The Reich Pogroms of November 1938: The End of the Beginning and the Beginning of the End

Presented to the 25th annual conference for the World Federation of Jewish Child Survivors of the Holocaust and Descendants (WFJCSHD), Sunday, November 3, 2013

Seventy Five years ago this week, a series of pogroms took place in Germany, which by then included Austria. More than 1000 synagogues were burned, their pews destroyed, sacred Torah scrolls and holy books set aflame. More than 7,000 Jewish businesses were ransacked and 30,000 men age 16-60 were arrested and sent off to newly expanded German concentration camps, most especially, Dachau, Sachsenhausen and Buchenwald. These pogroms were given a fancy name Kristallnacht and it is by that name that they are best known.

A word about language: The Nazi used language deliberately, deliberately and deceptively. “Resettlement in the East” did not mean resettlement in the east. It meant deportation to death camps. “Executive Measures” was the way the Nazis referred to mass executions. They used one terms correctly: “The Final Solution to the Jewish Problem,” the annihilation of the Jews, all Jews, men, women and children was all too final.

Over the past 30 years the Germans have ceased to refer to Kristallnacht as Kristallnacht but as the Reich Pogroms of November 1938.Crystal is beautiful, Crystal is lovely, Crystal has a certain sound to it and a certain delicacy to it, the Reich’s pogroms tells a much deeper truth, sanctioned violence against the Jews.

A word about the synagogues in Germany: There is a researcher in Milwaukee Wisconsin, Perry Margolis who has gathered the historical record of German synagogues and their place within the city plans, their juxtaposition to the grand Cathedrals, the prominent Churches and the downtown landscape of German cities. One must understand the role of the synagogue in German national life to begin to understand what the burning of these structures meant not only to the Jews but to Germany as well..

There were 2200 synagogues in Germany for 525,000 Jews. I come from a community of Los Angeles which has 600,000 Jews, and may not have 200 synagogues. So the 525,000 Jews in Germany had two thousand two hundred synagogues and those synagogues became part of the public manifestation, the public presence of Jews in German society,

They were often built in triangulation with the Cathedral and the Protestant Churches to indicate that Germany was a pluralistic, multi religious community and the synagogues that were built were an expression of the great progress that the Jews had made within Germany. By building buildings of significance, Jews made their presence and their prominence manifest.

The first piece of Jewish property in the United States was not a synagogue, but a cemetery. Jews were commanded to own their cemeteries, they could rent any facility to be a synagogue, and in fact when Jews came to the New Amsterdam [which later became New York] one of the explicit restrictions imposed by Peter Stuyvesant when he accepted the Jewish community (under duress) was that they could not build houses of public worship and it took the Jews in what later became the United States, almost a century before they could build a synagogue. Even then it took a longer time for synagogues to make themselves manifest within the landscape of the city

So what the Nazis were doing that night was to essentially show the most physical, the most public way imaginable how far they were willing to go, what price they were willing to pay, to tear the Jewish community out of the fabric of Germany,

A word about the evolution of German policy: If you want to know about the first eight years of what we now call the Holocaust, you have to know three words.

  • Definition.
  • Expropriation -- which can also be called disemancipation, segregation, loss of civil rights and civil liberties, introduction of apartheid.
  • Concentration.

Hitler came to power with an antisemitic racist, and expansionist agenda. He told the world what he was going to do in his book Mein Kampf and in many public addresses. But there was a disconnect among his audience between what he said and what they believed he might do. He simply was not believed. Conservative political leaders presumed that once in power, the responsibility of office would force him to moderate. They would be there to guide him, to control him.

Parenthetically, Jews are sometimes wise to take threats seriously, and promises lightly.

Hitler said what he was going to do, and the rest of German policy as it evolved from 1933 onward was to pursue the two goals, the racial policy: to establish the supremacy of the master race, and the expansionist policy, to give Germany, lebensraum--living space for Germany to be able to breathe, prosper and expand.

Anti Jewish policies happened in a series of waves. Hitler came to power on January 30, 1933 The first attack was on Germany's political institutions, the burning of the Reichstag and then the enabling legislation that suspended parliamentary rule and gave Hitler dictatorial powers. On March 22nd the first concentration camp was established in Dachau, and on April 1, 1933, the first attack against Jews. – the boycott.

The first attack against Jews was economic. It is the boycott of Jewish businesses followed seven days later by the expulsion of Jews from the civil service, which included teachers in high schools, professors in the universities, doctors and nurses who worked in hospitals, lawyers and judges as well as ordinary civil servants.

