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Minneapolis Star Tribune, Nov. 9, 1988

A Survivor of Kristallnacht remembers
John J. Neumaier

Half a century later, I am I still haunted by memories of Germany's Kris-tallnacht, the night of the broken glass, which I lived through as a teenager in Frankfurt am Main.

In the middle of the night of Nov. 9-10, 1938, I stood with my parents at the window of our apartment, watching in horror as the flames leaped from the roof of our beautiful synagogue down the street. The Nazis had ignited it with gasoline and the fire brigades stood by – not to put the fire out, but to keep it from spreading to nearby houses.

Synagogues all over Germany were put to the torch that night. The infamous November pogrom signaled the Nazis’ emerging plan for the “Final Solution", the cold-blooded murder of six million European Jews, one third of the world’s Jewish population. Among the victims were my mother and many relatives and friends.

On the radio we listened to Joseph Goebbels, the minister of propaganda, describing how the attacks were a “spontaneous" reaction of the German people to the assassination of Ernst vom Rath, the third secretary of the German Embassy in Paris, by a 17-year-old Polish-Jewish refugee from Germany named Herschel Grynszpan.

The actual background was this: in response to Germany’s plan to expel 50,000 Polish Jewish residents of Polish nationality, the Polish government had decided to prevent the repatriation of any who had been absent for more than five years by depriving them of Polish citizenship.

Before this Polish decree could take effect, thousands of these unwanted families, including their children, had been rounded up by German officials, transported like cattle to the German-Polish frontier and forced to cross the border. Many of the unwelcome returnees, including Herschel Grynszpan’s family (who had lived in Hanover for 24 years), were herded together in inns, stables and sheds in the Polish village of Zbonzsyn. There was widespread suffering.

When a communication from his desperate family reached Herschel Grynszpan in Paris, the frenzied youth decided to draw the attention of the world to the barbaric Nazi action. He shot vom Rath on Nov. 7. The German diplomat died Nov. 9. Late that evening Hitler unleashed his SA storm troups and the SS (the Nazi elite corps). Near midnight, the Gestapo (German secret police) ordered all German police headquarters to ensure the “orderly" implementation of the pogrom. The assassination provided an official pretext for what already had been decided: to expedite the “solution" of the Jewish problem.

On Thursday morning, Nov. 10, I took a streetcar to Frankfurt’s city center to see what was going on. A crowd had gathered in front of a shoe store. Its windows were smashed and shoes and shoe boxes lay strewn among the debris of broken glass. Further downtown I saw more destruction, broken store windows, curious onlookers, and SA men shouting epithets at Jews. Later I was to learn that what I witnessed was mild compared with the savagery to which Jews were subjected elsewhere in the country.

When I returned home that day, there were telephone calls from anxious Jewish friends and acquaintances whose husbands, sons and fathers had been taken away by the Gestapo. It became clear that male Jews were being picked up indiscriminately to be sent to concentration camps. In our region the youngest sent to camps that day was 14, the oldest, 84.
The next morning, Nov. 11, my father, then 64, was taken away by a lawyer who explained apologetically that he’d been deputized by the Gestapo for the purpose. It turned out that he had known my father since before World War I.

My mother and I frantically sought information about what concentration camp my father was to be sent to. She literally jumped for joy when the bell rang that evening and she saw him out the window waving to her from the outer gate of our apartment house. He had been taken to the huge Frankfurt exposition building. There the arrested Jews were made to exercise all day until they were shipped to the concentration camp at Dachau.

At first we thought he had been released because of his four years’ service during World War I. But he explained that it was because of his age. My father and I (then 17) were fortunate in that the Gestapo had not come to our house until the second day of the mass arrests. By then only Jews between 18 and 60 were sent to concentration camps from Frankfurt.

That we lived just two houses from the mayor of Frankfurt was perhaps another reason that we were spared the cruel fate of so many other Jewish citizens that November.

In the old city, where many orthodox Jews lived, furniture was hurled from apartment windows. In Vienna and other towns, there were instances where people were thrown onto the street, along with their belongings. In many German cities and villages, Jews were subjected to the most sadistic atrocities. In addition to looting, beatings and killings, they were forced to paint anti-Semitic slogans on walls, clear the streets of debris, wash the sidewalks on hands and knees, and march through the town with obscenities inscribed on placards hung around their necks. A collective fine of one billion marks was levied against Jews of Germany to pay for the broken windows.

The Kristallnacht pogrom foreshadowed the genocide to follow. Though it became known to the outside world through diplomats and the foreign media, little was done to save Jews or to prevent the Holocaust. When German fascism was eventually vanquished, some 50 million human beings had lost their lives.

We must resolve that this will not happen again, to Jews or to any human beings. But the history of human cruelty and depravity is not yet at an end. For us in the United States, remembering the Kristallnacht pogrom, learning to understand it and working in solidarity with others for social justice in our land and in other lands affected by U.S. policies is to participate in the struggle for human survival and dignity.