Thursday, May 30, 2024

Nazi Madness: Kristallnacht 1938

80 Year-Old Eyewitness Testimonies Rescued From Obscurity 

As Holocaust survivors slowly fade from the scene, a collection of powerful eyewitness testimonies written right after the events of Kristllnacht has been rescued from obscurity.

The Kristallnacht accounts, titled Nazi Madness: November 1938, were gathered more than 80 years ago by Harvard professor and sociologist Edward Hartshorne, after Hitler unleashed the infamous Nazi aktion against Jews throughout Germany, Austria and parts of Czechoslovakia.

Throughout 1939, Hartshorne, a fervent opponent of Nazism, had solicited personal essays about these events from eyewitnesses who had managed to flee Germany. The essay competition promised a $500 award to the winning entries, a strong draw for many destitute refugees and their families. The money would secure food and shelter for several months.

More than 250 people from all over the world sent in their stories. Submissions came from the United States, England, Palestine-Israel, and far off Shanghai.

The deeply personal, gripping narratives capture the events of November 9, 1938 with an immediacy few books on the topic could match. It was on that night that mob violence broke out all over Germany and its territories. Nazi stormtroopers savagely attacked Jewish stores and businesses, as well as Jewish schools, youth clubs, hospitals and even orphanages. They smashed their way into private homes where they assaulted people and demolished everything in sight.

The violence targeted Jewish places of worship all across Germany and Austria. Over 1400 shuls with their sifrei Torah and sacred books were desecrated and set ablaze. The pogrom continued into November 10, 1938, with mobs abusing and assaulting Jews in the streets and in their homes, killing hundreds in cold blood and dragging 30,000 men off to concentration camps.

A Faint Prelude to the Coming Horror

Kristallnacht, we now know, was but a preliminary to the horrors that would soon follow. It marked a violent turning point in Nazi Germany’s escalating assault on the Jews, projecting a terrifying vision of what lay just ahead.

From burning buildings to burning bodies—it was all part of the demonic “final solution,” but one too ghastly for anyone to take seriously.

In the aftermath of the November pogrom, thousands fled their homelands in Germany and Austria, shocked and scarred by what they had experienced.  They took with them the memory of horrifying scenes: attacks by mobs of drunken Nazis, public humiliations, burning shuls and barbaric treatment in overcrowded prison cells and concentration camps.

Nazi Madness was probably intended to play a role in Hartshorne’s campaign against the policy of American isolationism during this era, writes the Guardian. In the mid-1930s, the Harvard sociologist had lived in Berlin gathering material for his PhD on the evils of National Socialism. Later, prior to the outbreak of war, he urged the United States government to mobilize against what he saw as a deadly criminal clique in Germany capable of destabilizing Europe.

The book remained unpublished because Hartshorne was drafted into the U.S. government secret service once the United States entered the war, and lacked the time to see the project through to publication. Winning essays were chosen and prizes awarded, but after Hartshorne was killed in Europe in 1946, the project was abandoned.

In 2012, the eyewitness testimonies that had been tucked away in boxes at Harvard for more than seven decades were examined by authors Uta Gerhardt and Thomas Karlauf. They selected twenty-one of the essays originally intended for Hartshorne’s book and published them in hardcover as The Night of Broken Glass: Eyewitness Accounts of Kristallnacht. A new edition of the volume was released in paperback two months ago.

The narratives, with their shocking detail and authentic voices, recount a wide array of harrowing experiences. Penned by Jewish men and woman across the spectrum of German society, the stories describe not only cruelty inflicted by Nazi stormtroopers, but the obvious pleasure derived by these sadists as mobs of ordinary Germans cheered them on, often lending an eager hand.

At the same time, Nazi Madness includes a few moving entries from extraordinary non-Jews who sought to help Jewish victims of the aktion. These non-Jews tell of being forced to flee Germany after being terrorized by neighbors and police for the “crime” of showing compassion to Jews.

