In November 1938, a 17-year-old Jew living in Paris named Herschel Grynszpan received news that his family had been deported from their home in Germany to the Polish border where they were stranded and mistreated. Enraged, Hershel went to the German Embassy and shot a diplomat named Ernst vom Rath.
On November 9, vom Rath died and Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels saw the killing as an opportunity to take the persecution of the Jews to a new level. With Hitler’s assent, Goebbels called for actions against Jews to express the anger of the German people. Within hours, Nazi stormtroopers were rampaging through nearly every town and village in Germany and Austria.
At around 2:00 a.m. on November 10, 1938, Nazi propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels received the report of the first death of a Jew in Munich He reportedly responded “not to get so worked up about the death of a Jew. In the next days, thousands more would kick the bucket.”
In less than 48 hours, beginning on November 9, at least 96 Jews were killed, 7,500 businesses were destroyed, and countless Jewish cemeteries and schools were vandalized. A total of 30,000 Jews were rounded up and sent to concentration camps. The broken glass strewn through the streets from the mayhem led the pogrom to be called “Crystal Night” or Kristallnacht.
On August 26, 1912, the Fasanenstrasse Synagogue in Berlin was dedicated in front of representatives of the government, the military and the city. There was a procession of the Torah scrolls and the ceremonial lighting of the eternal light. The Rabbi said that the light of the lamp, like the love of fatherland of the Jewish community, would never be extinguished. On November 10, 1938, 26 years, 2 months, and 15 days after this dedication ceremony, the synagogue was one of more than 1,300 destroyed.
Sigi Hart was preparing for his bar mitzvah in Berlin. On November 10, the synagogue was burned. The person who took care of the synagogue had a little house in the back that was not destroyed in the fire. The week after Kristallnacht he offered to let the Harts use it for the bar mitzvah. “We came Saturday morning to this place,” Sigi recalled. “We had about three or four people standing outside watching if they saw any police or SS or Nazis coming [so] we could escape from the backyard. In one corner were the burned Torah scrolls. I said my bracha. I did what I had to do for my bar mitzvah. This was supposed to be my happiest day. The rabbi was standing there crying. He told me, ‘Remember, never forget.’
Frederick Firnbacher lived in Straubing. The Nazis ransacked the synagogue and took a Torah that belonged to Firnbacher’s family to the police station. Frederick’s great grandfather had hired a sofer to write a Torah in time for his grandfather’s bar mitzvah in 1872. It was also used at the bar mitzvah of Frederick’s father. On Kristallnacht Frederick’s father went to the Gestapo headquarters and told them he had permission to take the Torah to the United States. Amazingly, the Gestapo gave him the scroll. “Just imagine a Jew in 1938 carrying a Torah through the streets of Germany,” said Frederick. “He brought it to the U.S. and I was bar mitzvahed out of it, and my son Michael was bar mitzvahed on the 100th anniversary of when it was written.” The Firnbacher scroll is now in Ohr Kodesh synagogue in Chevy Chase, Maryland.
The doorbell rang at the Vienna home of Leo Glueckselig’s family. Nazis were standing outside and took Leo, his brother and father to the basement of the central police station. Leo said the SS discovered there was a father and son. “A high officer said, ‘Let’s have some fun,’ and told the son to slap his father. He refused. They grabbed the father and said, ‘If he doesn’t beat you up, we’ll kill him.’ So this father starts screaming at his son, calling him names, saying, ‘Don’t be so stubborn. If I tell you do it, hit me.’ Finally the son started to cry and hit his father. Then they called it off.”
Ursula Rosenfeld was just 13-years-old when the Nazis arrested her father. She had eaten dinner with him the night before Kristallnacht not knowing it was the last meal they’d eat together. The next morning, after she returned from school, Ursula learned her father had been taken to Buchenwald. She learned later that when the Jews arrived, their braces and shoelaces were taken away and her father protested, “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.”
Kristallnacht was the beginning of the end for German Jewry, and telegraphed the fate of all Jews who would come under Nazi control. The deportation of German Jews to their deaths began in October 1941. At the end of April 1943, 150 Jewish children who had been living on a farm training to be Zionist pioneers were deported in one of the final transports of German Jews. Most died in concentration camps. Fewer than 10,000 of the 131,800 German Jews targeted for extermination by the Nazis survived. Of the 43,700 Austrian Jews who had failed to escape the Nazis, fewer than 2,000 returned to their homes after the war.