By Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.
The Nazis had prescripted the events of November 9th, 1938. For them, it was only a matter of when such a premeditated assault on German Jewry would occur. The planned attack on German Jewry itself had been crafted as early as 1937. Indeed, historians have identified a number of reasons that prompted German officials to launch such an action:
“The background of the pogrom was signified by a sharp cleavage of interests between the different agencies of party and state. While the Nazi party was interested in improving its financial strength on the regional and local level by taking over Jewish property, Hermann Goring …hoped to acquire access to foreign currency in order to pay for the import of urgently needed raw materials. Heydrich and Himmler were interested in fostering Jewish emigration.”
The night of the “breaking of the glass” itself would result in 91 individual Jews being murdered. Some 1400 synagogues and cemeteries damaged, in addition to 267 congregations being burned. 7,000 businesses looted and destroyed, including 29 department stores owned by Jewish families. During the course of this 24 hour period, over 30,000 Jewish men would be arrested “for their own protection,” according to Nazi sources, with many of these individuals being sent during the following days to Buchenwald, Dachau, and Sachsenhausen.
The London Daily Telegraph reporter, Hugh Greene, provided an eyewitness account to what occurred that night:
“Mob law ruled in Berlin throughout the afternoon and evening and hordes of hooligans indulged in an orgy of destruction. I have seen several anti-Jewish outbreaks in Germany during the last five years, but never anything as nauseating as this. Racial hatred and hysteria seemed to have taken complete hold of otherwise decent people. I saw fashionably dressed women clapping their hands and screaming with glee, while respectable middle class mothers held up their babies to see the fun.”
In the United States, events such as the one held in Deutche Haus in Los Angeles, afforded German American Bund speakers to celebrate the beginning steps in dealing with the “Jewish menace.” At such events, reference was made to “Der Tag” the day when Nazis believe that they could seize power in the United States.
The SS and its partner units would use the murder of Ernst vom Rath, Germany’s Third Secretary assigned to the French Embassy in Paris as their excuse to launch their attack. Two days earlier, a seventeen year old, a German born Polish Jew Herschel Grynszpan would walk into the embassy and kill vom Rath. What motivated his actions? Historians believe that this killing was linked to an earlier decision by the Nazis to order Polish Jews living in Germany back to their native Poland, directly impacting Grynszpan and his family. Or possibly, the murder was triggered by a lover’s quarrel involving a reported homosexual affair between the young man and the German diplomat.
Beginning already in 1933, the Nazis had enacted a series of laws restricting the rights of German Jews in connection with their careers and education. The 1935 Nuremberg Laws took away German citizenship for Jews, while also preventing Jews from marrying Aryan Germans.
November 9th would prove to be symbolic as this time frame marked the 20th anniversary of the end of World War One, a war that had humiliated the Fatherland and stripped Germany of its pride and financial status. Nazi propaganda blamed the Jews for the state of the German economic condition and the nation’s political situation.
World reaction was swift but seen as ineffective. Many newspapers condemned Kristallnacht. The United States recalled its ambassador, while other governments severed diplomatic relations with Germany in protest. England approved the Kindetransport program for refugee children, which would afford two of my aunts an opportunity to leave Germany.
Many within my own family had already fled to the United States and elsewhere. Others would be caught by the trauma and uncertainty that Kristallnacht would impart. Indeed, for some it would be too late, as in the case of my grandparents. Despite the efforts of my mother and her siblings to secure their safe passage, the options were few and time would prove sadly not to be on their side.
My grandfather, Salomon Windmueller, for whom I am named, had already met his fate by resisting the Nazis some three years earlier. Yet, some 150 members of my family would perish at the hands of the Nazis.
There would be witnesses to the events of the 9th of November; here is one such righteous individual:
On November 9, 1938, the full fury of the Nazi barbarism burst upon the Jewish people. …Not all non-Jewish Germans approved of the persecutions. One among them was a storekeeper Paul Krick. Horror stricken, Krick forced his 13 year-old son, Hugo, from his bed to witness what was being done to their Jewish neighbors across the street. There, two elderly women were abused and driven out of their home, and their house was demolished. …His memories led him to dedicate his life to finding the surviving victims of the Holocaust from his home community of Beckum. …But as a result of his sincere efforts, Hugo Krick succeeded in finally reaching and corresponding with all surviving former Jewish citizens of Beckum and their descendants…
Hugo Krick, who has passed away, would write, “My work … will be directed toward not to forget our Jewish compatriots, mainly not the immeasurable horror and injustice perpetrated against them in our country. I am succeeding through lectures I’m giving to groups and through articles…to make the people understand the whole scope of the terrible Nazi crimes.”
Now 80 years later, how do we best understand this event in the context of the Shoah and beyond? At a time when Jews are once again being targeted, how do we not allow these contemporary expressions of hate and anti-Semitism to minimize and marginalize Kristallnacht and the broader events that defined the Nazi period of 1933-1945? Current anti-Semitism, at least in this country, is selective, non-state directed and indiscriminate. Kristallnacht and the “Final Solution” served the interests of the German state; clearly this attack was directed to impact a broad segment of Germany’s Jews, in advance of Hitler’s plan to liquidate European Jewry.
On the occasion of the 80th anniversary, there are many ceremonies planned both in Germany and across the Jewish world. In some measure these moments of reflection ought to be about the victims.
As Arthur Kurzweil wrote:
It is not enough to know that ‘the Jews’ were killed, or that ‘six million were murdered’… We must try and find out who they were, these people of ours. We must know their names and their fates. There are no gravestones for them. Our knowledge of them might be their finest memorial.
Dr. Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of HUC-JIR, Los Angeles. His writings can be found on his website, www.thewindreport.com.