05/31/2012 11:33 am ET

WWII Stories: An Eyewitness Account Of Kristallnacht

The following is an excerpt from "The Night of Broken Glass: Eyewitness Accounts of Kristallnacht" [Polity, $25.00], edited by Uta Gerhardt and Thomas Karlauf:

Born in the Rhineland in 1894; employed since 1920 by the Oppenheim Bank; married, two children; emigrated to the USA in 1939.

Exactly one year later, the greatest organized pogrom the world has ever seen occurred in Germany. The 1905 pogroms in Russia, the pogroms in Romania and in all the other countries of the world pale in comparison. The latter were only outflows of public opinion and their products, but this one was planned, organized and encouraged by the government. The preceding sufferings, privations, humiliations and horrors cannot be compared with what happened on this single night.

It was the harrowing night of 10 November 1938, when in Germany, in accordance with a very precisely elaborated plan, the homes and shops of Jews were senselessly vandalized, plundered, destroyed and put to the torch. On that night, synagogues and thousands of prayer halls and schools were set on fi re at precisely the same time, and fire brigades and police all over Germany were not allowed to leave their quarters unless an express command to that effect had been given.

In a single hour on that night, a horde of drunken animals in uniform wrecked the possessions, the past and the future of thousands of people, while bloodthirsty, savage, brutal creatures, decked out in and protected by the brown and black uniforms of the ruling party, slaughtered poor, tormented people in the thousands and sadistically abused thousands of wretched people.

I am going to describe one more time the events of that night, even if some of the details are already known, and even if hundreds of my poor fellow Jews may have suffered still more. I am going to describe them because the memory has still not grown fainter – although in the meantime a year and a half has gone by – and because they were the worst thing that the human mind could have imagined and carried out.

At the beginning of March 1938, all of the Jews in Germany had their passports confiscated. On 27 April 1938, we Jews in Germany who had more than 5,000 marks had to declare our possessions in cash, real estate, jewelry and so on.

In mid-October 1938, I met with a man from Berlin with whom I had had many business dealings, and who I knew had very good connections at the highest levels of the party and the government. Here is exactly what he said to me on that evening: ‘If you knew what was going to happen to you, and if you can justify it to your family and your company, get out of Germany as fast as you can. If not with a passport, then try to sneak across the border somewhere. In Berlin, they are preparing to do dreadful things to the Jews.’ When I explained to him that I had as yet made no preparations to emigrate and in any case would not leave my family in the lurch, he was astonished and said: ‘Soon there won’t be a single Jew left here who can or would want to emigrate.’

When I asked him what was actually going on, and he saw my frightened face, he said: ‘Give me your word not to say anything to anyone; it could cost me my life. Soon Jews will have to make enormous financial payments; they are going to be housed in ghettos, and Jews up to the age of sixty are going to be put in concentration camps to do forced labour. Barracks for this purpose are being built everywhere. In addition, all the synagogues are to be closed.’ I emphasize that I was told this around the middle of October 1938, and the assassination of Herr vom Rath, which the German government claimed was what triggered the Jewish pogroms in November 1938, did not take place until the early days of November 1938. I was very depressed and at home I could not conceal my feelings. My wife, to whom I have always told my joys and concerns, and who shared everything with me in true companionship, saw that I was depressed, and I told her what I knew. So my wife is the living witness to the truth of what I have said.

The abominable and damnable act in Paris had taken place: the Jew Grynszpan had shot the German vom Rath, and the external and probably very welcome excuse for carrying out and stepping up the planned measures against Jews described above had been provided. Everyone in Germany knew and felt that all Jews would have to pay a dreadful price for this act of an irresponsible young man. The occasion for the attack in Paris was the expulsion of all Polish Jews from Germany. May it also be said here that, since Grynszpan’s parents were also affected by this expulsion, the true and perhaps sole reason for his act is to be found in the regime’s order.

