Rare Photographs Capture Perpetrators Up Close
Another Kristallnacht anniversary has passed. Only a handful of Holocaust survivors and eyewitnesses are alive today who still recall the terrifying pogrom unleashed against Jews all over Germany and Austria on Nov. 9-10, 1938.
84 years later, as living memories fade, the horror remains frozen in time in the searing images captured on film and in the memoirs of Kristallnacht survivors.
Rarely seen photographs accompanying a fresh spate of media articles about the pogrom capture some of the perpetrators up close—a sight that sickens. Barbarians in uniform wearing SS armbands are seen on film pouring kerosene across the interior of a shul before it bursts into flame. Others are using hammers or axes to smash seforim shranks and still others are seen with armloads of sifrei kodesh, wearing proud smirks as they pose for the camera before carting off their plunder.
“Ordinary” Germans can be seen in some of the photographs participating in the violence. Some are simply standing by, wearing expressions of curiosity or indifference as windows are hacked to smithereens and shuls burn down.
Some of the photographs capture images of Jewish victims with bruised faces and ripped clothing.
The genocidal aktion targeted Jewish places of worship all across Germany and Austria. Over 1400 shuls were desecrated and set ablaze. Mobs broke down doors and fought their way into some seven thousand Jewish shops and private homes, where they murdered and assaulted people and demolished everything in sight.
The violence and torching of shuls and homes continued into the next day, as German police and firemen heeded orders not to intervene.
More Lethal Than Broken Glass
The defining image captured in the memoirs of many survivors of the November pogrom was not the shattering of storefront glass as suggested by the word “Kristallnacht.” It was something far more lethal and soul-destroying.
Survivors speak of the sound and sight of violent thugs smashing doors and furniture in private homes, of knife-shredded bedding, of public humiliation, violent physical abuse and cold-blooded murder.
The enduring images are of mattresses thrown out of windows, innocent people brutally hurled out with them….schools and orphanages ransacked… traumatized children… 30,000 men dragged off at gunpoint or knifepoint to concentration camps.
As British historian Martin Gilbert details in his book, The Holocaust, “Bonfires were lit in every neighborhood where Jews lived, and Jewish property torched. In thousands of streets, Jews were chased, reviled and beaten up. … No village in which Jews still lived was immune from the destruction.”
According to Gilbert, an eyewitness recounted that sixty-two arrested Jews, including two rabbis, were escorted by the police to Sachenhausen concentration camp and handed over to an SS unit. “The Jews were then forced to run a gauntlet of spades, clubs and whips. Twelve of the sixty-two didn’t survive the gauntlet beating, while the rest lay unconscious, some missing eyes, others facially unrecognizable.”
The World Gives A Green Light
The Kristallnacht riots had been meticulously planned by Nazi officials led by Hitler’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, historians attest. The pogrom was kept waiting in the wings until the Nazis felt confident that Germany would suffer no serious international backlash from the atrocity.
That assurance came with the 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. The conference ended without offering the slightest aid to the Jews, signaling to Hitler that he could proceed.
A key part of the scheme behind Kristallnacht was to have the violence staged as a “spontaneous” eruption of ordinary Germans, concealing its orchestration by the government. The shooting of a German official in the German embassy in Paris by a Polish Jewish teenager gave Hitler the lighted match he was looking for.
17-year old Herschel Grynszpan had learned days earlier that his parents had been among thousands of Polish Jews who were expelled from Germany, after Poland cancelled their citizenship. The Hitler regime had then deported 16,000 of these Jews at a few hours’ notice, dumping 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 news that his parents were among the victims of expulsion pushed the unstable Grynszpan over the edge.
The Nazis were set to ratchet up their assault on German Jewry to a new level—a coordinated string of violent attacks across the length and breadth of Germany and its territories. All that was needed was a ‘provocation’ that could be used to cast the violence as a grassroots eruption against the Jews. The gunning down of a German diplomat by Grynszpan presented the perfect context.
Fueled by alcohol, their anti-Semitic passions inflamed by Goebbels’ lurid accounts of the killing, German storm troopers and mob elements launched a spree of physical assault and destruction.
Humiliation and Torture
Karl Rosenthal, a reform rabbi in Berlin, recounted the repeated humiliations to which prisoners were subjected in Dachau, where the majority of men arrested during Kristallnacht were interned. 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.”
“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,” wrote Rosenthal in his memoirs.
“Some of the 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,” the memoir recounted.
Rosenthal eventually secured his release by showing proof he had obtained emigration papers. 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 were reunited with Rosenthal.
Jewish attorney Rudolf Bing recounted in his memoirs 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.”
There was a common misconception at the time that the Kristallnacht pogrom of 1938 and its aftermath marked the very height of Nazi barbarism—that things had to get better because they couldn’t possibly get worse.
In fact, the aforementioned events were but a faint foreshadowing of the horrors to come.
