Visions of burning shuls, looted stores, smashed homes, and men carted off can never be erased. Eighty years later, eyewitnesses recall the Night of Broken Glass
The date November 9, 1938 — nine months before Hitler invaded Poland — is often overlooked, lost in the monstrosity of what happened after. It was the night Nazi mobs across Germany destroyed more than a thousand shuls, ransacked tens of thousands of Jewish stores and homes, and sent more than 30,000 men to the early concentration camps. It was a pogrom in the classic German model: bloodlust and burning, but in a diabolically controlled way. This orgy of Jew-hatred convinced those yet in the throes of denial that fleeing Germany was the only option. Yet it also taught the Nazis that a shocked world would ultimately do nothing.
Eighty years on, I set out to record some of the last voices of Kristallnacht, getting a picture of the enormity of what happened by listening to stories from across Hitler’s Reich in Vienna, Frankfurt, and Berlin.
Calculated from the Start
Name: Emanuel Fischer
Born: Vienna, 1925
Escaped: via Kindertransport to England
“When we finally felt it safe enough to go out, we found the shul completely smashed up. The Nazis had taken all the talleisim and tefillin, thrown them in the courtyard, doused them with petrol, and burned the entire lot.”
r, Emanuel (“Manny”) Fischer passed away a few months ago in Jerusalem, but not before writing his memoirs and how he witnessed Kristallnacht as a young boy in Vienna. I met him about ten years ago at Shacharis, when my tallis bag introduced us. “Are you related to the Gedalia Dovid Guttentag who looked after us refugee boys in England?” he asked, referring to my great-grandfather. Fischer was a natural storyteller, and I can still hear his feisty voice retelling his part in the most horrifying story in modern history that few will believe once the last witnesses disappear.
Although the Nazis tried to portray the Kristallnacht violence as a spontaneous reaction to the killing of a German embassy official in Vienna by a Jewish teenager and people believe this until today, Fischer indicated how untrue that version of history is.
The immediate event that preceded that night of destruction in 1938 was the German expulsion of over 12,000 Polish Jews who had been living legally in Germany, some of them for decades. On October 18, they were loaded onto trains at gunpoint by the Gestapo and taken to the Polish border, where 4,000 were allowed in. The other 8,000 were kept in the train station in terrible conditions, in stateless limbo.
One couple, the Grynszpans, who had been living in Hanover for 27 years, had a teenage son named Herschel who lived in Paris. On November 3, he received a letter from his parents and sister who were still stranded at the Polish border — and decided to take revenge on their German tormentors.
He bought a pistol, and four days later, on Monday, November 7, he took a Paris Metro to the German embassy, intending to assassinate the German ambassador. Shown in to Ernst vom Rath, a lower official, Grynszpan fired, hitting the German twice and wounding him critically.
The next day’s newspapers in Germany blamed the entire Jewish people for Grynszpan’s actions, spurring on draconian anti-Jewish measures, including banning Jewish newspapers and excluding all Jewish children from Aryan schools. Ominously, that day the Manchester Guardian reported sporadic shul burnings and shop looting in Kassel, central Germany, and Vienna.
But anti-Jewish sentiment, and even legislation, was around way before Herschel Grynszpan pulled the trigger. Since Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, the Nazis had systematically worked to “Aryanize” Germany, removing Jews from Germany’s economic, political, and cultural life in order to force them to emigrate, leaving Germany judenrein. Yet when news of vom Rath’s death reached Germany on Wednesday, November 9, the Nazis saw it as an opportunity to fuel the flames of hatred and speed up that exodus. Hitler’s propagandist Goebbels recorded in his diary the Nazi leader’s reaction: “He decides: Demonstrations should be allowed to continue. The police should be withdrawn. For once the Jews should get the feel of popular anger.”
