Throughout the Jewish world, commemorations are being held during this period of Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, which took place exactly 71 years ago. The murderous violence and destruction of that night, in which 100 Jews were killed, over 250 synagogues were destroyed, and tens of thousands of Jewish businesses vandalized, marked the beginning of the Holocaust.
It also marked the deportation of close to 30,000 Jewish men from Germany and Austria to concentration camps.
The trigger for these atrocities can be found in the events of a few weeks earlier. During the course of 1938, the Polish authorities grew concerned about the German annexation of Austria in March of that year, as well as the increased persecution of German and Austrian Jews. It was not the Jews' welfare that concerned the Poles, but rather the fear that the many Polish nationals among them would seek to return to - or be deported to - Poland. For this reason, in mid-October of 1938, the Polish government issued a de-nationalization law which annulled the citizenship of Poles living abroad for more than five years. Exceptions were granted for those who could receive, by the end of that month, a special Polish Consulate stamp in their passports - unless they were Jews.
When the Nazi regime learned that Polish officials would not stamp the passports of Jews, who would thereupon become stateless, Gestapo Chief Heinrich Himmler ordered that all Polish Jews be immediately and forcefully repatriated to Poland.
My family was among them. My mother was one of thousands who heard the dreaded knock on the door on October 28, 1938. She was asked where I was, and she answered vaguely that I was not at home. In fact, I was at school in Mannheim, some 60 kilometers away. But my father was home. They took him away, and I never saw him again. He and thousands of others throughout Germany and Austria were told to hurriedly pack just one suitcase each, including just 10 marks per adult. They were transported to the Polish border in sealed trains.
Meanwhile, somehow I contacted my mother, and she told me, "They're looking for you; don't come back. They've just taken your father."
When the Poles became aware of the Jewish cargo on their way to Poland, they closed the border. “No more Jews” was the order. With Polish machine guns facing them, and German bayonets pointed at them from behind, the 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 humanity.
The largest number of Jews - including my father - were interned in Zbaszyn, a small Polish border town, for several months, before being relocated to the Warsaw Ghetto. My own father was among them, but I was fortunate to have been away on the day of the arrests, and so escaped almost certain death.
At least one Jew refused to take it lying down. A 17-year-old old German-born Polish Jew, Hershel Grynspan, 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 trigger for the “spontaneous” pogroms of 2-3 days later that became known as Kristallnacht. It is documented that plans for such an outrage had been planned in great detail and that Himmler had only been waiting for a suitable moment to implement them.
When Hershel Grynspan was arrested by French police, he protested: “Being a Jew is not a crime. I am not a dog, and 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 of blessed memory.
The photograph, from the Yad Vashem archives, shows deported Polish Jews waiting for soup in Zbaszyn. The man with the light colored hat, standing behind the one with the light-colourd cap, right by the kettle. is my father. Had I been at home at the time, I also would have been standing there then - but not for very long.