On a Monday morning in October 1938, the Gestapo suddenly appeared at the homes of all Jews of Polish ancestry in every city in Germany and told them to vacate their apartments within fi ve hours, taking all their moveable goods with them. The unfortunate people packed up the most indispensable of their meagre possessions and gathered, weeping and lamenting, at their assembly points. In the city where I was employed, the poor gathered on the busiest square in the middle of the city. The children had been taken out of school and picked up by offi cials; hungry, frightened and crying loudly, they ran to their parents. The cordoning offi cials had great diffi culty holding back the excited and shouting people who had gathered around the square. A few Aryan men and women who had expressed their criticisms too loudly were led away. An Aryan doctor took out of the crowd a Polish woman who was about to give birth and accompanied her to the hospital. Two days later the child was born.

The others were led away to the railway station and there loaded onto cattle wagons, and we Jewish men used lorries and cars to help them load their few possessions until our hands were bleeding in the freezing air. A girlfriend of my daughter’s later wrote to her from a camp on the Polish border: ‘Had the train run off the rails and killed us all, we would have been better off.’ On the evening of 9 November 1938, the SA brown-shirts and the SS black-shirts met in bars to celebrate the fifteenth anniversary of the day of the failed putsch in Munich. Around eleven o’clock in the evening, I came home from a Jewish aid organization meeting and I can testify that most of the ‘German people’ who a day later the government said were responsible for what happened that night lay peacefully in bed that evening. Everywhere lights had been put out, and nothing suggested that in the following hours such terrible events would take place.

Even the uniformed party members were not in on the plan; the order to destroy Jewish property came shortly before they moved from the bars to the Jewish houses. (I have this information from the brother of an SS man who took an active part in the pogroms).

At 3 a.m. sharp, someone insistently rang at the door to my apartment. I went to the window and saw that the streetlights had been turned off. Nonetheless, I could make out a transport vehicle out of which emerged about twenty uniformed men. I recognized only one of them, a man who served as the leader; the rest came from other localities and cities and were distributed over the district in accordance with marching orders. I called out to my wife: ‘Don’t be afraid, they are party men; please keep calm.’ Then I went to the door in my pyjamas and opened it.

A wave of alcohol hit me, and the mob forced its way into the house. A leader pushed by me and yanked the telephone off the wall. A leader of the SS men, green-faced with drunkenness, cocked his revolver as I watched and then held it to my forehead and slurred: ‘Do you know why we’ve come here, you swine?’ I replied, ‘No,’ and he went on, ‘Because of the outrageous act committed in Paris, for which you are also to blame. If you even try to move, I’ll shoot you like a pig.’ I kept quiet and stood, my hands behind my back, in the ice-cold draught coming in the open door. An SA man, who must have had a little human feeling, whispered to me: ‘Keep still. Don’t move.’ During all this time and for another twenty minutes, the drunken SS leader fumbled threateningly with his revolver near my forehead. An inadvertent movement on my part or a clumsy one on his and my life would have been over. And if I live to be a hundred, I will never forget that brutish face and those dreadful minutes. In the meantime, about ten uniformed men had invaded my house. I heard my wife cry: ‘What do you want with my children? You’ll touch the children over my dead body!’ Then I heard only the crashing of overturned furniture, the breaking of glass and the trampling of heavy boots. Weeks later, I was still waking from restless sleep, still hearing that crashing, hammering and striking. We will never forget that night. After about half an hour, which seemed to me an eternity, the brutish drunks left our apartment, shouting and bellowing. The leader blew a whistle and, as his subordinates stumbled past him, fired his revolver close to my head, two shots into the ceiling. I thought my eardrums had burst but I stood there like a wall. (A few hours later I showed a police officer the two bullet holes.) The last SA man who left the building hit me on the head so hard with the walking stick he had used to destroy my pictures that a fortnight later the swelling was still perceptible. As he went out, he shouted at me: ‘There you are, you Jewish pig. Have fun.’

My poor wife and the children, trembling with fear, sat weeping on the floor. We no longer had chairs or beds. Luckily, the burning stove was undamaged – otherwise our house would have gone up in flames, as did many others.