“How ‘spontaneous’ does this sound?” said Manny Fischer, who was 13 at the time. “On the afternoon of November 9, the caretaker’s son, an SS officer, knocked on our door, before the announcement of vom Rath’s death, and asked my parents to give him any valuables they might have at home and he would return them after a few days. He also told us that after he went we should not, under any circumstances answer the door, and should keep away from non-curtained windows. We should keep to the inside room avoiding making any noise whatsoever, at least until Friday morning when he or his sister would come and get some groceries for us.”
In what would be a forerunner of the Holocaust, the Nazi paper trail showing official control of events is scant. But clearly, the word had gotten out over the Nazi grapevine that it was open season on the Jews. In young Manny’s case, they were among the lucky few to be forewarned by an SS connection.
November 10th dawned over a scene of looting across Germany and Austria, including Vienna, where only months before Jews had infamously been forced to scrub the streets. Manny Fischer lived in Leopoldstadt, the city’s Jewish district.
“On Thursday morning we saw from our windows how the people looted not only the Talmud Torah school but also the Jewish Museum situated on the top floor of the school and then set the building alight,” he remembered. “I know it is many a child’s dream to see his school burn down but I hope no one will ever see it for the same reason. When the fire brigade finally arrived, they sprayed water on the neighboring houses only and made sure that the school burned down and was totally destroyed. About lunchtime that day we heard the heavy tread of jackboots on the stairs and when they knocked on our door we heard the caretaker’s son say: ‘This is the home of one of my Jews who have left.’ We then heard them knock on other doors and take people away.” This was a pattern repeated that day across Hitler’s Reich. The emergency services worked hand in hand with the Nazi thugs; here and there, decent Germans tried to help their Jewish neighbors.
Elsewhere in Vienna, the savagery was the same. According to Martin Gilbert in his work Kristallnacht, the British consul general in Munich, Donald St. Clair Gainer, reported that the attacks were carried out by the “SA Brownshirts, most of them in full uniform. The police had obviously received instructions not to intervene. In the police station, an old Jew with white hair and beard was lying on the floor being brutally kicked by an SA man, while the regular police looked on.”
Manny Fischer talked about the fate of his shul. “When we finally felt it safe enough to go out and go to the Rembrandt Shul, we found it completely smashed up. The Nazis had taken all the talleisim and tefillin, thrown them in the courtyard, doused them with petrol, and burned the entire lot.”
I knew Mr. Fischer as a strong, optimistic man, yet a hint of the fear that he must have felt always came through in describing that Shabbos in hiding: “Naturally that Shabbos there were no challos, as no Jewish bakery could work that week, and one could not bake at home in case the aroma of the baking challos gave you away.”
A few weeks later, Manny escaped Vienna on Rabbi Dr. Solomon Schonfeld’s famous “Kindertransport,” which snatched almost 10,000 children from certain death in the Holocaust. He was one of the lucky ones to be reunited with his parents, as well. The neighbors protected them until their exit papers arrived. They arrived in Britain two days before Hitler’s bloodbath began.
Saved by a Passport
Name: Herbert Kruskal
Born: Frankfurt, 1900
Escaped: to Holland, then by prisoner exchange from Bergen Belsen
Name: Jacob Goldschmidt
Born: Frankfurt, 1931
Escaped: to Geneva, then via Southampton to New York
“That night the bell rang, and a Gestapo officer arrived to arrest my father, who was a member of the board at Rav Breuer’s kehillah. He pointed his finger and yelled, ‘Wo ist der Jude?!’ ”
rankfurt, 700 kilometers northwest of Vienna, was still a bastion of Rav Hirsch’s Torah im Derech Eretz in 1938. There, over the night and day of Kristallnacht, a foreign passport saved the lives of three different families.
The passport holder was my wife’s grandfather, Herbert Kruskal. An affluent businessman and Agudah activist, Herbert Kruskal commuted to and from Holland on business freely, since his British and Dutch passports didn’t disclose his Jewish identity. In an account of Kristallnacht that he wrote in 1961, Herbert Kruskal describes how he returned from Berlin to Frankfurt on the night of Wednesday, November 9, and heard about vom Rath’s death.