The Elderly and the Orphans

Because of the abundance of historic documentation of the Nazis’ torture, starvation and slaughter of millions, the value of Nazi Madness lies not in a substantial amount of new information, but in the cogent, eyewitness testimony of how the early stages of Hitler’s “final solution” played out.

In addition to the brutal savagery inflicted on defenseless people, the personal accounts in the book showcase Nazi stormtroopers aided by ordinary citizens who abandoned all pretenses at humanity. The narratives thus open a window on the mentality of ordinary, average Germans who joined the stormtroopers as savage two-legged animals, or stood by indifferently as helpless people were assaulted.

As reported by Alice Barwold from Kaliningrad, Nazi thugs who invaded the apartment of an elderly woman forced a hammer into her hand and ordered the terrified woman to destroy all her valuable belongings herself, including her porcelain dishes, mirrors and delicate objects. She was then forced to shred her own clothing.

Barwold recounted seeing young panicked children from the Jewish orphanage in town turned out into the cold night in their pajamas, as their residence was attacked and everything inside smashed beyond repair.

Sofoni Herz who was a teacher in a different Jewish orphanage in Dinslaken, relates how she frantically led 32 children outside while a gang of fifty men, whose numbers kept increasing, systematically destroyed everything in the building. They listened in terror as the thugs went about “shattering window panes, throwing books, chairs, beds, tables, linens, maps, valises, piano parts out of the windows and doors.”  As a crowning touch, they set the orphanage’s shul on fire.

The traumatized children and staff were imprisoned in a room in the city until late that night, before being led to a farm where they stayed for a few days, before being transferred temporarily to a nearby city.  [See Sidebar]

‘Animals Must Not Suffer on This Day’

Symbolic of the depraved mentality of the attackers, a Nazi official informed Herz that “we have ordered that the cow belonging to the orphanage, which is taken care of by a German farmer, will continue to be fed [unlike the orphans left without food supplies]. Animals must not suffer on this day.”

Siegfried Merecki, Karl Schwabe and Rabbi Karl Rosenthal from Berlin wrote testimonies describing how policemen transporting them to the concentration camp behaved with restraint while in the hearing range and sight of German citizenry. As soon as they reached the camp and were handed over to the guards there, however, all pretenses at any degree of civilized behavior disappeared.

Karl Schwabe wrote how he endured “endless physical and mental assaults” at Buchenwald. In the first days, he and fellow inmates were deprived of food and drink: “Our mouths dried out completely, our throats burned.” They were forced to stand outside in rows up to 36 hours, with the SS mercilessly hitting and kicking anyone who fell over from exhaustion.

Elderly men, writes Schwalbe, were singled out and forced to do squats and other painful exercises until they fainted. The visibly weak or disabled were similarly singled out for special abuse. Many were beaten to death; others, unable to bear the torture, ran into the electrified barbed wire fences.

“The sanitary conditions”, Schwabe wrote, “defy description,” causing widespread dysentery.

Karl Rosenthal, a reform rabbi in Berlin, recounted the repeated humiliations to which prisoners were subjected. Under savage blows, they were forced to chant “we are the destroyers of German culture!” Psychological torture accompanied the beatings, as the men were lined up and told “tonight 3,000 Jewish children will be shot in Berlin”.

Indescribable Anguish

In indescribable anguish and at the point of despair, Rosenthal relates how he suddenly heard the strains of an accordion. It seemed someone had summoned the strength to pick up the instrument and play a familiar tune. While the music helped some remember their humanity and dig deep for “inner strength,” wrote Rosenthal, other men staggered from the barracks in hopelessness, and were found hanging from the camp’s electrified fences at dawn.

“They preferred a quick death to slow Nazi torture,” Rosenthal’s memoir continued. No one knew how long their incarceration would last and after weeks of relentless beatings and starvation, few believed they could survive the ongoing torture.

