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TCEN Journal of Genocide Excerpt

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The Shards of Kristallnacht

December 1st 2008

Book Covers - 48 Hours of Kristallnacht

An Excerpt from: 48 Hours of Kristallnacht: Night of Destruction/Dawn of the Holocaust; The Lyons Press, 256 pages, 2008.


Kristallnacht. November 9-10, 1938. The night of the broken glass in Nazi Germany.

It is difficult to say that the destruction of buildings and books were more catastrophic than the physical attacks on Jews, the arrests, and the incarceration of men in concentration camps. But the destruction of synagogues, Torah scrolls, and prayer books attacked the very spirit and the soul of the Jewish people. Although the treatment of Jews varied from time to time and place to place in Germany, the existence of houses of prayer for decades and, in many cases, centuries, were symbols of the longstanding Jewish roots in Germany.

As the birthplace of the Reform movement of Judaism, Germany also represented one of the cradles of Jewish religious intellectualism. For Orthodox Jews, the attacks on the synagogues were devastating blows to their hearts. Jews who were not observant, however, were also shocked and hurt by the devastation because they too understood the importance of the symbols to their religion and peoplehood.

Orders to destroy synagogues throughout Germany and Austria went out on November 9-10, as seen in the following order given by a group commander on November 10: “All Jewish synagogues in the area of Brigade 50 have to be blown up or set afire ... The operation will be carried out in civilian clothing ... Execution of the order will be reported ...”

Large towns and cities, many of which had large, well-established Jewish communities, suffered the same fate. Dozens of synagogues were pillaged and burned in Berlin and Vienna. The oldest Jewish area in Germany was in Regensburg. Jews had been living there for more than 900 years. The synagogue dated to 1841. It was destroyed on Kristallnacht and the Jewish men were forced to march through the streets holding a banner that said, “The removal of the Jews.” They were ultimately sent to Dachau.

Some synagogues were spared. In most cases, this was not because the Germans in those locations felt any reluctance about destroying a house of prayer; these synagogues were protected out of self-interest. Some synagogues were built into a block of residences or were very close to the homes or businesses of non-Jews and the arsonists, as well as the fire fighters, were afraid they might accidentally burn Aryan property. A number of witnesses testified that some Germans stood up to the mobs that did not consider the danger to the non-Jewish area and made sure they did not set fires. Of course, in most of those instances, the rabble was allowed to go inside the synagogues and to commit as much mayhem as possible. Frequently, the Torah scrolls and prayer books were thrown into the street, where they could be burned without endangering the neighborhoods. In many of the other cases where the synagogues were torched, witnesses reported seeing fire fighters or police officers simply standing by and watching the destruction.

Some of the most vivid descriptions come from Berliners who witnessed the destruction of the largest synagogue in Berlin, the Fasanenstrasse Synagogue, as well other temples in the capital. Firefighters stood and watched the Fasanenstrasse Synagogue burn. The reader of the synagogue, a man named Davidsohn, pleaded with the captain of the fire fighters to put out the fire. ‘Turn on the hoses,’ he cried to the fire chief, who stood dumbly watching the spectacle with his men. ‘Get out of here. You’ll get yourself killed,’ the captain snarled. ‘I’m afraid I can’t help. We’ve come to protect the neighboring buildings.’ ‘For the love of God, let me at least bring out the sacred objects.’

Just then there was a sound of pounding and Wolfsohn, the porter, staggered into the courtyard in bloodstained nightclothes. He had refused to surrender the keys to the sanctuary and the doors had been forced. The 78-stop organ was heaved over a balcony. The bronze candelabra was taken down and the scrolls of the Law and their appointments torn and broken. Rabbinical garments were cut to shreds and prayer books were mutilated. Then the SA and SS commandos drenched the wooden benches in petrol, and fire leapt through the building. Davidsohn vainly tried to enter. At five o’clock, when the fire had subsided to smoldering ashes, the mob began to disperse, the firemen rode off and the man who for twenty-seven years had led the community’s prayers bowed to recite the Kaddish, the prayer for the dead, before the smoking rubble.”

One of the witnesses was Selma Schiratzki. As she left her Berlin home on the morning of November 10, she saw a woman who seemed upset. When Selma asked her what was wrong, the woman answered with tears running down her face, ‘Something so horrible has happened, I can hardly tell you. Just think – all the synagogues are burning.’”

Selma lived in the western part of Berlin and used to take the train to school. “When the train passed the synagogue in Fasanenstrasse, I saw with horror the smoke rising from the ruins. Then I heard a man next to me say to his son: ‘There you can see what has happened! And remember, if I should ever find out that you have had a part in things like these, you would no longer be a son of mine.’”