The next day, he took the tram to the shul on the Friedberger Anlage, home of Rav Hirsch’s famed IRG kehillah. “When we got off the train, Hugo Bondi, a committee member at the synagogue, came toward us. ‘Gentlemen,’ he said, ‘go home. The synagogue is burning.’ Nevertheless we walked through the grounds until we were opposite the synagogue. It was burning. I believed it to be the criminal attack of a few individuals.”
As Herbert was holder of a British passport, he and his wife, Edda, made their home into a safe haven for others within the community. One of those was Henny Goldschmidt, wife of Herbert Kruskal’s friend, lawyer Dr. Salomon Goldschmidt. Their son Jacob, a longtime resident of Washington Heights, New York, was seven years old at the time. This was his account of what happened:
“What I remember of the atmosphere before we left was a newspaper headline: “Judenhas” (Jew-hatred). That night the bell rang, and a Gestapo officer arrived to arrest my father, who was a member of the board at Rav Breuer’s kehillah. He pointed his finger and yelled, ‘Wo ist der Jude?!’
“They searched the apartment and they didn’t believe that my father wasn’t there. They looked under the bed — I was watching — and they wanted to arrest my mother. They told her to get ready to go, and when they got to the elevator it seems they weren’t ordered to arrest my mother, so they sent her back home.”
With Frankfurt sidewalks littered with the glass and masonry of Jewish-owned stores and shuls, the Goldschmidts looked to the Kruskals for refuge.
“Herbert Kruskal called my father and told him to stay on in Amsterdam as there was more business,” recalled Jacob Goldschmidt. “The following morning my mother got me and my brother dressed in Shabbos clothing and we went to Frankfurt’s main railroad station to take the train to Amsterdam.”
But leaving Germany didn’t prove simple. “We took the train through Emmerich on the border with Holland, but the Dutch didn’t let us into the country,” said Jacob. “Nearby was a monastery and somehow we managed to sleep there overnight. On Sunday morning, we took a kleinbahn — something between a train and a trolleycar — to a town where my mother had a second cousin, and she put us up for the night. From there we traveled to Geneva, on a luxury train called the Rheingold, where we stayed for three months with my mother’s brother.”
The Goldschmidt family’s Kristallnacht saga ended when they sailed for New York, via Southampton, England. And six decades later, Henny Goldschmidt’s great-granddaughter married Herbert Kruskal’s grandson.
Kiddush and Tears
Name: Moshe Eiseman
Born: Frankfurt, 1928
Escaped: by train to England
“I remember them taking men to Dachau and Buchenwald. I remember they smashed up a neighbor’s apartment. He took his wife and family in the car, and a mob surrounded them”
ven after 80 years away from Germany, Rabbi Moshe Eiseman’s yekkish accent is unmistakable as he remembers the horrors of those hours. “That Thursday, my mother wanted to send us to school. A neighbor told her not to because the Friedberger Anlage synagogue was burning. It was actually too big to burn, so they dynamited it. And then the town council sent a letter to the synagogue heads demanding payment to clean up the mess.”
Rabbi Eiseman recalls how he and his family were hiding behind the curtains looking out onto the road. “I won’t tell you everything I saw,” he says, “but I remember them taking men to Dachau and Buchenwald. I remember they smashed up a neighbor’s apartment. He took his wife and family in the car, and a mob surrounded them. Somehow they were able to drive off, and never came back. They managed to get to America.”
The Eisemans lived in a Jewish district of Frankfurt, which Rabbi Eiseman fondly remembers as “the ghetto.” During the onslaught, their non-Jewish maid called and offered to help. Seeing that it was dangerous to stay in their apartment, Mrs. Eiseman asked her to send a taxi. The car took them to western Frankfurt, to the Kruskals’ house.