Rosenthal eventually secured his release by offering proof that he was in the process of emigrating. He managed to reach Oxford, England where he spent the war years, later settling in the United States. His wife, Trudie, who survived more than two years in Bergen-Belsen, was eventually allowed entry into the United States, where she and one son who had survived the war reunited with Rosenthal.

Jewish attorney Rudolf Bing wrote in his essay about the murders of people he knew, and the suicides of Jews in his circle of family and friends. “In one street alone where the husband of my wife’s friend was killed, three other men had been beaten to death,” wrote Bing.

“From the Jewish hospital,” recounted Bing, “men were taken from sickbeds for transport to Dachau. Some of them died in the process; others were beaten to death on the road.”

‘The World Is Coming To An End’

“This year—the world as I knew it—is coming to an end,” wrote Berlin physician Hertha Nathorff in her journal a few weeks after Kristallnacht. Nathorff wrote about having to hide her son in someone else’s apartment so he would not be arrested. Soon after Kristallnacht, she was forced to walk the streets during daylight hours and find different places to sleep at night to avoid being arrested.

Her narrative recounts her prolonged efforts to gather the funds, documents and official permits to travel with her husband to Cuba, and from there to the United States. She was terrified of appearing at a German emigration office, and faced obstacles and roadblocks at every turn.

Bribery and extortion were part of the process, and by Jan 1938, Hertha still had not left the country, with the danger of being arrested increasing by the hour. “I am counting the hours and days until we can get out of this indescribable hell,” she described her mental state, echoing the desperation of other voices in Nazi Madness. Hertha eventually escaped. Excerpts from her journal were later incorporated into her entry into the Harvard competition.

Vienna-born Fritz Rodeck wrote a district-by-district account of Kristallnacht in Vienna, where the pogrom was particularly vicious. He described Jewish homes destroyed in each district and Jews who were tossed out of windows. Throughout the city, Jews were forced to demolish synagogues under gunpoint.

The testimonies of many of the refugees shared a common misconception: that November 1938 and its aftermath marked the height of Nazi barbarism and the worst imaginable regression from modern western civilization.

In fact, it was but the faintest foreshadowing of what was about to happen.

Government Violence Disguised As “Grassroots” Eruption

Nazi officials disguised the organized nature of the riots, spinning them as a “spontaneous” grassroots eruption in response to the shooting of a German diplomatic official in Paris, by a 17-year-old Polish Jew, Herschel Grynszpan.

The emotionally unstable teenager had learned days earlier that his parents had been among thousands of Polish Jews who were expelled from Germany. This happened in October 1938, after Poland withdrew citizenship from all Polish Jews living abroad for more than five years.

Even before the end of that month, Germany expelled sixteen thousand Polish Jews at a few hours’ notice and dumped them on the Polish frontier. Denied entry to Poland, they were forced to live in appalling conditions in a primitive refugee camp on the border of the two countries.

The Kristallnacht riots had been meticulously planned by Nazi officials led by Hitler’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels. The violence was ready to be launched all across Germany and the territories annexed by Hitler. All that was needed was the right vehicle to cast the violence as an uprising of indignant German citizens against the Jews. The Grynszpan incident provided that pretext.

The November pogrom did not take place in a vacuum. From Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, a program of “Aryanization,” (expropriation of property and belongings legalized under the Nuremberg laws of 1935), had gradually robbed German Jews of almost all their assets, reducing the community to dire straits. Many formerly prosperous Jews now faced homelessness and starvation.

The Nuremberg Laws of 1935 had also cancelled the Jews’ citizenship, rendering German Jews stateless refugees, stripped of all civil rights in their own country. Resistance of any sort was met with severe punishment.

The stage was thus set for Kristallnacht, the next level in the Nazi’s final solution—the expulsion of all Jews from Germany. The carefully plotted pogrom was kept waiting in the wings until the Nazis were assured that Germany would suffer no serious international consequences from the atrocity.

