Kristallnacht: The Night of Broken Glass

Published: Wednesday, November 4, 2009 1:17 PM EST

On Nov. 9 and 10, 1938, as Hitler came to power, Germany and Austria erupted in a spree of attacks against synagogues and Jewish homes and businesses that came to be known as “Kristallnacht” – the “Night of Broken Glass.” By the time the anti-Jewish pogrom subsided, 99 Jews were murdered and approximately 30,000 were arrested and placed in concentration camps; 267 synagogues were destroyed and thousands of homes and businesses were ransacked.

Kristallnacht was followed by further economic and political persecutions and is viewed by many historians as the beginning of the Final Solution.

The story of Kristallnacht is best told through the eyes of those who witnessed the devastation. The following eyewitness accounts are included in the book 48 Hours of Kristallnacht: Night of Destruction / Dawn of the Holocaust, An Oral History, by Mitchell G. Bard, Ph.D. (The Lyons Press, 2008).

For events related to the commemoration of Kristallnacht, see article in this issue.


Treated Like A Dog

Lotte Kramer attended a school in the Liberal Synagogue in Mainz. Before leaving for school, her cousin called and told her to stay home because the synagogue was on fire. She also warned Lotte to tell her father to hide because all the men were being taken to concentration camps. Lotte’s father hid in the woods until nightfall and then returned home and began calling other members of the family to check on them. Lotte’s father found that his brother had been beaten and led through the street on a leash like a dog. Altogether six synagogues were destroyed in Mainz.

A Torah’s Journey

Frederick Firnbacher lived in Straubing. He was only eight and remembers that November 9 started as a normal day. Then the world turned upside down. “They went to our synagogue and ransacked it but couldn’t burn it because it was in a residential neighborhood. Then they went around to the different houses where Jews lived and tried to break in. Our house had a very strong door and they weren’t able to break in. Some of the neighbors stuck their heads out and told them to be quiet and to leave and finally they left.

“In the morning the German police came to the house with an arrest warrant for my father and took him off to the local jail where he stayed for a couple of days. While he was there, he met all the other Jewish males and a couple of days later he was sent to Dachau. Meanwhile, at the synagogue (which was built in 1907), they had taken fire axes and torn up the synagogue and desecrated the Torahs and the prayer books, and the ark was a shambles. The Germans came back later and collected the different things and took them to police headquarters.”


No Reward for Bravery

Yitzhak Herz was in the small town of Dinslaken where the Jewish men were also rounded up. “I learned very soon from a policeman, who in his heart was still an anti-Nazi, that most of the Jewish men had been beaten up by members of the SA before begin transported to Dachau. They were kicked, slapped in the face, and subjected to all sorts of humiliation. Many of those exposed to this type of ill treatment had served in the German army during World War I. One of them, a Mr. Hugo B.C., had once worn with pride the Iron Cross First Class (the German equivalent of the Victoria Cross), which he had been awarded for bravery.


No More Credit

Sabina Katz remembered that her father used to give people credit in his store. “When they banged on the door with their fists at 6 o’clock in the morning on that fateful day, when they came to arrest my father, they apologized because there wasn’t one who didn’t owe my father money at that time, when they came to arrest him. They came in the morning to arrest all the men and parade them through the city, beat them up. My father was not beaten up. I don’t know why. But they sent him to Dachau.”


Gutted by Flames

The American consul in Leipzig, David Buffum, witnessed the destruction of the synagogues in that city. “Three synagogues of Leipzig were fired simultaneously by incendiary bombs and all sacred objects and records desecrated or destroyed, in most instances hurled through the windows and burned in the streets. No attempts were made to quench the fires, functions of the fire brigade having been confined to spraying water on adjoining buildings. All of the synagogues were irreparably gutted by flames.”


My Father’s Ashes

Ursula Rosenfeld was just 13 years old when the Nazis arrested her father. She had eaten dinner with him the night before Kristallnacht, now knowing it was the last meal she’d ever have with him. The next morning after she returned from school, Ursula learned her father had been taken by the police. Later, she would learn what happened from survivors of Buchenwald. When the Jews arrived, their braces and shoelaces were taken away. “My father was quite an outspoken person…and he protested and said, ‘You can’t treat these old people like this.’ So they made an example of him and they beat him to death in front of everybody in order to instill terror and obedience. We heard a few days later that he had died of a heart attack, but this was the story the Nazis told all the families of the people they killed. …The Nazis offered us my father’s ashes in return for money. Eventually the urn came and we buried it in the Jewish cemetery. But of course, whether it was his ashes one never knows.”

Floating Down the Danube

Siegfried Buchwalter’s father had a bayonet from World War I and his mother went out during the violence in Vienna to hide it because she was afraid of what might happen if the Nazis discovered a weapon in their house. “She came back and told us stories that Jews were being dragged out of their houses, the burning of the synagogues. It was amazing how well the attacks were organized. The synagogues were nestled between apartment houses so if you didn’t have an expert dynamiting it you could have damaged the adjoining apartment house. It was done by experts because only the synagogues were damaged. The Torah scrolls were floating down the Danube and burning but nothing was happening to the adjoining apartments. It was over by the evening.” At least 95 synagogues in Vienna were destroyed.

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