Kristallnacht, November 1938
The following is an excerpt from White Rose History, Volume I.
Awfully big words were uttered in London the morning of November 7, 1938, when The Times published a November 6 “open letter” from Winston Churchill to the German Chancellor. Susanne Hirzel quoted a fragment of the letter in her memoirs. Here is the unbelievable quote in context, taken from page 12 of that day’s newspaper:
Herr Hitler ought to understand this mood and respect it. I have always said that if Great Britain were defeated in war I hoped we should find a Hitler to lead us back to our rightful position among the nations. I am sorry, however, that he has not been mellowed by the great success that has attended him. The whole world would rejoice to see the Hitler of peace and tolerance, and nothing would adorn his name in world history so much as acts of magnanimity and of mercy and of pity to the forlorn and friendless, to the weak and poor… Let this great man search his own heart and conscience before he accuses anyone of being a warmonger… If Herr Hitler’s eye falls upon these words I trust he will accept them in the spirit of candour in which they are uttered.
If Herr Hitler’s eyes fell upon those words, he completely and utterly ignored them. Two weeks earlier, 17,000 Polish Jews residing in Germany had been deported to Poland. Only Poland – historically one of the most anti-Semitic countries in the world – refused the deported Jews entry to the country. These 17,000 people had already lost everything they owned, as their possessions were confiscated upon their arrest. Now they had no place to live but “relocation camps” in a no-man’s-land on the Polish border.
Zindel Grynszpan was among these 17,000 Polish Jews. From western Poland, he had been living in Hannover for 27 years. Like his compatriots, his store was taken from him on October 27, and his family forced to live stateless. Except for his seventeen-year-old son Herschel, who was living with an uncle in Paris. Herschel Grynszpan erupted in anger at the treatment his father suffered and resolved to assassinate the German ambassador to France. On November 7, the same day that Churchill praised Hitler and called for mercy, Grynszpan went to the German embassy in Paris to carry out his plot. When he learned the ambassador was out, he settled for shooting the Third Secretary, Ernst von Rath.
Grynszpan’s outrageous action may have been ill-advised (what good would it have done to shoot the ambassador?) and even wrong, but I dare say the most ardent Nazi block warden could not have guessed how Goebbels decided to “spin” this assassination attempt. Two days later, Hitler’s propaganda guru announced that Herschel Grynszpan had played a role in a conspiratorial attack by “International Jewry” against the Reich and by extension, against the Führer himself! The anger of a seventeen-year-old boy now was linked to claims that Jewish bankers ran the world and that Jewish politicians pulled the strings in every capitalist-pig state. Today, we may find such propaganda ludicrous, but Jew-baiting had snowballed to the point that even as absurd a claim as this could be believable.
The night of November 9, 1938, orders went out to avenge Rath’s death. It is unclear whether the original intent of Gestapo orders included torching and looting the synagogues. A November 9, 1938 telex published in 1968 purporting to be from Gestapo chief Müller specifically prohibited looting or arson. Adolf Eichmann seems to have confirmed this. He described his initial primary task as raising funds to keep German war machinery solvent. The logistics of transporting Jews to extermination camps came much later, only after the Nazis had stolen their belongings.
Therefore, it is logical to believe that the Nazis primarily wanted access to synagogue membership rolls and all information about Jewish assets that may have been contained in synagogue files. Criminals generally want their victims alive while they are robbing them to ensure they find all the family jewels; they murder them after they feel confident they’ve got gramma’s rubies and the husband’s Rolex. This would have been the fundamental theory behind the raids on Jewish houses of worship the night of November 9 and early November 10.
Whatever the principal aim may have been, when the night turned ugly, no Germans stopped the rampage. You read story after story of local fire departments pressed into duty – to protect neighboring businesses and homes so that flames from the synagogues were contained in those structures. In Ulm, Rabbi Cohn was dragged from his bed into the dry creek in front of the shul. First the Storm Troopers attacked him, then bystanders joined in the fracas. Other prominent members of the Jewish community in Ulm suffered similar fates.
One of the Hirzel children told the family that he had heard at school that the fire department had been called out before the synagogue was set on fire. They stood guard over Müller & Feuchter, the paint store next to the shul. But what puzzled the Hirzel family the most were the reports that it had been Storm Troopers from nearby Geislingen that had come to Ulm for the “party.” It seems that the Storm Troopers in Ulm and Söflingen had passed on the opportunity.
Nationwide, the destruction was overwhelming. That night and the next day, people roamed the streets, bashing in plate glass windows and destroying Jewish homes and businesses. Goebbels contended that these were “spontaneous” outbursts of an enraged citizenry, the “Just Vengeance of Outraged Citizens,” as the papers trumpeted. Oy vay, if anyone dared to disagree.
In 1998, seven Czechs – five Christians and two Jews – conducted a series of round-table discussions about anti-Semitism in central Europe (their frankness should serve as a model for other groups). One comment that struck me as completely relevant is worth quoting here in full.
From the text of Luther’s infamous work “The Jews and their Lies” (1543), it seems no coincidence that Kristallnacht occurred on Luther’s birthday. “What shall we Christians do with this rejected and condemned people, the Jews? I shall give you my sincere advice: First to set fire to their synagogues or schools and to bury or cover with dirt whatever will not burn, so that no man will ever again see a stone or cinder of them… Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed.”
For a day or two after the terror, Nazis called the night by its right name, the “November pogrom.” Webster’s defines pogrom as an organized massacre of helpless people, from the Yiddish derivation of the Russian word for destruction. But Goebbels, the master spinner, did not want the National Socialists associated with something so offensive. When a Nazi named Walter Funk coined the phrase Kristallnacht or Crystal Night at a November 12 meeting of high-ranking officials, its use was adopted both to “prettify” the event and to evoke recurring memories in the minds of the German populace, a “Remember the Alamo” of sorts.