This assurance came in the form of a catastrophic failure on the part of 32 nations at the Evian conference of July 1938 (organized by the United States), to propose concrete measures against the mounting oppression of German Jewry, and to assist their emigration from Europe.

To the shame of the FDR administration and participating countries, the conference ended without offering the slightest aid to the Jews. The twisted minds in Germany planning to unleash unimaginable horrors understood that the nations of the world would not stand in their way. That was the green light Hitler was waiting for.

* * *

The Dinslaken Jewish Orphanage—A Spiritual Hub

The Jewish orphanage in Dinslaken, Germany was run by Dr. Leopold Rothschild, who had moved with his family from in 1913 to head the facility. “We lived together with all the children of the orphanage as a kind of extended family,” R’ Leopold’s son, Pinchas Rothschild, recalled in his memoirs.

He described how the orphanage became a religious and spiritual hub, with prayers conducted every morning, attended by the children, their teachers and Jews in the city. R’ Leopold taught a Gemora class and children from outside the orphanage were welcome to join these lessons. There was a large courtyard, a garden and orchard behind the building, and Jewish children from Dinslaken would come there to learn and play.

The economic crisis of the late 1920s and the political rise of the Nazis brought to the facility an influx of children who were not orphans, but whose parents were undergoing personal or financial hardships and could not care for their children.

One of these children was 8 year-old Baruch Tor (Turteltaub) who arrived at the orphanage in 1934 together with his two brothers, Yosef and Meir. His mother, Leah, had been hospitalized and his father, Yitzchok, remained in their home in Dortmund with Baruch’s older sister Rozi. In his reminiscences, Baruch recalled the orphanage as a warm, homey place where the children were well-treated.

Yitzchok Herz, a teacher at the children’s home and its director from September 1938, documented the events surrounding Kritstallnacht in great detail. On the morning of November 10, 1938, Herz wrote in a Yad Vashem testimonial, a policeman and two Gestapo agents arrived at the home. The policeman informed Herz about the riots in the city, and one of the Gestapo men ordered Herz to ensure that no one left the home before 10:00 a.m.  There were 32 children staying at the orphanage at the time.

At 9:30, some fifty rabble-rousers arrived at the children’s home and started to vandalize it.  Windows were smashed, furniture overturned, and books and personal belongings strewn in every direction. Herz and his wife hurriedly evacuated the children, petitioning the local police for assistance against the mob.

Herz recalled the Dinslaken police captain informing him, “Jews do not get protection from us! Vacate the area together with your children as quickly as possible!”   As the mob grew in numbers, the panicked children fled the building without hats or coats. After ransacking the orphanage, the barbarians set fire to the orphanage’s shul, the Dinslaken synagogue and many Jewish homes in the city.

As the violence continued, the children were led on a humiliating procession through the city streets, eventually ending up in an abandoned barn on a farm, while Herz conducted frantic negotiations to transfer them to a place of safety. He succeeded in getting them to the nearby city of Koln. From there, Herz and other askonim arranged their immigration to Belgium and Holland.

Herz himself managed to flee Germany in late July 1939, eventually reaching Belfast, Ireland, and ultimately, Australia.

Baruch Turteltaub, who was now 12, recalled the terrifying events of Kristallnacht in a Yad Vashem transcript, beginning with the reaction of the children when the orphanage was attacked.

“We had just finished shacharis when we heard loud noises and screams,” he recalled. “We were rushed outside to the courtyard where we stood trembling and sobbing in the pouring rain, listening to the sounds of things being violently smashed… In the afternoon, they took us to some farm and put us in an abandoned cowshed with straw on the floor. Our teachers managed to find us something to eat… We had to stay there for a few days… at night we slept on the straw…”

Baruch made it to Holland in January 1939 together with his brother, Meir.  Their older brother, Yosef, had already left the orphanage before the November pogrom and was studying in a Yeshivah in Frankfurt. Baruch was the only member of his family to survive the Holocaust.  His parents, sister and brothers were all murdered.

