Friday, November 09, 2007

November 9

On November 9, 1938, Ernst Vom Rath -- a German official living in Paris -- died from a gunshot wound he’d sustained several days before. Vom Rath’s killer, a Polish Jew named Herschel Grynszpan, shot him out of frustration over the expulsion of thousands of Polish Jews -- including his own sister -- from their homes in Germany. Unwilling to accept the refugees either, the Polish government herded the deportees into squalid camps. After making his way to the German Embassy, Grynszpan shot Vom Rath on the morning of November 7.

After Von Rath died, Nazi mobs erupted throughout Germany and Austria. In an event known ever since as Kristallnacht -- usually translated as "the night of broken glass" -- Jewish property and community institutions were sacked with the approval and encouragement of German and Austrian authorities, who issued orders that police were not to interrupt the pogroms. More than 8,000 Jewish shops were damaged or destroyed, as civilians and SA stormtroopers attacked buildings with sledgehammers, leaving the streets covered in shards of broken windows. Jews were beaten to death; 30,000 Jewish men were taken to concentration camps; and 1,668 synagogues were ransacked, with 267 set on fire.

In Dinslaker, an industrial city in western Germany, a Jewish orphanage came under assault.
I opened the door: about 50 men stormed into the house, many of them with their coat- or jacket-collars turned up. At first they rushed into the dining room, which fortunately was empty, and there they began their work of destruction, which was carried out with the utmost precision. The frightened and fearful cries of the children resounded through the building. In a stentorian voice I shouted: "Children, go out into the street immediately!". . . .

Facing the back of the building, we were able to watch how everything in the house was being systematically destroyed under the supervision of the men of law and order – the police. At short intervals we could hear the crunching of glass or the hammering against wood as windows and doors were broken. Books, chairs, beds, tables, linen, chests, parts of a piano, a radiogram, and maps were thrown through apertures in the wall, which a short while ago had been windows or doors.

In the meantime the mob standing around the building had grown to several hundred. Among these people I recognized some familiar faces, suppliers of the orphanage or tradespeople, who only a day or a week earlier had been happy to deal with us as customers. This time they were passive, watching the destruction without much emotion.
In the aftermath of the two days of rioting, a police report from Muggendorf observed that "[o]ne segment of the people is of the opinion that the conscious actions and associated arrests and destruction were far too mild."

Indeed, Kristallnacht only marked the beginning of worse things to come. In the ten months before Germany invaded Poland and launched the second World War, well over 100,000 Jews fled the country.

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