When Ernest Günter Fontheim went to school he didn’t notice anything unusual. “When I entered my classroom, some of my classmates were telling horror stories of what they had seen on their way to school, like smashed store windows of Jewish-owned shops, looting mobs, and even burning synagogues. A fair number of students were absent….When our teacher, Dr. Wollheim, entered the room and closed the door, all talking stopped instantly, and there was complete silence in the class….In a tense voice Dr. Wollheim announced that school was being dismissed because our safety could not be guaranteed. This was followed by a number of instructions which he urged us to follow in every detail. Number one, we should go home directly and as fast as possible without lingering anywhere or visiting friends so that our parents would know that we are safe. Number two, we should not walk in large groups because that would attract attention and possible violence by hostile crowds. He concluded by saying that there would be no school for the foreseeable future and that we would be notified when school would reopen again.

I quickly walked back to the Tiergarten Station and decided to look out the window when the elevated train would pass the Synagogue Fasanenstrasse where I had become bar mitzvah. It was a beautiful structure built in Moorish style with three large cupolas. I literally felt my heart fall into my stomach when I saw a thick column of smoke rising out of the center cupola. There was no wind, and the column seemed to stand motionless reaching into the heavens. At that moment all rationality left me. I got off the train at the next stop and raced back the few blocks as if pulled by an irresistible force. I did not think of Dr. Wollheim’s instruction nor of any possible danger to myself. Police barricades kept a crowd of onlookers on the opposite sidewalk. Firefighters were hosing down adjacent buildings. The air was filled with the acrid smell of smoke. I was wedged in the middle of a hostile crowd, which was in an ugly mood shouting anti-Semitic slogans. I was completely hypnotized by the burning synagogue and was totally oblivious to any possible danger. I thought of the many times I had attended services there and listened to the sermons all of which had fortified my soul during the difficult years of persecution. Even almost six years of Nazi rule had not prepared me for such an experience.

Suddenly, someone shouted that a Jewish family was living on the ground floor of the apartment building across the street from the synagogue. Watching the fire, the crowd was backed against the building. Someone else shouted: ‘Let’s get them!’ Everyone turned around. Those closest surged through the building entrance. I could hear heavy blows against the apartment door.

In my imagination I pictured a frightened family hiding in a room as far as possible from the entrance door — hoping and praying that the door would withstand — and I prayed with them. I vividly remember the crashing violent noise of splintering wood followed by deadly silence, then suddenly wild cries of triumph. An elderly bald-headed man was brutally pushed through the crowd while fists rained down on him from all sides accompanied by anti-Semitic epithets. His face was bloodied. One single man in the crowd shouted: ‘How cowardly! So many against one!’

He was immediately attacked by others. After the elderly Jew had been pushed to the curb, a police car appeared mysteriously; he was put in and driven off. I left this scene of horror completely drained, incredulous, in a trance and went home….

What has remained and will forever remain in my memory is the image of the thick column of smoke standing on top of the center cupola of that beautiful synagogue and the bloodied bald head of an unknown Jew.”

George Ginsburg saw a red sky as 20 synagogues burned in Berlin. He saw Brownshirts running through the streets arresting and beating Jews, and trucks taking people away to Sachsenhausen. “I was in bed and woke up when I got a telephone call from Betar [a Zionist youth group]. I was told to get outside immediately and I’d be picked up by a Betar truck because we had to run in the shuls to save the Torah. We did run in the burning shuls. I didn’t have any fear then. I was young. We ran in and saved whatever we could….I ran inside Fasanenstrasse synagogue. It was smoking and black. There were four or five of us. We made a chain to pass on things. The older ones ran right inside and we were standing halfway and I saved a few Torot [Torah scrolls]. They would take them and hide them in the Betar headquarters. Outside, there were people standing with bars who started hitting us. Some people were bleeding and we ran away. We ran to private houses where our members lived and then I came home.”

Inge Berner heard that synagogues were burning in Berlin. “The synagogue that we went to was too far away for us to see it. That one was saved because there was a police officer who would not let the mob burn it down. It was in the middle of a residential neighborhood and he said if you burn it down then all the houses around it will burn down and he didn’t let them. That synagogue was saved.” It was later bombed in an air raid.

Norbert Wollheim was going outside the morning of November 10 when someone told him the synagogues were burning throughout Berlin. “I couldn’t believe it. I went to the synagogue where I was bar mitzvahed, and where I’d been married, and I saw the flames coming from the roof, from the cupola of this beautiful edifice. The fire engines were standing by doing nothing, only protecting the buildings next to it. I still couldn’t believe it. I thought, maybe it’s the only one, so I went to another major synagogue in West Berlin, and it, too, was burning and already partly in ruins.

I thought, this is the people you were brought up with, these are the poets and the thinkers. What happened to German civilization? The people standing with me in front of the burning synagogues didn’t dare to say a word. They may have felt ashamed, but they didn’t dare to say so, because this was one of the principles the Nazis had established: they had concentration camps for anybody who said anything against them.

There were also quite a number who made very nasty remarks. There was glee among them. They said, ‘The Jews got what they deserve,’ and so on. That really gave me the shock of my life. I saw it, but I couldn’t digest it, not intellectually and not emotionally.

Mitchell Bard is Executive Director of the nonprofit American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise (AICE) and a foreign policy analyst. He is also the director of the Jewish Virtual Library.


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