Topography of Terror
While Kristallnacht marked a violent turning point in Nazi Germany’s escalating assault on the Jews, historic documentation makes it clear that the aktion was in no way the starting point of the Holocaust, as frequently claimed.
Kristallnacht was actually the culmination of a methodical plan set in motion after Hitler came to power, to systematically plunder, isolate, humiliate, and destroy all of Germany Jewry, argues Professor Andreas Nachama in Berlin 1933-1945, Between Propaganda and Terror.
Prof. Nachama, who served for 25 years as the director of the Berlin Holocaust museum, Topography of Terror, documents the earliest stages of Nazi terror after Hitler’s appointment as chancellor of Germany in 1933.
While the outbreak of World War II took place in 1938, a war against the Jews was launched as soon as Hitler and the Nazi party took power, the historian asserts.
“1933 was a turning point year in every respect for the Jewish population of Germany,” Nachama writes. “Jews were first systematically deprived of their livelihoods; in subsequent years they were downgraded to ‘non-persons’ and ‘non- humans.’ Drastic reprisals and terror destroyed the psychological foundations of the Jewish population.”
Immediately following Hitler’s rise to power in Jan. of 1933, the expulsion of the Jews began in all parts of the economic and social sectors,” the book goes on to detail. “By the end of March 1933, the SA [forerunners of the SS and Gestapo] in the Berlin district was carrying out arbitrary raids in which Jewish citizens were robbed, arrested and locked up in violently run concentration camps.”
The terror measures of the early Nazi dictatorship continued to mount in the months immediately following, with outbreaks of Jewish book-burnings and national boycotts of Jewish businesses, department stores, attorneys’ and doctors’ offices.
Nazi thugs would position themselves in front of Jewish businesses, coercing the owners into a ‘voluntary’ closure of the stores,” the historian writes.
State-legalized plunder of Jews began in the middle of July 1933, with the passing of the law revoking German citizenship for Jews who had been naturalized. The law was soon used as an effective tool to plunder all Jewish immigrants.
A program of “Aryanization,” expropriation of property legalized under the Nuremberg laws of 1935, had gradually robbed German Jews of almost all their assets, reducing the community to poverty and starvation.
Stripped of Civil Rights
The Nuremberg Laws of 1935 also cancelled the Jews’ citizenship, rendering German Jews stateless refugees, stripped of all civil rights in their native country.
“Today, in accordance with the new laws adopted last night by the Reichstag after a message from Reichsfuehrer Hitler, a half million Jews become deprived of political rights,” began a JTA article on September 17, 1935.
With the stripping of citizenship on top of other systematic tools of oppression, thousands of Jewish businessmen, art collectors and merchandise dealers were marginalized and boycotted. They faced total ruin, with resistance of any sort punished by severe reprisals.
Fearing for their lives and those of their family, they were forced to liquidate their businesses for sums far below their value, restitution lawyers of this period attest. Desperate to raise the exorbitant funds mandated by the regime for legal exit out of the country, countless German Jews signed away immensely valuable pieces of property for a pittance.
Years later, as survivors and their heirs sought, under the Washington Principles of 1998, to retrieve property they had been forced to liquidate at massively lowered prices, they met a wall of resistance from the German holders of the property.
A public mindset had taken hold in Germany that had essentially erased the years of Nazi terror and oppression preceding Kristallnacht.
In response to lawsuits that argued that Jewish sales of property during the early Hitler period were coerced and should be considered invalid, German holders of the property countered that until Kristallnacht, the political situation of German Jews was relatively benign. Sales of property must therefore be considered valid, they said.
The falsification of history implicit in this position is mirrored in the many press reports in our own day describing Kristallnacht as “the starting point of the Holocaust.” This myth collapses, however, under the weight of compelling historical documentation, as a close look at news articles of the period demonstrates. A sample of such news coverage follows below.
‘Fears Stalks Jewish Homes…’
In one Holocaust-era report dated October 8, 1933, a JTA article quotes from reports by journalists Weymouth Hogue and Wallace Deuel, correspondents for The Chicago Tribune and Chicago Daily News, respectively.
“Fear stalks the homes of Jews in Germany—fear that a storm of terror is about to break over their heads,” wrote the JTA. (Hitler had been appointed chancellor in January of that year.)
“The assembling of a large number of veteran Nazis in Dresden has aroused especially grave apprehensions among the Jews,” Deuel’s dispatch says. “Jews note the presence of Julius Streicher, most rabid Jew-baiter of the third Reich after Reichsfuehrer Hitler himself, and wonder what his presence may signify.”
The article goes on to note “the increase in virulence” of public hate speech against Jews by Hitler and other party leaders that may presage “a new reign of terror.”
“Even should no new outbursts of violence against the Jews develop, the steady, remorseless campaign to destroy them continues,” the Tribune article attests. “Even in cases where the law leaves them relatively unmolested, private [acts of] revenge and random terror incited by leaders from Hitler down, apply merciless pressure.”
