Kristallnacht: Introduction, Part I

Posted: December 30, 2010 in World War 2
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48 Hours of Kristallnacht
Night Of Destruction / Dawn of the Holocaust

Imagine you are nine years old, sleeping soundly in your warm bed. Before going to sleep you went through the normal bedtime ritual of brushing your teeth & washing your hands & face. Your mother came in to read a story. When you wake up, you’ll eat breakfast & then go to school like you do every other day.

You’re suddenly awakened by loud banging coming from the front door. You’re not fully awake yet, but then you hear the door crash to the ground & people running in. As you bolt upright, your mother rushes in & grabs you by the hand. She leads you downstairs to the living room where you see your father shouting at a group of men who are all dressed in brown shirts & carrying axes & knives & broom handles.

One of the men hits your father with the end of a knife across the forehead, & he begins to bleed. “Daddy!” you shout, & rush to his side.

The other men begin to smash the tables & chairs & rip the upholstery of the couch. The hoodlums break the windows facing the street & begin to pull the family’s books from the shelves & throw them out the window. You can hear the sound of dishes breaking in the kitchen as another intruder pulls everything from the cabinets & throws it on the ground.

The man who hit your father says, “You’re under arrest. Come with me!” “Why are you taking him? He hasn’t done anything wrong,” you cry as you rush over & cling to his leg.

Now the man comes toward you & grabs you by the arm & roughly throws you to the ground. Before you can move, you see your father being pulled out the door & pushed down the stairs; he trips & rolls to the bottom. The other men follow, pausing only to throw a glass lamp onto the floor where it shatters.

Your mother rushes out the door & down the steps, shouting after then men dragging away your father, “Where are you taking him?” You reach her side in time to hear the response, “Check with the Gestapo.”

Your mother begins to cry, & she bends down to hug you. Over her shoulder you can see smoke rising from the synagogue burning down the street. The store windows of the Jewish businesses nearby are all broken, & people are walking out of the stores with clothes, jewelry, & groceries. People are shouting & laughing amid the sound of glass shattering.

It is a night you will never forget. Later, people will call it Kristallnacht.

On November 9th & 10th, 1938, rampaging mobs throughout Germany & the newly acquired territories of Austria & the Sudetenland freely attacked Jews in the street, in their homes, & at their places of worship. At least 96 Jews were killed (Read & Fisher say the number at least 236, including 43 women & 13 children) & hundreds more injured, more than 1,300 synagogues were burned (& possibly as many as 2,000), almost 7,500 Jewish businesses were destroyed, & countless cemeteries & schools were vandalized. No estimates were available, but untold amounts of precious commodities, such as artworks, were lost as hooligans destroyed whatever they saw without regard for its value.

A total of 30,000 Jews were arrested & sent to concentration camps on those days. At least 4,600 Viennese Jews were sent to Dachau. About 2,500 Jews were arrested in Hamburg & transported to Oranienburg. Another 2,621 Jews from Frankfurt were sent to Buchenwald. The average period of imprisonment was four to six weeks for older men & longer for some of the younger Jews. More than 5,000 people died in Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen, & Dachau in the aftermath of the pogroms. Tens of thousands more German & Austrian Jews would die in the camps during the war.

The Germans initially referred to the 48 hours of mayhem as the “Jew Action.” No one is sure when it originated, but the term “Crystal Night” or Kristallnacht (or, less commonly, Reichskristallnacht) eventually came to be the term associated with the pogroms of November 9-10, 1938, because of the widespread destruction of windows that left shattered glass throughout the streets. Many Jews & scholars; however, find the term offensive & object to its use. As Walter Pehle wrote, “It is clear that the term Crystal Night serves to foster a vicious minimalizing of its memory, a discounting of grave reality; such cynical appelations function to reinterpret manslaughter & murder, arson & robbery, plunder, & massive property damage, transforming these into a glistening event marked by a sparkle & gleam.

On the 40th anniversary of Kristallnacht, Helmut Schmidt, the former West German chancellor, spoke in the synagogue in Cologne about the significance of those 48 hours:

The German night, whose observance after the passage of forty years has brought us together today, remains a cause of bitterness & shame. In those places where the houses of God stood in flames, where a signal from those in power set off a train of destruction & robbery, of humiliation, abduction & incarceration – there was an end to peace, to justice, to humanity. The night of November 9th, 1938 marked one of the stages along the path leading down to hell.

From 48 Hours of Kristallnacht: Night of Destruction / Dawn of the Holocaust, by Mitchell G. Brad, Ph.D.


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