And on May 10, on Hitler's 100th day in office, books were burned that were Un- Germanic, primarily Jewish, but not only Jewish. Freud and Einstein but also Jack London and Helene Keller. A century earlier the great German writer of Jewish origin, Heinrich Heine had said, ”People who burn books ultimately burn people.”

The distance between book burning and people burning was eight short years. But an awful lot of policies.

At that point anti-Jewish policy froze for a while. And the “new normal” came into being. The “new normal” was that you lived in insecurity not knowing if things were going to get worse or get better or would be stabilized.The new normal was a life of enormous insecurity,

There is a bitter ironic joke about Jewish reactions to Nazi Germany: “The pessimists left, the optimists died. “

If you believed the situation was terrible and was only going to get worse, you took the type of steps you had to take to leave, and if you believed t situation couldn't get much worse and would be stabilized, and you could endure this, then you stayed; ultimately you didn't leave and died. Ironically, the opposite was true of rescue: “The pessimists said nothing could be done, and nothing was done, The optimists said we have to do something – anything -- and they were regarded as mad.

Until the outbreak of war, German policy was designed to force the Jews to emigrate: if German national policy and the behavior of ordinary makes life difficult for the Jews, they will leave. If you want to understand immigration, you can grasp its essence in two word: Push—Pull.

You push – force -- people out of where they are or you pull them, you attract them, to somewhere else. In my own country I often say that if you want to solve the immigration problem in the United States in one minute all you have to do is raise Mexico's standard of living to be above that in the United States. or depress the economic picture in the United States below the standards of Mexico, and no one will feel the opportunity, the pull to the United States.

The idea in Germany was that if we make it impossible for Jews to live as Jews, they will leave, And 30,000 Jews left in the first months that Hitler came to power. Sadly some returned after a time and some just did not go far enough. They came again under German domination when the Wehrmacht invaded Western Europe in 1940.

Let me illustrate these circumstances with a story about Rudy Boschowitz who was the Senator from Minnesota. He said, "My father was the smartest man in the world.” I don’t normally disagree with a Senator, but I said, most of us believe that when we are children and then we outgrow this belief at about 12 years of age.

He responded, “Let me prove it.” What did my father say? He said that “if that bastard Hitler ever comes to power, I'm leaving. Hitler came to power on January 30, 1933, and my family left Germany within days. We were able to ship out all of our possessions, He was able to sell our home, sell his business, and take all of our cash out with no restrictions on economic transactions.”

“Now tell me my father wasn't very smart!”

In 1935 they defined Jews biologically based on the religion of their grandparents. This created the bizarre situation: Roman Catholic priests and nuns, Protestant Ministers and theologians were all defined by the state as Jews. They also created a peculiar anomaly by which that church was fighting the state but primarily over those people of Jewish origin whom they regarded as Christian because they been Baptized but Churches did not raise the larger issue about the general policy of discrimination and antisemitism

Anti-Jewish policy stopped for a time in 1936 when the Olympics came to town. Graffiti was removed, segregated benches were covered and the Nazis were instructed to be on good behavior. And some of you remember the great story of the Olympics and Jesse Owens winning four Gold Medals, But you don't know the story Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller.

Marty Glickman was an 18 year old Jewish runner from New York University and Sam Stoller was 19 year old boy who was also a runner. And they were set to run for the United States in the 400 meter relay. And Avery Brundage benched them because it was less of an affront to Hitler to have a black win the Gold Medal than two Jewish boys being two of the four Americans who won. And the man who benched him was Avery Brundage, who after the Israeli athletes were murdered in Munich in 1972 then as President of the International Olympic Committee said, 'The games must go on."

Let's talk for a moment about the synagogue.

But before we do, I want to establish a principle often overlooked in Holocaust history. Just because Jews were powerless, it did not mean they were passive.

Let me repeat that: Just because the Jews were powerless, that does not mean they were passive.

How did the German synagogue function under Nazism?

On Monday it became a theatre because Jewish actors could not perform on the German stage. On Tuesday it became a symphony hall as Jewish musicians were dismissed from German orchestras. On Wednesday it became an opera house, because Opera Singers needed a place to earn a living. During the day, the synagogue served as a school, for Jewish children expelled from German schools. Their teachers were often professors, writers and artists struggling to survive in a new world. The art teacher might be a world class artist; the music instructor, a concert pianist. The Jewish school was the safest place for a Jewish child; yet the most dangerous part of the students day was walking to and from school. Harassment was routine, bullying was accepted, violence was sanctioned. Teachers turned their back even when they did not overly encourage the violence.