That November 12 meeting had been called because the events of the November pogrom had left the Nazis with a couple of dilemmas. First, they never wanted to discourage that type of outburst. They had worked hard with relentless Jew-baiting to get the nation to the point of absolute hatred of anything Jewish. The enthusiasm for the carnage had to have been heart-warming to the Nazi masters in Berlin.
But they wanted Jewish assets every bit as much as they wanted a country free of Jews. Let the Jews go to America or Britain or the Middle East if they would, and if those countries would have them. In November 1938, the emphasis had not yet shifted to extermination of Jews. Nazis were still in the mode of wanting them to leave the country. But they had to do so without their worldly goods.
Therefore, they reasoned that while it was nice to see burnt-out carcasses with Torah scrolls in ashes, it would have been better if all those plate glass windows had stayed intact and if none of the fabrics or shoes or groceries had been damaged. It is reported that Goering told those assembled on November 12 that if Jewish warehouses were to be cleaned out and burned, he may as well burn the raw materials before they arrived. He desperately needed the goods in those warehouses to support the coming war effort.
Another sticky matter centered on the fact that most of those Jewish businesses had been properly insured. The shop keepers and tailors and jewelers would shortly be filing claims that could ostensibly bankrupt the German insurance industry. Besides, there wasn’t enough plate glass to be found in the whole country to replace what had been destroyed.
On November 12 then, the Nazi brain trust devised a means to cover “their” losses of November 9/10. They demanded that the Jewish community in Germany pay a one billion Mark fine (approximately $8 billion), and that all insurance proceeds from claims filed be paid to the government and not to the Jewish businesses. This yielded another six million Marks, or $48 million.
Dr. August Nathan, erudite friend to both Scholl and Hirzel families, was on vacation at a health resort during the night of breaking glass. The Nazis arrested him there and shipped him to Dachau. The Dannhausers simply disappeared from one day to the next, leaving a good-bye note in the Hirzel’s mailbox advising them they had gone to Palestine.
Surprisingly, almost half of Germany’s Jews stayed in Germany, despite the pogrom, despite the ever-tightening noose. It had become crystal clear that their lives would be made a living hell, yet 250,000 stayed until November 1941, when the choice to leave was voided and the only option that remained was death.
A German acquaintance asked the writer Peter Gay how this could have been, how German Jews could have gone like lambs to the slaughter, knowing that Gay’s family had emigrated to the United States at the last possible minute. He replied, “This [question] made it plain to me that even among well-informed Germans there must be many who had not an inkling how Jews had lived in Nazi Germany, how little such Germans knew about their former fellow citizens, and how the world outside the Nazi dictatorship looked to the German Jews; it was for them a world that was reluctant to accept as immigrants lawyers and businessmen who, for the most part, knew only German.”
Among all the young adults who were to become the White Rose, Susanne Hirzel is the only one who has recorded any of the emotions or fear she felt that day, that week, that month. The next Scholl letter we are allowed to see is dated November 21, and it is a tiny fragment of trivial comments. It’s surprising actually that it is so, since this omission would be the same as reading letters from an American to his pen pal that revealed nothing of the emotions experienced at the 9/11 destruction of the Twin Towers. How is it possible that there was no reaction to an incident this bloody, this wretched?
Susanne’s vulnerability as she writes of those days endeared her to me long before I met her face to face. No holds barred, she admits to anger, shame, oppression, as the dominant sensations she cannot forget. Anger that anyone could treat a house of worship with so much disrespect – the Jews today, and us tomorrow? Shame that her cowardice got the best of her and she was afraid to seek out the very Jewish friends she had treasured, to inquire how they had fared. She remembers how embarrassed she was, how great her fear at facing people she held dear (and she has never quite gotten past her “lack of courage”). Oppression, knowing that nothing could ever be the same, that Germany had crossed a line from which there was no retreat, that things would soon be worse than anyone could dream possible.
“And all this could happen because we had a government we could not get rid of, that had no opposition. A government that refused entry to foreigners and the news they would bring with them. A government that developed its own propaganda. A government that bludgeoned and terrified its own people with terror, legal uncertainty, and suppression of freedom of speech. That even made its people indifferent, apathetic because they were unconscious.”
She buried herself in music, refusing to read the newspapers or do anything that would expose her to the horrors that seemed to mount with each new day. For her in that day, at that time, reality was more than she could bear.
Years later when compiling the material for her memoirs, she ran across a poem by a German-Jewish writer named Karl Wolfskehl, penned in 1934. It seems an appropriate way to end this chapter, to pause a moment in silent contemplation of the great evil that had just begun. For only when we comprehend the magnitude of the wrong will we be able to appreciate the brilliance of the good.
To the Germans (1934).
I walked where you walked,
We were one with heart and soul.
Inviolable that which made us one,
Number one, written large and small:
I was German, and I was I.
Born was I of German soil,
Fed was I on German bread,
Rhine grapes fermented in my blood,
German, these one thousand years.
I walk no longer where you walk,
Jerry, you dream nightmares that you were chosen
On the northern crest and not the Rhine.
It is a lie that makes you one with others,
The lamb lies there in the agony of the cross,
The lie that blood is seed, the poison of the spirit.
© 2002 Ruth Hanna Sachs, Exclamation! Publishers. For permission to quote, please contact us.
For more information about our White Rose Histories, please read more at this link.