What was it like to live through those days as a ten-year old boy? “On that unforgettable Friday night, the women were shaking and I made Kiddush. They weren’t really yotzei because I was ten years old. Of course, we were all crying,” Rabbi Eiseman remembers. It was a time of terror, of fathers going into hiding, and mothers having to act normal for their children’s sakes.
By then, Rav Yosef Yonah Horowitz, the Unsdorfer Rav, who had also sought protection from the roving Gestapo at the Kruskals’ house, had told Herbert Kruskal that he should use his foreign passports to get out of the country, and that even on Shabbos he should work to try and get others out. Herbert Kruskal’s plan was to take Rav Horowitz and Mr. Samuel Eiseman over to the Rothschild Hospital where they could hide. But on Friday morning, a gang smashed the windows of a Jewish house next door, and rang the bell of the Kruskal’s house.
“We all disappeared into the drawing room overlooking the garden,” recalled Herbert Kruskal, “and my mother, who was living with us, opened the door. They shouted at her ‘Have you put up people!?’ Facing the danger, she was infused with special strength and willpower. ‘How dare you accost innocent English citizens in their house! I shall telephone our consulate immediately!’ The gang took off and went on a rampage somewhere else.”
The Kruskals escaped Frankfurt and arrived in Rotterdam, Holland, that Friday night. But it was only a temporary reprieve: In May 1940, Hitler breached Dutch neutrality and invaded Holland. Herbert Kruskal and his family managed to evade arrest for some time, but in 1942 they were arrested and sent first to the transit camp Westerbork, and then to Bergen-Belsen. Their Kristallnacht saga only ended in 1944, when they journeyed across war-torn Europe to safety in Palestine, as part of a 200-man prisoner exchange between the British and the Germans.
No One Stepped Forward
Name: Rivkah Friedman, née Levi
Born: Berlin, 1932
Escaped: through Switzerland to Trieste, and then to Tel Aviv
“The next morning, I remember my aunt crying and telling my mother that her husband, Markus Birnbaum, had been arrested and taken to Dachau. Eventually they released him after shaving off half of his beard.”
s Germany’s capital city, Berlin was full of foreign reporters, yet the Nazis did nothing to hide the evidence of the violence from foreign eyes. A London newspaper of November 10, quoted by Martin Gilbert, described how “Berlin’s fashionable Kurfurstendamm was in ruins. Cartloads of broken glass and wrecked goods from the shops lay all over the roads. Fires were still burning.”
Mrs. Rivkah Friedman, née Levi, lives today in Beit Chilkiyah, a tranquil moshav between Jerusalem and Ashdod. She was born in Berlin, where a world of unparalleled Jewish affluence had already ended. Her father, Dr. Jacob Levi, was a member of the Adass Yisrael community. For a girl of only six years old, her memories of Kristallnacht are vivid.
“On Kristallnacht, the Nazis told us to get out of our rented house, and we had to move into my grandparents’ tiny flat,” Mrs. Friedman remembers. “The next morning, I remember my aunt crying terribly and telling my mother that her husband, Markus Birnbaum, had been arrested and taken to Dachau. Eventually they released him after shaving off half of his beard.”
Her father, who was prominent in the community, went into hiding in Berlin. Not wanting to worry her, Rivkah’s mother said that the father had traveled to Frankfurt, but being a sharp child, Rivkah wasn’t fooled. “It can’t be,” she protested. “Father wouldn’t go just before Shabbos.”
Kristallnacht convinced all those who had persuaded themselves over the five years since the rise of the Nazi party that things would settle down, that it was really time to leave Germany for good. From Kristallnacht to the outbreak of war nine months later, 120,000 Jews left the country — almost as many as the 150,000 who had left since 1933. The Levis were no different. “My father had wanted to leave already in 1933, but my grandfather didn’t want to go. Then suddenly my grandfather passed away, and within a month we left Germany to go to Israel,” says Mrs. Friedman.
