Kristallnacht

I know that using the term ‘Kristallnacht’ is controversial nowadays, and the last thing I want to do is upset anyone affected (directly or indirectly) by the pogrom, but it’s what my Oma called it in her memoir and, in Britain at least, it’s the most commonly-recognised name for the events around the 9th-10th November 1938. I’ve spent the past few days trying to find out about my family’s personal experiences of those days. Predictably, I went down a lot of very depressing rabbit holes, reading and listening to the accounts of other people who lived near to my relatives. In the absence of details recorded by my family, I’ve managed to uncover some of the things they underwent based on the memories of those around them at the time.

The Beer Hall Putsch

In Munich, in 1923, Hitler and his followers had plotted a takeover of the Bavarian state government. The coup, beginning on 8th November 1923, had already failed by the 9th, and 16 Nazi party members were dead. It was this Putsch which earned Hitler a five year prison sentence (though he served less than a year), during which time he wrote the first volume of Mein Kampf. Ultimately, the failed takeover succeeded in granting the party national notoriety, and the dead party members came to be revered as martyrs. A decade later, in 1933 – this time through political manipulation rather than outright violence – Hitler became chancellor of Germany. Every year on 9th November Hitler and the Nazi party commemorated the Putsch with a ceremony to be observed across the Reich. In 1938, a 17 year old Jewish boy living in Paris, Herschel Grynszpan (on learning that his Polish parents, along with more than 12,000 others, had been deported from Germany) went to the German Embassy and shot the German diplomat Ernst vom Rath, who died from his wounds two days later on 9th November. This unfortunate event, coinciding with the neunte elfte (‘ninth of the eleventh’) rituals, gave Hitler the perfect opportunity to stage a pogrom across the Reich.

Berlin Schöneberg

In 1938 my Oma, Susanne, was living in a flat on Innsbrucker Straße in the Schöneberg district of Berlin, with her parents and younger brother. She wrote briefly about the Reichspogromnacht in her memoir. On the night of November 9th, she was woken suddenly by the sound of glass smashing. Her mother watched from the little balcony of their fifth-floor flat, as a car full of SS men went from one Jewish-owned shop to the next, smashing the windows with axes.

Susanne, aged 13, and her brother, who had turned 10 just a few days earlier, walked to school the next morning through the shards of broken glass, trying to pretend they didn’t see the violent slurs now painted on the battered shop-fronts.

Pedestrians glance at the broken windows of a Jewish owned shop in Berlin after the attacks of Kristallnacht, November 1938
Copyright: WHA UnitedArchives021276

At school Susanne joined a group of girls clustered around a corridor window. They were watching the smoke from the burning synagogue in the Prinzregententstraße billow above the Volkspark Wilmersdorf. She stood in horrified silence as one of her classmates observed how pleased she was with the events of the past night.

The rabbi of the Prinzregentenstraße synagogue, Manfred Swarsensky, gave a long interview in 1980 in which he described his experience of the pogrom. You can listen to a recording of him here and read the full transcript here.

The Prinzregentenstraße Synagogue, Berlin, on the morning of 10th November, https://www.bz-berlin.de/artikel-archiv/vor-75-jahren-brannten-synagogen-in-berlin

Until some time in 1939, Philipp, Susanne’s father, was still allowed to teach (as long as it was in a Jewish school). So I assume he went to his job at the Luise Zickel Schüle on 10th November 1938. There is very little information available about the school, so I don’t know whether it was directly affected by the pogrom, but there are accounts of other Jewish schools in Berlin being vandalised and attacked by Hitler Youth members. I can’t imagine that any Jewish school in Berlin was left completely alone, and at the very least Philipp would have spent the next few days surrounded by both children and staff who were traumatised and desperately afraid.

Because the family were ‘privileged’, and therefore not required to mark their property with the Star of David (and they had managed to achieve relative anonymity in the capital city) they and their property were not physically harmed during the events of the 1938 pogrom. They were, in comparison to many other Jewish families, very lucky. But it must have been sickening to realise that they could expect no protection from such attacks – that those who should protect them were, in fact, their persecutors.

Landau in der Pfalz

Meanwhile, in Landau, Tante Liesel and Onkel Fritz, his wife and children were living in the family house on the Marktplatz. There were 294 Jews living in Landau at the beginning of November 1938. The events of 9th-12th November are recorded in some detail in the book Juden in Landau – unless otherwise stated, most of the information below was taken from there.

The local Nazi party celebrations had begun in the Festhalle on the other side of the river Queich, before the ranks began a march around the Stadt. Various streets were renamed to honour the party that night, and the ceremony ended with new SS recruits being sworn-in just a couple of streets away from the Marktplatz. Could Liesel and Fritz hear the Nazis as they marched through the streets? Did they feel safe in the home they’d both been born and lived their whole lives in?

It wasn’t until the next night (10th November) that orders reached Landau from the Gestapo office in Neustadt for a pogrom to begin. After midnight on 10th November the synagogue, a beautiful 16 metre-high building with huge rosette windows, was doused in petrol and set alight. At 3am the SS troops were rallied and began to make their way around the town, arresting all Jewish men fit for work.

Like his brother Philipp, Fritz was married to an ‘Aryan’ woman, and their two children were baptised, so he should also have been treated as a ‘privileged’ Jew. However, as I’ve noted before, the extent to which this privilege actually protected Jewish men varied greatly from one area to the next, depending on the local Gauleiter. It must also have been easier for Philipp to be forgotten in Berlin than it was for Fritz in Landau, where everybody knew each other.