On Monday morning the synagogue became the place for the distribution of of welfare. On Monday Tuesday and Wednesday, classes were convened in the synagogue teaching Jews mobile professions because the best way to survive, the best way to leave is if you had a mobile profession so that you can earn a living in the country to which you must immigrate.

What is a mobile profession? Plumbers, electricians, and agricultural workers are mobile professions. Doctors and lawyers are not. Bookeepers are mobile, but not accountants whose skill often depends on their knowledge of the tax laws. Even nursing is a mobile profession, Doctors are not because of the licensing requirements are cumbersome. Architects are a mobile profession. so to are musicians but writers certainly are not. We learned in Hollywood that movie makers were mobile, camera men, directors and editors, soundmen and even actors.

Synagogues were a training center for a generation en route to exile. The problem was not that Jewish did not want to leave. Their problem was that there was no where to go, at least not in numbers sufficient to absorb so large a population.

The synagogue was also a place where you taught people who didn’t know what it really was to be Jewish. What this tradition is all about. It is somehow easier to know why you suffering and for what purpose than to be ignorant of that past.

The great Jewish philosopher Martin Buber stayed until 1938, until almost the very end, because he had founded an institute for Adult Jewish Studies to try to give people inner resources with which to face extreme degradation and humiliation that lie ahead He tried to give them the spiritual capacity to wear the Jewish star with pride.

The synagogue remained a place where prayers were recited, but prayers took on a new meaning, a new urgency.

Two stories.

Rabbi Leo Baeck wanted to teach the Jews how to respond to the life they were living. He composed a prayer for Yom Kippur 1935, which was read in synagogues throughout Germany. He had to be careful in what he said or he could be arrested. So listen to what the prayer he wrote. It was a copy of Aleynu, “We bow our heads and bend our knees before the King of the King of Kings, the Holy One Blessed be He.” And he added the words, but we stand erect before man.”

“We bow before God but we stand erect before man,” which is a way to tell the community on the most scared of Jewish nights that that part of being a Jew is to stand against the idolatry that they were experiencing all around them.

Rabbi Joachim Prinz, who was one of the last rabbis in Berlin, who was the last speaker before Martin Luther King, Jr, gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, was prohibited from preaching in 1937, At that point prayer was still permitted, people could still assemble for prayer. He asked the Gestapo officer: “Can I lead my Congregation in prayer?” And the Gestapo said, “Of course you can lead your congregation in prayer,” So he read them a line that traditional Jews read three times a day, in the recitation after the amida, the shmoneh esrei, and the line sounds very different and there are people here who have prayed it thousands of times, but never paid real attention to it, He had his congregation read it again and again in Hebrew, not a language the Gestapo could understand: “ve chol a choshvim olay ra’ah, meheyra hofer atzotam ve kalkel maschshevotam “And all who plan evil against me, quickly annul their counsel and frustrate their intentions.” In other words, “Let God confuse our oppressors.”

The congregation read it; they read it again, and they read it again and again. because it was sinking into them as they understood what the translation was in the siddur, what it translated into in Germany, what it, said. The only ones who didn’t get it were the ones who couldn't follow the transition from Hebrew into German.

The Event Itself:

On the evening of November 9, 1938, anti-Jewish violence erupted throughout the Reich, which since March included Austria. The outburst appeared to be a spontaneous eruption of national anger at the assassination of a minor German embassy official in Paris by a seventeen year-old Jewish youth, Herschel Grynszpan. However, the violence was in fact choreographed in detail. On October 28, Polish Jews living in Germany were expelled from the country. They were not admitted to Poland as the Polish Foreign Ministry invalidated their passports effective October 29th. They were forced to live under desperate conditions in no-man's land in the border town of Zbnszyn. On November 3rd, Herschel's received a postcard from his sister Berta describing the family's plight. He was pushed over the edge.

The assassination was the pretext for what was to follow. There had been previous assassinations, even assassinations by Jews and not had resulted in such a massive response.

At 11:55 on the evening of November 9th, Gestapo Chief Heinrich Mueller sent a telegram to all police units: "In shortest order, actions against Jews and especially their synagogues will take place in all Germany. These are not to be interfered with...." Bystanders to the violence, the police were to arrest its victims. Fire companies were instructed to stand by not to protect the synagogues, but to ensure that the flames did not spread to adjacent Aryan property.

