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 370 (photo credit: Reuters)
Display of books in Yad Vashem 370
(photo credit: 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, 1938.
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 camps.
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 Consulates.
Not surprisingly, Jews were refused this facility.
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 to Poland.
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 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 in no-man’s land.
Jewish 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 me.
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.
Let us never forget the brave Hershel Grynspan z”l.
The writer is a resident of Jerusalem and host of the radio show Walter’s World.