Op-Ed: Recollections of Kristallnacht, November 9-10, 1938
Walter BinghamWalter Bingham is a veteran journalist and broadcaster from London who...
Throughout the Jewish world, there will be meetings to commemorate “Kristallnacht”, - or the night of the broken glass – from November 9th to 10th 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.
I was in a city called Mannheim and saw it all when I tried to get into my school which was behind the Synagogue.
But why did it happen on that particular night? What caused this outrage, the worst pogrom in Germany before the policy of extermination was formulated at the Wannsee Conference held in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee on 20 January 1942 in the presence of Adolf Eichman and other high ranking Nazis.
Well, 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 the Polish Jews' 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-nationalisation 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.
So SS Reichsfuehrer (Field Marshal), Chief of Police and the Gestapo Heinrich Himmler ordered that all Polish Jews be immediately and forcefully repatriated to Poland.
It was during the small hours of October 28th 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 organisations 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.
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, because the Gestapo asked my mother where I was and she told them that I had gone out and she does 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 and related the events to me.
I left Mannheim on that fateful day to travel back to my home, some 72 km and even remember that it was the 3.22 pm diesel train. Ask me what I had for lunch yesterday and I can’t remember.
Among those deported to Poland on October 28th were the Grynspans from Hanover. Their 17 year old 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 angry and 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 7th.
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 the Gestapo Chief Heinrich Himmler only waited for a suitable moment to implement them.
During the torching of the Synagogues the fire service was in attendance, not to douse the flames, but to cool and protect neighbouring German properties from being damaged.
Just one other fact is worth mentioning. After the event the remains of some walls of one synagogue constituted a danger to the public, and so to add insult to injury, the Jewish community was ordered to pay for the demolition.
When Hershel Grynspan was arrested by French police he protested - for all the history of Jewish persecution: “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.