Within 48 hours, more than 1000 synagogues were burned, along with their Torah scrolls, Bibles, and prayer books; 30,000 Jews were arrested and sent to concentration camps, 7,000 businesses were smashed and looted, and 236 Jews were killed. Jewish cemeteries, hospitals, schools, and homes were destroyed.

Hour after hour the pace of the pogrom intensified, minute by minute the damage toll increased. No Jewish institution or business or home was safe. The terror directed at the Jews was often not the action of strangers but neighbors.

In the aftermath of Kristallnacht, the Jews in Germany were left without their synagogues. Many had lost their businesses and their homes. The concentration camps of Buchenwald, Dachau and Sachsenhausen were overflowing with new Jewish inmates.

As the fury subsided, the pogrom was given a fancy name: "Kristallnacht" -- Crystal Night.

Most Jews were without illusions. Jewish life in the Reich was no longer possible. Many committed suicide. Most desperately tried to leave. Unwanted at home, Jews had only a few havens abroad. They could not stay. They had no where to go!

Germans too had learned important lessons. Because of the bourgeois sensibilities of the urbanized Germans, many opposed the events of Kristallnacht. The sloppiness of the pogroms and the explosive violence of the SA, were soon replaced by the cold, calculated, disciplined and controlled violence of the SS. They would dispose of the Jews out of the view of most Germans.

On November 12, 1938, Fieldmarshall Goering, convened a meeting of Nazi officials to deal with the problems that resulted from Kristallnacht. Historians are fortunate that the stenographic records of that meeting survived, for few documents reveal more candidly and more directly German policy toward the Jews at this transitional moment. Joseph Goebells, a Ph.D. from Heidelberg, and now Minister for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda attended the meeting. Several Ministries had urgent matters including Justice and Economic matters and one industry had much at stake in the outcome of the meeting -- the Insurance Industry which stood to lose huge sums of money if it were to pay claims from those whose property had been destroyed.

Goering was clearly disturbed by the damage of the two day rampage -- not to Jewish shops, homes or synagogues but to the German economy. It's insane to burn a Jewish warehouse and then have a German insurance company pay for the loss, he said. We suffer, not the Jews.

The idea was introduced to solve the Jewish problem once and for all, but in 1938, its meaning was in economic terms. Only later by 1941 would the language be genocidal.

Notice the concern for legality, for maintaining the stability of the economy. Thus, while the economic elimination of the Jews cannot be done all at once, the direction of policy is clear. Jews are to disappear from German economic life. When concerns are raised about foreign Jews, the Foreign Ministry expresses interest, not willing to surrender its authority or preeminence. They concerns are assuaged by not fully satisfied.

They will be consulted only for important cases, but not for every case.

There was much give and take at the meeting and some brain storming. Several concrete results are achieved, all economically lethal to the Jews. The community will be fined 1 billion reichmarks; Jews will be responsible for cleaning up their losses, they will be barred form collecting insurance.

Apartheid is introduced. Jews barred form theaters; they are travel on separate compartments on trains, they will be denied entry to German schools and parks; by January 1, 1939 Jews are forbidden to operate retail trades.

Concern is expressed for those who looted; the booty in furs and jewels belongs to the State, not to individuals. And in the end Goering expresses regrets over the whole messy business. "I wish you had killed 200 Jews and not destroyed such value." He concludes on a note of irony. "I would not like to be a Jew in Germany!"

By a series of policy decisions, the Nazi transformed Kristallnacht into a program eliminating Jews from the German Economic life.

*The perpetrators were not to be prosecuted. They had "no ignoble motives for their excesses."

*Rubble of ruined synagogue had to be cleared by the community. Jewish compensation claims were confiscated by the Reich and Jewish property owners were forced to repair their property.

*Jews of German nationality could not file for damages. A collective fine of one billion Reichsmark fine ($400,000,000) was imposed on the Jewish community.

On November 15th, Jews were barred from schools. Two weeks later, authorities were given the right to impose a curfew. By December, Jews were denied access to most public places. By January, all Jewish men had to adopt the middle name of Israel; all Jewish women, Sarah.

The November pogroms were the last occasion for street violence against Jews in Germany. While Jews could leave their homes without fear of attack, a lethal process of destruction which was more effective and more virulent was set in place.

