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Kristallnacht Paved The Way To The Holocaust

December 22nd 2008

Book Covers - 48 Hours of Kristallnacht

Mitchell Bard. 48 Hours of Kristallnacht: Night of Destruction/Dawn of the Holocaust. September 2008, The Lyons Press. 256 pages.

In an orgy of anti-Semitic violence and hatred, mobs ran amok throughout Germany and newly annexed Austria on Nov. 9 and 10, 1938burning 1300 synagogues, vandalizing schools, institutions, and cemeteries, wrecking some 7500 Jewish-owned businesses, killing nearly 100 Jews, and injuring hundreds more.

In the end, 30,000 Jews were arrested and sent to concentration camps during Kristallnacht, an ugly precursor to the Holocaust which broke out in Germany about 70 years ago.

Even by Nazi standards, it was a horrifying event. According to British historian Ian Kershaw, “It was the only occasion during the Third Reich when the German public was confronted directly, on a nation-wide scale, with the full savagery of the attack on the Jews.” He adds, “Never before and never again did the persecution of the Jews stand at the forefront of the public’s attention…”

This telling quotation appears in Mitchell Bard’s illuminating book, 48 Hours of Kristallnacht: Night of Destruction/Dawn of the Holocaust. Largely based on eyewitness testimonyoften previously unpublishedthese chilling accounts are supplemented by Bard’s supple analysis of what came before, during, and after this shocking, brutal outburst of primitive anti-Semitism.

The official persecution of German Jews actually began in the wake of Adolf Hitler’s accession to power in January 1933. A boycott of Jewish businesses in April of that seminal year was followed by a dizzying succession of anti-Jewish legislation, including the 1936 Nuremberg laws which stripped Jews of citizenship and barred them from marrying Christians.

There was a short respite as Germany hosted the summer Olympic Games, but once the foreign athletes left, the Nazis  redoubled their efforts to harass, demonize, marginalize, and isolate Jews. As part of this ferocious campaign, on Oct. 27, 1938 Germany expelled 18,000 stateless Polish Jews. The Grynszpan family, which had lived in Hanover for 27 years, were among the deportees.

The Grynszpan’s eldest son, Herschel, a resident of Paris, was outraged by the inhumane treatment his parents and sister had received. Seeking revenge, he went to the German embassy and asked if he could present an important document to the ambassador. Since he had stepped out, Grynszpan was led to the third secretary, Ernst von Rath, who was under investigation by the Gestapo because he was suspected of lacking sufficient Nazi zealotry, particularly toward Jews. Grynszpan fired five shots at close range, mortally wounding the diplomat, who died on Nov. 9, the 15th anniversary of Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch, a holy day in the Nazi calendar.

Bard says that Joseph Goebbels, the fanatical Nazi propaganda minister, took full advantage of this death to bring the persecution of Jews to a new level, adding that Hitler left the details to his subordinates. Although the systematic attacks started on Nov. 9, the first wave of violence washed over the German cities of Kassel and Magdeburg-Anhalt about a day before von Rath succumbed to his wounds.

As might be expected, the sheer scale and horror of Kristallnacht is best described by the people who witnessed it, and much to his credit, Bard has assembled a trove of powerful testimony:

Robert Behr, a Berliner, recalls: “As I went out of the house, I saw all the stores were smashed and Nazi stormtroopers in their brown uniforms. Police stood around and didn’t do anything. Berlin had always been a liberal city. Suddenly all that changed. Berliners turned out to be no different than anyone else.”

Sophie Nussbaum, from Emden, was awakened by knocks at the door and shouting,“Open up! We’re taking all of you to Palestine.” She clearly remembers the traumatic effect Kristallnacht had on a girl who had been raised as a Christian by her Jewish father and her non-Jewish mother. “But mommy,” she cried, “we are not Jewish.”

Alexander Lebenstein of Haltern heard strangers running into his house and throwing furniture, glassware, and dinnerware out of windows.

Frederick Firnbacher of Straubing saw civilians ransacking the local synagogue and trying to break into homes where Jews lived.

Arnold Fleischmann, a resident of Bayreuth, who happened to be in Nuremberg on one of those ignominious days, says his father and his friend were shaken up by the boiling animus. “They never believed something" like that could happen in a Germany that was civilized, that believed in Goethe and Schiller.”

Jutta Rose of Hanover witnessed the indignity of an assault on her father. “They threw [him] down the stairs. Blood was all over.”

Harry Stern, president of the B’nai B'rith lodge in Erfurt, was taken to a gymnasium and hauled into a restroom where he was forced to walk with bended knees, “the worst torture I have endured…”

In the village of Kehl, close to the French city of Strasbourg, Jews were marched through the streets, hit, insulted, spat upon, and forced to sing, “We have betrayed the German Fatherland. We are responsible for the Paris assassination.”

In a chapter titled "Righteous Germans," Bard cites examples of German citizens who acted decently. A coal merchant in Sontheim drove off thugs preparing to set the shul on fire and then escorted Jews out of town. Cardinal Michael von Faulhaber provided a truck for Munich’s chief rabbi to save religious objects from the synagogue before it was destroyed. Max Schmelling, the former world heavyweight boxing champion, hid the two sons of a Jewish clothing store owner until it was safe for them to leave. And in the village of Warmsried, the local Catholic priest made sure that no actions were taken against Jews.

Unfortunately, these humanitarian acts were but a blip on the screen, and had no effect on the larger course of events.

In the wake of Kristallnacht, 120,000 German Jews and 140,000 Austrian Jews managed to emigrate. But tens of thousands of Jews were unable to leave, partially because western democracies refused to grant them entry visas.

For Jews who had no way out, life became increasingly miserable. Bard quotes one observer: “[Jews] were deprived of their occupations, robbed of their property, forbidden to inherit or bequeath, forbidden to sit on park benches, use public transportation, frequent restaurants, concerts, theatres and movie houses. They were stripped of all their civil rights, denied freedom of movement.”

In a final and irrevocable step, the Nazis solved the “Jewish question” by deportations, starting in October 1941.

Fewer than 10,000 of the remaining 131,000 Jews in Germany targeted for extermination survived the war. Kristallnacht paved the path to the destruction of one third of European Jewry.

Sheldon Kirshner is a correspondent for the Canadian Jewish News, from where this article was adapted.

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