Reminiscences of Kristallnacht

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.

Child Holocaust survivors (photo credit: REUTERS)
Child Holocaust survivors
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Throughout the Jewish world, there will be meetings this week to commemorate Kristallnacht, “The night of broken glass” – the worst Nazi pogrom before the policy of extermination was formulated at the conference held in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee on January 20, 1942, by Adolf Eichman and other high-ranking Nazis.
It was during the night of November 9, 1938, that most synagogues throughout Germany, Austria and the by-then annexed Czechoslovakian Sudetenland were set alight, thousands of Jewish businesses and homes were destroyed and some 30,000 Jewish men taken to concentration camps.
I was nearly 15 years old and saw it all that morning in the city of Mannheim, where I spent a year to attend a Jewish school which was a part of the synagogue. I saw the glee in the faces of the German onlookers, and the Fire Service that stood by to protect the neighboring properties but made no attempt to douse the flames.
Why did it happen on that particular night? What caused this outrage? The trigger for this atrocity can be found in the events of a few months earlier. During 1938 the Polish authorities became concerned about the German annexation of Austria in March of that year and about the increased persecution Jews there and in Germany. But it was not their welfare that troubled Poland, but rather the fear that the many Polish nationals among these Jews would either want 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 anxious about their having to retain them in Germany.
So SS Reichsfuehrer (Field Marshal) and chief of police and the Gestapo Heinrich Himmler ordered that all Polish Jews be immediately and forcefully repatriated to Poland.
During the small hours of October 28, 1938, about 20,000 Jewish 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 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 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, almost three days. Eventually the Poles were forced to accept this by now dejected, hungry and tired mass.
The largest number was interned in Zbaszyn, a small Polish border town, living in stables and yards, before they were some months later being moved to the Warsaw Ghetto. My own father was among them. At the time I was at a Jewish school in another town; had I been at home, I too would have had the same fate. My mother 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.
Among those deported to Poland on October 28 were the Grynspans from Hanover. Their 17-yearold German-born son Hershel, 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 signal to start the “spontaneous” pogrom three days later known as Kristallnacht.
It is documented that plans for such an outrage had been planned in great detail and that the Gestapo chief Himmler only waited for a suitable moment to implement them. It is worth mentioning that after the event the remains of some walls of one synagogue in my hometown, Karlsruhe, constituted a danger to the public, and so to add insult to injury, the Jewish community was ordered to pay for the demolition.
I left Mannheim on that fateful day to travel back to my home, some 72 km away. Ask me what I had for lunch yesterday and I would have difficulty telling you, but I vividly remember that it was the 3:22 p.m. diesel train.
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.
The author is Israel’s most senior journalist and broadcaster, whose weekly radio show, Walter’s World, can be downloaded from