As far as could be determined, about half of the children living at the Dinslaken orphanage at the time of Kristallnacht survived, most of them emigrating to Israel after the war.  –Yad Vashem Archives

* * *

Was Kristallnacht About Broken Glass?

The term, “Kristallnacht” –Night of Broken Glass—which originated with the Nazis, highlights the “broken glass” as if the pogrom of Nov. 9-10 was all about shattered storefronts and window panes. The word conveys almost nothing about the monstrous events that marked those days.

The Nazis, expert at using language to downplay and obfuscate the evil they perpetrated, coined a sanitized word that has an almost poetic ring to it.

The German word “kristall” refers to expensive luxury glass, and Nazi propagandists used the term to suggest that it was largely Jewish wealth—symbolized by fine crystal-ware—that was targeted during the “Night of the People’s Indignation,” as the Nazis justified the attacks on the Jews.

“Night of Broken Glass” hides the bloody nature and scope of the genocidal aktion that murdered and assaulted thousands of people, uprooted countless lives and wreaked utter destruction on religious and cultural institutions across the country.

The defining image captured in memoirs by most survivors of the November pogrom was not the shattering of glass, but the smashing of doors and furniture in private homes, of knife-shredded bedding, of public humiliation, violent physical abuse and cold-blooded murder. Mattresses thrown out of windows, innocent people brutally hurled out with them. Schools and orphanages ransacked. Shuls across the country burned and desecrated.

The death toll of 91 usually cited for the November attacks also comes from Nazi sources and is dismissed by many historians as unreliable. Some place the number in the thousands, to include elderly Jews from all over Germany and Austria who were sent to Buchenwald, Dachau, or Sachsenhausen and perished under the brutality there.

Most of the incarcerated were eventually released upon producing evidence they would leave the country permanently within a month. The broken and battered prisoners and their families seized upon every possibility of procuring such “evidence,” even paying extravagant sums for false visas.

Kristallnacht served a dual purpose for the Nazis. In addition to escalating the persecutions against Jews and forcing their expulsion, it advanced the Nazi race for ammunitions in preparation for war by robbing the Jews of all their property and possessions.

Hitler’s plan was to plunder the Jews of all their assets, personal, corporate and communal, and to transfer that wealth to the armaments industry. In line with that goal, a thorough census of German Jewish assets had been completed in the preceding months and years, with a major percentage of those assets confiscated by the government through “Aryanization.”

Aftermath of Kristallnacht: Legalized Plunder

This policy of legalized plunder is critical to understanding how incredibly difficult it was for Jews to flee Nazi territory. An average of 20 documents were needed to escape; obtaining each one required heavy bribes. The German Jewish community was impoverished at this point, and few could afford the steep amounts required to emigrate—even had there been countries willing to open their doors.

Nonetheless, in contrast to the years prior to Kristallnacht, Jews were now frantic to leave Germany.

Nazi Madness author Thomas Karlauf quotes the following figures: “In January 1933, when Hitler first took power, about half a million Jews lived in Germany. By early March 1938 their numbers had fallen to 360,000. The Anschluss of March added another 190,000 Austrian Jews, of whom the vast majority lived in Vienna.

“Around 19,000 Jews left Germany in the first half of 1938,” writes Karlauf. “In the second half of the same year, and in spite of the failure of the Evian Conference in July to admit increased numbers of Jewish refugees, Jewish emigrants numbered 100,000 from Germany and a further 100,000 from Austria.”

Senior Nazi Hermann Goering was put in charge of robbing them on the way out. The plunder continued up until their very last step on German soil, survivors recount. Every last valuable was confiscated. Gold teeth were even extracted from Jews waiting to board ships out of Germany.

Nevertheless, compared to those left behind, these Jews were the lucky ones.



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