Memories of Kristallnacht

Just a few days before, on October 28, when I was not yet 15 and still lived in the city of my birth in Germany, an event took place that was the trigger for this pogrom that I shall never forget.

Kristallnacht stickers in Germany 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Kristallnacht stickers in Germany 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
I want to tell you about the worst Nazi pogrom against Jews before the outbreak of WWII and the Holocaust, which happened during the night from November 9 to 10, 1938, and why it occurred on that particular day.
Just a few days before, on October 28, when I was not yet 15 and still lived in the city of my birth in Germany, an event took place that was the trigger for this pogrom that I shall never forget.
During 1938, the Polish authorities became concerned about the German annexation of Austria in March of that year and also about the increased persecution of Jews in Germany and Austria. It was of course not the welfare of the Jews that aroused Polish anxiety, but the fear that some 60,000 to 100,000 Polish Jews would seek – or be forced – to return to Poland to escape Nazi persecution.
So the Polish government legislated a citizenship law and subsequent decree requiring Poles who had lived abroad for five years or more to obtain a stamp to revalidate their passport. As could have been expected from the antisemitic government, all Jews were refused this revalidation. When the Nazi regime learned of this situation, thereby making all these Jews stateless, the Gestapo chief Heinrish Himmler ordered that all Polish Jews be immediately and forcefully repatriated to Poland.
During the small morning hours of October 28, about 20,000 Jewish men, women and children had to respond to a 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, were transported in sealed trains to the Polish border. My own father was among them on that cold rainy night when armed German guards with dogs drove them to the crossing. The surprised Polish guards closed the border and received the order: No Jews.
Imagine the situation; Polish machine guns facing them and German bayonets behind them, these bewildered Jews were stranded in no-mans-land. Eventually a Jewish welfare organization, I believe it was the Joint, was permitted to erect some sort of shelter.
The conditions were grim and food was short while the Germans and Poles argued for two or three days. Eventually the Poles were forced to accept this dejected, tired and hungry mass. The largest number was accommodated in Zbaszyn, a small Polish border town. My father was among them. When the Gestapo came to arrest him there, they also asked for me. Fortunately, with great presence of mind, my mother said that I was out and she didn’t not know where I went. Actually, I was at a Jewish school in another city some 45 miles away. Apparently, the authorities did not know of my whereabouts or the local Nazi chief did not arrest children at that time, so I escaped almost certain death. When I heard of the arrests I wanted to come home, but my mother said, “Stay where you are; they just took your father.” Had I been at home I would have perished in the Warsaw Ghetto like my father.
A 17-year-old German-born Polish Jew named Hershel Grynspan who lived illegally in Paris received a communication from his parents telling him of the terrible details of their deputation and their desperate plight. He became so angry, so incensed that on November 7, he called at the German Embassy in Paris and asked to see the Ambassador. Eventually he was taken to Ernst vom Rath, a third secretary and upon entering the room Hershel Grynspan drew a pistol and shot 29-year-old vom Rath five times, mortally wounding him with bullets to the spleen, stomach and pancreas. Vom Rath died of his injuries on the afternoon of November 9. His death was the trigger to give the signal for the long-before meticulously prepared so-called German popular and spontaneous uprising. Within hours, Kristallnacht, also known as the night of the broken glass, was launched. This name symbolized the final shattering of Jewish existence in Germany. During that night, all synagogues in Germany, Austria and the by-now Nazi occupied Sudetenland, western Czechoslovakia, were set alight, the sacred Torah scrolls damaged, valuables plundered, 7,500 Jewish shops and other property were destroyed and 30,000 Jewish men were taken to concentration camps. After Kristallnacht, the Nazi regime made Jewish survival in Germany impossible.
When Hershel Grynspan was arrested by French police, he protested, “Being a Jew is no crime. I am 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 was hounded like an animal.” There are conflicting reports about his fate, but it can be safely assumed that he did not survive the war.
I saw it all on that fateful morning in November when I arrived at my school, which was situated on the synagogue premises.
More people than usual were in the streets and smoke hung in the air. The fire department allowed the flames to consume the synagogue, and instead used their water to cool neighboring non-Jewish property to prevent it from damage.
The onlookers seemed to enjoy the sight.
After contacting my mother in Karlsruhe, my hometown, I left to travel home on the 3:22 p.m. diesel train. I have difficulty remembering yesterday’s events, but that day and time are indelibly etched on my mind.
It’s worth mentioning that in my hometown the walls of one of the burned-out synagogues constituted a danger to the public and to add insult to injury, the Jewish community was forced to pay the cost of the demolition.