallnacht - that horrendous night which shattered, like the glass of destroyed Jewish shops, the lives of thousands of Jews. It happened in the early hours of November 10, 1938. That night, 67 years ago most synagogues throughout Germany, Austria and the newly-annexed Czechoslovakian Sudetenland were set alight, their contents plundered, Torah scrolls desecrated. Thousands of Jewish businesses were destroyed and 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and sent to concentration camps. Kristallnacht made Nazi Germany's policy toward the Jews clear to the world. But the trigger for these atrocities can be found in the events of a few days earlier. During 1938, the Polish authorities became increasingly concerned about the German annexation of Austria, which took place in March, and at the increased persecution of Jews in Germany and Austria. They were not concerned with Jewish welfare, but feared that many Polish Jewish nationals in these countries would be forced to return to Poland. So in mid-October the Polish government enacted a de-nationalization law, which annulled the citizenship of Poles who had lived abroad for more than five years, unless - before the end of that month - they obtained a special stamp in their passports from one of the Polish consulates. Not surprisingly, anti-Semitic Polish authorities refused to issue these waivers. When the Germans learned that the Poles would not endorse the passports of Jews, making these people stateless, Gestapo chief Heinrich Himmler ordered that all Polish Jews should be immediately and forcibly "repatriated" to Poland. IT WAS during the early hours of October 28, 1938, that about 20,000 Jewish men, women and children were roused by a knock on the door. They were arrested, permitted to hurriedly pack one suitcase and, with an allowance of just 10 Reichsmarks per adult, transported to the Polish border in sealed trains. When the Poles heard what was happening, they closed their borders. "No more Jews," they decided. So with Polish machine guns facing them and German bayonets behind them, these bewildered and tired Jewish families were stranded in no-man's-land. A Jewish welfare organization - I think it was ORT - was allowed to hastily provide some shelter. The conditions were grim; food was short and all the while the Germans and Poles continued to argue - until the Poles were forced to accept this by now dejected and hungry mass of disowned citizens. The largest number was interned in Zbaszyn, a small Polish border town, and months later moved to the Warsaw ghetto. 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 went to the German Embassy and demanded to see the ambassador. Instead, he was taken to Ernst vom Rath, a third secretary. When face-to-face, Hershel drew a pistol and shot him. Vom Rath died of his wounds on the evening of November 7. This death was the trigger for what the Nazis claimed was a "spontaneous" outburst of national anger, Kristallnacht, the most savage pogrom before the enactment of the Final Solution itself. Plans for this outrage had, in fact, been prepared in great detail long before the Grynspan affair; Himmler and his Gestapo had only waited for a suitable moment for their implementation. When French police arrested the courageous Hershel Grynspan, he protested: "Being a Jew is not a crime, I'm not a dog, I have a right to live and the Jewish people have a right to exist on this earth. Wherever I've been, I have been hounded like an animal." There are conflicting reports about his fate, but he probably did not survive the war. AT THE time, I was a boy of 15 and shortly before these events my parents - who were Polish Jews but had lived in Germany for many years - decided to send me to a city some 100 km. away so that I could further my Jewish education. I was put up at a Jewish orphanage, the only place that was kosher, From there I walked every morning a few blocks to school located behind the main synagogue. On October 28 I heard of the deportation of Polish Jews, and as we belonged to that group I became frightened and phoned home. My mother answered and said: "For goodness sake, stay where you are, they have taken your father. When they asked for you, I told them that you had gone out and I didn't know where you went." Luckily, in the city where I was, the authorities either didn't know of me or didn't look for youngsters my age. Had I been at home at the time, I would most certainly have perished in the Warsaw Ghetto like my father. On November 10, 1938, as I went to school as usual, I saw the synagogue in flames. It was the morning of Kristallnacht. The street was crowded with onlookers, some laughing, some singing anti-Jewish songs, only a few had grim faces. The fire department was there too, not to put out the flames, but to water down and protect neighboring non-Jewish property. I can never forget that picture. I ran to the orphanage, telephoned home, packed up and took the 3:22 p.m. train home - I'll never forget that mundane detail. As for me, I came to England on a Kindertransport in July 1939 and was eventually reunited with my mother, who survived the camps. I write these words from Israel where I now live. The writer, age 82, has a weekly radio show on (Arutz-7)