Hate Kills – The November Pogroms 1938

By Heino Schönfeld, Director, Holocaust Education Trust Ireland

Burning Synagogue in Bielefeld, November 9 1938


On November 9 we remember the 80th anniversary of a terrible and murderous pogrom against the Jewish people which predicted the even more murderous events to come.

The year 1938 was a fateful year for European and world history. On March 12 German troops occupied Austria, which had a 200,000-strong Jewish population mostly in the capital city Vienna. One day later Hitler declares the Annexation of Austria by Germany. On September 29, German, Italian, British and French leaders agreed to German demands regarding annexation of the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia. This came to be known as the ‘Munich Agreement’. The Czechoslovak government was largely excluded from the negotiations and is not a signatory to the agreement. On September 30, Neville Chamberlain returned to Britain from meeting with Adolf Hitler and declares “Peace for our time”.
The very next day, on October 1, German troops marched into the Sudetenland.

Encouraged by their diplomatic and military success abroad, the Nazi regime increased the terror and persecution of the Jewish population in Germany and occupied Austria.
Earlier, in 1935, the Nuremberg laws had been passed discriminating Jews. Jews were prohibited from holding jobs in the civil service, from marrying Germans and Jews lost their rights as German citizens. Jews were later forced to live in ghettos and wear special armbands to easily distinguish them. Faced with such persecution, 130000 Jews left Germany, others continued to live a dangerous diminishing life in Germany.

In August 1938 on the orders of the infamous anti-Semitic Julius Streicher, the Great Synagogue of Nuremberg and the adjacent Jewish community building were torn down, under the pretext “that they were spoiling the look of the city.” The synagogue’s Jewish Stone, a remnant of a medieval synagogue that served as the base for the Holy Ark, was saved by a non-Jewish architect. However, this was still a singular incident and didn’t prepare the Jewish and German people for things to come.

On October 16, 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 pleading for help. The postcard was dated 31 October and reached Herschel on Thursday, 3 November.

On the morning of November 7, Herschel carried out a deadly attack on a senior official of the German Embassy in Paris, Ernst vom Rath, Secretary of the legation. 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 November 9, 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 (Crystal Night). 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 and prayer rooms, many Jewish cemeteries, more than 7,000 Jewish shops, and 29 department stores were damaged, and in many cases destroyed. More than 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and taken to concentration camps; primarily Dachau, Buchenwald, and Sachsenhausen.

The synagogues, some centuries old, were also victims of considerable violence and vandalism, with the tactics the Stormtroops practised on these and other sacred sites described as “approaching the ghoulish” by the United States Consul in Leipzig. Tombstones were uprooted, and graves violated. Fires were lit, and prayer books, scrolls, artwork and philosophy texts were thrown upon them, and precious buildings were either burned or smashed until unrecognisable. The Jews were taken from their homes, abused, threatened, arrested, destroyed their entire possessions and goods. Jewish shops, schools, orphanages – little was spared. The police looked on, the Fire Department was on site only to prevent a spillover of the fires on non-Jewish homes. While most of the terror and destruction happened during the night of November 9 – 10, the pogroms continued to November 13.

The Daily Telegraph correspondent, Hugh Greene, wrote of events in Berlin:
“Mob law ruled in Berlin throughout the afternoon and evening and hordes of hooligans indulged in an orgy of destruction. I have seen several anti-Jewish outbreaks in Germany during the last five years, but never anything as nauseating as this. Racial hatred and hysteria seemed to have taken complete hold of otherwise decent people. I saw fashionably dressed women clapping their hands and screaming with glee, while respectable middle-class mothers held up their babies to see the ‘fun”.

The reaction of non-Jewish Germans to Kristallnacht was varied. Many spectators gathered on the scenes, most of them in silence. The local fire departments confined themselves to prevent the flames from spreading to neighbouring buildings. In Berlin, police Lieutenant Otto Bellgardt barred SA troopers from setting the New Synagogue on fire, earning his superior officer a verbal reprimand from the commissioner. There was no significant resistance or openly articulated displeasure by the population.

However, the US ambassador to Germany reported:
“In view of this being a totalitarian state, a surprising characteristic of the situation here is the intensity and scope among German citizens of condemnation of the recent happenings against Jews”.

The November Pogroms marked a turning point toward even more violent and repressive treatment of Jews by the Nazis. By the end of 1938, Jews were prohibited from schools and most public places in Germany–and conditions only worsened from there. During World War II, Hitler and the Nazis implemented their so-called “Final Solution” to what they referred to as the “Jewish problem,” and carried out the systematic murder of some 6 million European Jews (along with, by some estimates, 4 million to 6 million non-Jews) in what came to be known as the Holocaust.

As for Herschel Grynszpan, whose shooting of a German diplomat was used as an excuse by the Nazis to perpetrate the Pogroms violence, his fate remains a mystery. What is known is that he was incarcerated in a Paris prison and later transferred to Germany.

If there is a message for today arising from the story of November 9, 1938, it’s this one: hate divides, hate terrorises, and hatred kills.

We must not let anti-Semitic and racist resentment take hold. First, there are words, and then the deeds follow. Even today, the “varnish of civilization” is still thin, as the Swiss sociologist Kurt Imhof noted several years ago. Our modernity, the sheer vast amount of available knowledge in a digitised world is no insurance against intolerance, racism and anti-Semitism.
This message became evident only a few days ago in Pittsburgh, where eleven innocent people were victims of sheer hatred for Jews. Therefore, any red line that is crossed must force us to act.

But we have a choice. The brutality and hatred that so shocked the world at the sight of the pogroms in 1938 is only one side of human nature. Populists and nationalists take advantage of them. They play with fear. They stir up resentments and prejudices.

Let’s make it clear that we are on the other side. On the side of tolerance, respect and compassion. As democrats, but above all as human beings.