The Jews that were arrested and sent to concentration camps were the “lucky ones.” At that time, if they could get a visa to leave the country, they could be released from the concentration camp. And Jewish women, mothers for their sons, wives for their husbands, sisters for their brothers, friends for friends, left no stone unturned to get their men released. It was no longer a question of whether to leave or when to leave, but only how to leave and no price was too steep to pay.

Let now turn our attention to the American reaction:

Let me remind everyone there was a great quipster on Jewish life by the name of Milton Hummelfarb. Himmelfarb gave us two memorable lines “Jews live like Episcopalians but they vote like Puerto Ricans,” and the second line, which was equally important, was “The easiest way to get booed by a Jewish audience was to tell them that antisemitisim is really less of a problem than they think it is.

The easiest way to get booed in my field by an American Jewish audience is to tell them that FDR is not as bad as they think he was.

When Roosevelt came to power in 1933 he had one and only one goal, to get America back to work again after the Depression, Unemployment was 28 percent the gross national product was had declined by 40%, people were starving in the streets and the only thing he wanted to do was to put America back to work. And consequently he used all his political energy for that and paid little attention to the rise of Adolph Hitler and his policies against the Jews. He did not, could not and would not press Congress on refugees when other-- in his mind more important -- interests were at stake. And then only in 1936, after he was reelected could he begin to use some energy to concern himself with the Jewish problem. In 1938, he convened but did not attend the Evian Conference, which he thought might give the world a solution to the global Jewish refugee problem.

In 1939 Roosevelt was reticent to do anything about the Jews, because of two thing ranked much higher on his agenda. He understood that he would have to bring the US into the war, and to do so he would have to run for a Third Term as President, something that every President from George Washington onward, did not do.

In 1942-43, when the Jews needed Roosevelt the most, he was preoccupied with winning the war, which didn’t look likely, and in 1944,when he finally had the capacity to to do something about the Jews, he himself was in declining health and had to conserve his energy so that he could set the world up for the post World War II era, which he was not going to live to see. So his priorities, important as they were and the Jewish emergencies, essential as it was were like ships passing through the night.

The American response to the 1938 pogroms was interesting, in fact damned near fascinating. By 1938 America understood and had embodied the value of freedom of religion. No other event garnered such universal condemnation. From the extreme right to the extreme left, triggered such a reaction Catholic and Protestant and every form of denomination everyone condemned Kristallnacht. If you are setting a synagogue up in smoke, you are destroying freedom of religion. 90 % of American opposed Kristallnacht, the Evangelicals were against Kritallnacht. FDR called the ambassador home, the most powerful response of any of the leaders, but he didn't sever diplomatic relations. He held a blistering news conference. But public opinion on the issue of immigration did not move by more than 3%.

It was as if they said: We hate what they were doing, but we don't want them here. They can't take American jobs. We despise what has happened, but but that doesn’t mean our policy has to change

What was the response of the Jewish community in Germany and Austria? The response was very simply in the words of Henry Kissinger, whose family fled. “In my family's case it took no foresight, merely opportunity.” You didn’t need to be very smart to know you had to leave. You merely had to find a place to go, anywhere to go to get out and wanted to pay those consequences which meant loss and dislocation the movement beyond certainty and the life of a refugee and the like.

Some Jews were so certain that events were only going to get worse that they sent their children to England, into the arms of strangers, on what became known as the Kindertransport. Ten thousand Jewish children were sent to England, many never saw their parents again. they wanted them to survive. No parent under normal circumstances would give their child to an unknown person, to raise them unless they understood how dire their circumstances were. They loved their children so much that they were willing to give them up.

An effort to bring 20,000 children to the United States led by Senator Robert Wagner and Congresswoman Edith Rogers failed. The Congress feared that children would grow up and take American jobs.

By attacking the synagogue, the Nazis were attacking not only the heart and soul of the Jewish community, they were also attacking the institution that had responded to the catastrophe. and responded to the catastrophe by a transformation. The Nazis deprived Jews of anything roughly resembling a public life or a communal life. And they violently ripped them them out of the presence of German society.

So tonight we remember.

So tonight we remember with pride the role of the synagogue and the prominence of the synagogue in German society

We remember the cruelty that was inflicted this night 75 years ago

We remember the bystanders who watched the synagogues burn and who brought their kids to watch the synagogues burn.

We remember the outrage of the world that did not translate into doing something serious about the situation.

We remember the courage of the Jews who understood they had to get out and that got out, and the despair of the Jews who knew they had to get out and couldn’t find a place to go,

And we remember sadly that this was only the beginning the beginning of the end.