“Persecution is worst of all in the smaller towns,” Deuel reported in the Chicago Daily News. Jewish businessmen are bankrupted. They are attacked in the street. Their children are beaten by their playmates. Their women are insulted.”
Scenes From Nuremberg
Weymouth Hogue, the Tribune’s representative, describes in his report the boycott of Jewish shops in Nuremberg during the recent Nazi party congress there. He notes that the people cheering on the anti-Jewish picketers appeared to be well-dressed, middle class Germans and that “in most places, women were the ringleaders.”
“Jewish shops were picketed and boycotted in Nuremberg while crowds applauded the picketers,” Hogue reported. “Heavy-boned, big-fisted youths stood guard in the doorways of Jewish shops on Nuremberg’s main street… “I walked into several of these shops despite the threats of mobs, although they gave me gooseflesh.
“Packs of civilians who evidently had been lying in ambush, gathered around as if by a prearranged signal, gesturing menacingly,” the journalist continued.
“Before their fists strike me, though, I threw out just one word, ‘Foreigner!’ as I gazed squarely at the would-be assailants. They drew back. They had apparently been instructed to avoid clashes with foreigners and target Jews only.”
Campaign To Starve German Jews
“Reports today indicate that the campaign to deprive Jews of food is progressing not only in the provinces, but is reaching into Berlin as well, a September 15, 1935 JTA article reported.
The article went to describe that “Jewish grocers are being refused certain foodstuffs when they seek to obtain these from wholesalers and cooperative marketing societies. Butter and eggs, of which there is an acute shortage in Germany, are systematically being denied Jewish grocers.”
In addition, the article noted that according to a new Nazi order posted that day, “Jewish musicians may no longer be employed in hotels, restaurants or other public places owned by Aryans.”
“Speaking in Frankfurt-am-Main last night on the Jewish question, Hans Hinkel, Nazi commissar of Jewish cultural affairs,” had a message for German Jews, the JTA report continued.
The message is supremely ironic and also bizarre in the way Hinkel (accidentally or by design) invokes a slogan ascribed to leaders of the mid-nineteenth Haskalah movement: “Be a Jew at home and a man in the street.”
Hitler’s expert in Jewish cultural affairs called on German Jews to do exactly the opposite, the JTA noted: “The Nazi chieftain urged the Jews to honestly return to Judaism and not to be Jews only at home and shout ‘Heil Hitler’ in the streets.”
German Jews Lured Back to Germany in 1935
From burning books and buildings to ultimately burning bodies, the path to Nazi genocide was well planned but shrewdly concealed in the early years.
A 1935 article from the JTA Holocaust Archive reveals the astonishing and tragic fact that even as the noose was relentlessly tightening around German Jewry, many who had managed to leave the country were actually returning. These unfortunate souls walked straight into a death trap.
“Mass arrests of Jews throughout Germany started today on a widely organized scale, causing a new panic among German Jewry,” the article begins. “Those arrested were all Jews who returned from abroad, preferring to live under the Nazi regime rather than remain refugees in foreign countries.”
The report went on to explain that Jews who returned were lured by “reports spread abroad that the government intended to modify their anti-Jewish policy.” Hundreds fell for this ruse.
After submitting evidence that they had not withdrawn any of their capital and major assets from Germany, most of these refugees were granted special permits by the German consulates to return to Germany as citizens. (This was six months before the Nuremberg Laws stripped Jews of citizenship.)
German border officials waved the Jews across the border, the article reported. Arriving in Germany, these returnees “were seized in one of the first Nazi roundups and all were shipped to concentration camps,” the JTA article said.
Already in July, 1933, “Nazi authorities had published decrees authorizing the confiscation of property of Germans who had fled abroad, on the pretext that they had engaged in anti-Nazi propaganda” in their countries of residence,” the article noted.
Many of the returning Jews who were lured back to Germany only to be interned in camps had no idea the property they thought they were returning to had been confiscated, or was about to be. In cases where confiscation had not yet taken place, interned Jews were forced to put their signatures on a forced “sale” of their property to the Third Reich.
While some of the incarcerated Jews perished from severe abuse and starvation, others were eventually released upon producing evidence they would leave the country 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. End Sidebar One
Kristallnacht And The Nazi Race for Ammunitions
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 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.”
This policy of legalized plunder is critical to understanding how incredibly difficult it was for Jews to flee Nazi territory, historian note. 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.
In spite of the roadblocks, in contrast to the years prior to Kristallnacht, Jews were now frantic to leave Germany.
Thomas Karlauf, author of Nazi Madness, 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 historian said. The plunder continued up until their very last step on German soil. Gold teeth were even extracted from Jews waiting to board ships out of Germany, survivors recount.
Nevertheless, these Jews had escaped the Nazi death trap. They were the lucky ones.