But that was enough time to inflict trauma that remains with her until today. “After Kristallnacht, my mother forbade me to leave the house on my own. The adults were scared, but tried to hide it. But I remember, as if in a bad dream, how when we crossed the border from Germany to Switzerland at Basel, the Nazis searched all of us, including me. I felt tremendous shame.”
Unlike the later stages of the Holocaust, Kristallnacht was documented in detail by the hundreds of foreign diplomats and journalists who witnessed it on their doorsteps. On November 11th, the Times of London reported on the leading part played in the destruction in Berlin by Hitler Youth, who cried “Deutschland erwache! Juda verrecke! — Germany awaken! Perish Judah!” In Berlin, as cultured as the population was, no one stepped forward to stop the outrage: “The crowd who looked on showed a mixture of astonishment, amusement, or disapproval,” wrote the Times. Across the Atlantic, the Cincinnati Enquirer of November 13 linked the pogrom with the war clouds gathering over Europe: “Jews fined $400,000,000 by government, London hastens arms program.”
Yet the general outcry in America to Kristallnacht was so strong that the German ambassador to Washington, Hans-Heinrich Dieckhoff, cabled Berlin in alarm. His message, preserved in the Yad Vashem archives, reads: “As public opinion is being expressed, it is without exception enraged and bitter against Germany. The outcry comes not only from Jews, but equally from all quarters and classes, including German-Americans.”
But Dieckhoff needn’t have worried. Sympathy for Jews there was aplenty, but offers of help and refuge were scarce. The British government took in over 10,000 Jewish children after Kristallnacht in an operation known as the Kindertransport. But in the United States, a similar humanitarian effort failed. In February 1939, Senator Robert Wagner of New York sponsored a bill to temporarily admit thousands of Jewish children into the US until it was safe for them to return home. Their stay would not have cost taxpayers a penny because Jewish groups had agreed to assume financial responsibility for the children. Yet the bill encountered strong opposition, and a January 1939 Gallup Poll showed why:
“It has been proposed to bring to this country 10,000 refugee children from Germany — most of them Jewish — to be taken care of in American homes. Should the government permit these children to come in?” the poll asked. It was the era of country club anti-Semitism, and 61 percent answered no. In the wake of Kristallnacht, the Nazis heard the world’s response loud and clear. The free countries would defend the Jews with pious outrage and no more. The way was open for the Holocaust.
In the raging ocean of Jew-hatred that Hitler’s Reich had become, what inspired those few individual Germans to help their Jewish neighbors? On his way out of Vienna, young Manny Fischer asked that very question of his caretaker’s SS son: “They told us that not only was my father the only Jew on the House Committee but he was also the only person there who consistently fought to ensure that their parents should have decent work and living conditions.” Because of that, they promised their parents at the time of the Anschluss that they would look after the Fischers.
Beyond the German-Jewish communities of Washington Heights, London and Zurich, Kristallnacht has receded into a mere prelude to the Holocaust, dwarfed by the horror that came fast on its heels. In fact, many have questioned the continued use of the term “Kristallnacht.” It’s a word that has entered our lexicon despite the fact that it was authored by the Nazis as a mocking euphemism for what they had perpetrated. But perhaps the word’s combination of barbarity and poetry — the Night of Broken Glass — is symbolic of Nazi Germany, a nation of cultured beasts.
It took great fortitude and emunah for the survivors of the horror to go forward and rebuild, even as they were ever fortunate to escape before the gates were slammed shut. The childhood trauma of seeing their terrified parents, wrecked homes, and burned shuls never leaves, but is perhaps best conveyed in the words that a young Moshe Eiseman’s father told him, quoting from that week’s sedrah: “Hitler forgot the words of parshas Vayeira: ‘Veyirash zaracha es shaar oyvav — your descendants will inherit their enemies’ gates.’ ” And those words were indeed fulfilled, Rabbi Eiseman says. “That’s how six years later, I stood along with a million others outside Buckingham Palace, celebrating Hitler’s downfall.”
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 733)