9 November 2013 is the 75th anniversary of an event referred to as “Kristallnacht” – an ironic and humourous (for him, at the time) reference by Josef Goebbels to the amount of broken glass on the streets of Germany in the aftermath. It was an event of state sponsored terrorism against a section of the German peoples. My father-in-law lived in Berlin at the time, He’s now 90. These are his memories:
When Herschel Grynszpan shot a comparatively unimportant diplomat at a German Embassy he could not imagine the consequences his action might provoke. It gave a perfect opportunity to the Nazi leadership to unleash what was basically a state-organised pogrom against the Jewish population,
Germany in 1938 was not a pleasant place for Jews to live in, but the point is they could still live there. Children still went to schools, albeit mainly Jewish schools, and those many Jews who found it very difficult, it not impossible to emigrate could still live as families and somehow hope that things would not get any worse.
We were one of these families. My parents had 5 children – four still at school or higher education – my father had no profession or job which would have qualified him for a job abroad. Various attempts at emigration had been unsuccessful.
I was a boy of 15 in 1938. I went to a small Jewish school in Berlin. The school was in a very run down small house in the Grunewald .Rather curiously it was next door to a palatial villa which was patrolled permanently by SS guards carrying rifles. Rumour had it this was Himmler’s residence. Our school was small, but we boys played football in the breaks and many a ball went over the fence into the neighbour’s garden. We always asked the guards to return the ball; they always did so. We were noisy and I suppose whatever high ranking Nazi lived there could have closed the school at any time. It remained open until Kristallnacht.
I do not recall – after all it was three quarters of a century ago – how I first learnt what happened during the night of 9th November. There probably was a telephone call from someone; a very guarded one because strong fear that telephone calls were being monitored.
I set off to school on my bicycle and as I rode down the Kurfuerstendamm I saw smashed shop fronts and realised they were all Jewish-owned shops. When I got to school one or two others arrived but no teachers and after a bit we went home. By that time my parents had heard a great deal more about the burnt synagogues, the smashed and looted shops and rumours about Jews being murdered.
My parents were terrified. My father had been arrested and imprisoned by the Nazis once before. Sensibly, they decided to run away. My mother was the director of the Jewish Nursery Teachers Academy which was situated in a quiet Street in the Grunewald. All the pupils were girls and the rumours of mass arrests taking place were all of men. It seemed this was safer than staying at home. We somehow got there, I always on my bicycle.
We stayed there for three or four days – did not leave the house and did not even go into the garden. By that time the immediate terror seemed to have quietened down a bit and I bicycled to our flat. The concierge saw me – came out and whispered to me: “Two gentlemen came and asked for your father”. We both knew what these men were.
Hundreds of synagogues had been burned. Many thousands of men had been arrested and were released only if they could prove that they were in the process of emigration. Goering proudly boasted he would not like to be a Jew in Germany.
One vicious measure followed another in the aftermath of Kristallnacht and every Jew in Germany had to realise the last hope for a life in Germany had gone. Before Kristallnacht I was part of a close family of two parents and four siblings living together as a family. Within 4 months of Kristallnacht there was no family living together. My parents had made the heartbreaking decision to part with their children via Kindertransport.
My overriding memory of the three or four days immediately connected to the 9th of November is fear. Before Kristallnacht viciously anti-Semitic rules were applied but they were rules. Kristallnacht demonstrated there were no more rules to protect Jews. Terror had become terror for its own sake.
We were comparatively lucky; Jews in smaller towns and other cities had it far worse.