81 years ago: The November Pogrom

The November Pogrom, 09 November 1938, Germany and Austria

On 16 October 1938, the German government expelled 12,000 Polish Jews living in Germany; the Polish government accepted 4,000 and refused admittance to the remaining 8,000, who were forced to live in the no-man’s land on the German-Polish frontier. Among them were the Grynszpan family whose 17-year-old son Herschel was living in Paris at the time. It was from here that his sister Berta sent a postcard to Herschel in Paris, recounting what had happened and, in a line that was crossed out, apparently pleaded for help. The postcard was dated 31 October and reached Herschel on Thursday, 03 November.

On the morning of 07 November, Herschel carried out a deadly attack on a senior official of the German Embassy in Paris, Ernst vom Rath. He shot vom Rath five times and was arrested without resistance. Grynszpan’s motives were not clearly established, but he stated in an interrogation that he had acted out of protest against the terrible fate of his parents and siblings. The next day, the German government retaliated, barring Jewish children from state elementary schools, indefinitely suspending Jewish cultural activities, and putting a halt to the publication of Jewish newspapers and magazines.

The Nazis and in particular their infamous Minister for Propaganda Joseph Goebbels had waited for a suitable pretext to escalate the terror against Jews in Germany. When vom Rath died of his injuries on 09 November, Goebbels used the opportunity of a Nazi Party gathering to command the party leaders to organise pogroms all over Germany and Austria.
The storefronts of about 7,500 Jewish stores and businesses were shattered, hence the appellation Kristallnacht (The Night of Broken Glass). Jewish homes were ransacked all throughout Germany. Although violence against Jews had not been condoned by the authorities, there were cases of Jews being beaten or assaulted.

Over 1400 synagogues, prayer rooms, and many Jewish cemeteries were damaged or destroyed. More than 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and taken to concentration camps; primarily Dachau, Buchenwald, and Sachsenhausen. On the morning after 09 November 1938, Germany was similar to a heap of rubble with destroyed shops, pillaged homes, and burning synagogues. More than 30,000 Jews were arrested, many driven to their death. It was not – as the Nazis claimed – spontaneous popular anger, which was discharged against the Jewish people, but a targeted pogrom organised by the Nazis.


There exists a contemporary testimony by an anonymous author given in London 1939. This document refers to the events of the night from November 9th to 10th in my hometown of Kiel where I was born only 16 years after these events took place. This document is archived in the wonderful Wiener Library, London. I am quoting this record in full and in English translation from the original German text:

on 9th and 10th November 1938 in Kiel

1) Attempted murders. The Chairman of the Jewish community, Gustav Lask, who had lived as an independent gentleman in the Villenviertel area of Kiel since the sale of his business, was shot and seriously wounded by two SS men after his arrest on the night of 10th November. He was shot in the stomach and lay between life and death in hospital for seven weeks. Herr L. now lives in London. Furthermore, the owner of S. Mastbaum silk dealers, who also lived in the Villenviertel area of Kiel, was shot down by five shots. He received a graze to the lung, a graze to the head and an especially dangerous shot to the jaw. Herr L., who is 59 years old, now lives in London (15 Woodchurch Rd., NW6, at Mrs Joseph’s).

2) Arrests. About 55 people, Jews and non-Aryans, were arrested in Kiel and taken to Sachsenhausen. Amongst those arrested was the former second mayor of Kiel, Gradenwitz, who is non-Aryan. Some 15 Jewish shops were destroyed, as well as a few houses, amongst them those of Gradenwitz and Rosenstein.

3) The synagogue was burned and completely destroyed inside. The Thora scrolls were ruined. A brass candlestick donated in memory of the Jewish fallen has not been found and was probably stolen. The memorial tablet in honour of the Jewish fallen was discovered in the ruins of the synagogue and later rehung in the cemetery mortuary.

4) As the synagogue was being set on fire, the Christian warden, a widow, was driven into the street in her nightshirt. Her home was destroyed. The woman fainted as a result.

London, 1939”


Heino Schönfeld

Director, Holocaust Education Trust Ireland