I don’t think I’ll ever come to terms with how high public support for the Nazis was in Landau. It just doesn’t fit with my experience of the beautiful town, and the kind, gentle people one meets there today. But it’s well documented that it wasn’t just the SS and SA men who destroyed and plundered the Jewish shops and homes of Landau; the civilians were quick to join the pogrom too.

Otto Brunner, a Jewish Landauer born in 1895, recalled hearing “a howling crowd penetrate [his] house, and the windows rattled, all of which were smashed on the first and second floors […] The carpets and sofas were cut, also all paintings, all mirrors smashed, including my piano and my violin, in the kitchen all cupboards with all porcelain dishes knocked over and of course everything was just a heap of rubble. On the second floor, some of the furniture was thrown out of the window”. Ernest Weil, born in Landau in 1924, similarly remembered hiding in the attic of his home with his mother, while people “came in the house, and destroyed whatever they could destroy”. It’s safe to assume that my family’s shop, and their house above it, just around the corner from Otto Brunner’s – and so clearly marked by the local government as Jewish on a town plan of 1933 – would not have escaped undamaged. Besides the mental (and quite possibly physical) effect I know that this must have had on my family, I can’t bear to think of the family heirlooms that must have been destroyed.

And these assailants were their neighbours – people they’d gone to school with as children, valued customers at their fabric shop, people they’d stop to chat with on the Platz. The looting did not relent until, at around 5pm on November 10th, the district management had vans with loudspeakers driven through Landau announcing that all actions against Jews must stop. For those Jews who had refused to believe that they might be unsafe in the place they’d always called home, November 1938 was a brutal wake-up call.

Fritz was arrested with the other Jewish men of Landau sometime probably in the night of 10th November. The official line of the Nazi party was that these men were being taken into ‘protective custody’, ‘for their own safety’. Fritz may have been detained in the judicial prison for a couple of nights first, or taken straight to the Jewish community prayer room at Schützengasse 4. Otto Brunner wrote about the eight days he spent crammed into that cold room with about 70 other men, with just a straw-covered floor to sleep on. Every night the SS men came “um ihr Mütchen … zu kühlen” (i.e. to vent their wrath, literally ‘to cool their hats’) by making the Jewish men balance religious objects on their heads and, when they failed at this, beating them. Two men died from this abuse.

The rest of the men were transported by train to Dachau, a concentration camp just outside of Munich. The horrendous conditions there, and the mistreatment of the men, are topics that deserve their own blog post (though I’m not sure I’ll ever be emotionally strong enough to write that), but you can read many testimonies of men who were imprisoned there at the same time as Fritz, including that of an anonymous man, and of Martin Anson from Landshut:

Meanwhile, the Jewish women, children and those men not fit to work, who had been not been arrested, were ordered to report to the train station at midday on November 11th. They had to bring their clothes, jewellery, money and important documents with them, which were, of course, almost all confiscated. It was the responsibility of the Jewish community to pay for the damages of the pogrom. The women were subjected to ‘physical examinations’ by SS-Stürmbannführer Friedrich Wimmer. I had never heard about the events of November 11th until I read it in the book, Juden in Landau, but Liesel must have been one of these women.

After this ordeal, when they were finally allowed to return to their wrecked homes and shops, the Jewish wives, mothers and sisters set about trying to obtain the release of their men from Dachau. Himmler had given clear orders that the prisoners were only to be freed on condition that “there was a guarantee that they would emigrate to Palestine or overseas”. I’m not sure how, or exactly when, Fritz (or perhaps his wife, Babette) eventually negotiated his release from Dachau. Perhaps he obtained a letter, or an affidavit, from his cousins in America confirming that they would support his emigration, although I’ve never found any evidence that Fritz tried to move his family out of Germany. More likely, his marriage to an ‘Aryan’ woman ensured his liberation, for the time being at least.

But Landau’s district leader, Wilfried Lämmel, was very clear about his intentions for Landau. On the evening of November 12th, when the process of blowing up the burned remains of the synagogue was underway, the party held a public rally opposite the destroyed temple. Lämmel reportedly praised those who had taken part in the pogrom, before announcing: “Landau was once the largest Jewish town in the Palatinate, the metropolis of Judaism in all of southern Germany […] Landau has been freed from the Jews and will be so for all the future”.

Map of Landau showing sites mentioned

When I first started seriously researching my family’s lives in Nazi Germany, one of the main questions I had was how my Oma’s father, Philipp, had managed to survive. The more I learnt about the different experiences of Philipp and his brother Fritz on Kristallnacht, the more I realised that their different living situations were key to their different fates. In Berlin, Philipp lived in a small apartment building, where all the other residents were ‘Aryan’, and he had no business or shop on which any demonstrations against him could be enacted. In Landau, Fritz lived in a large house on the main town square, above his shop which was known by all locals to be Jewish-owned. Although many intermarried Jewish men living in Berlin were murdered in the Holocaust, and Philipp did come close to being deported several times, for the most part he managed to live ‘under the radar’. Fritz, living in a small town where everybody knew each other, had no such chance.

Further Reading:

Kohl-Langer, C. et al. 2004. Juden in Landau: Beiträge zur Geschichte einer Minderheit. Landau: Stadt Landau in der Pfalz, Archiv und Museum


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