Fasanenstrasse Synagogue in Berlin
In March 1938, after the mass flight of Polish Jews from Austria to Poland, the anti-Semitic Polish government promulgated a decree whose purpose was to annul the citizenship of Poles who had lived outside the country for more than five years. This was an attempt by the government to strip Polish Jews in Germany of their citizenship. Over fifty thousand suddenly became state-less.
Not to be outdone, the Nazis made arrangements to expel the Polish Jews, who were ordered from their homes and dumped in a no-man’s land on the German-Polish frontier. In Paris, a seventeen year old Jewish refugee named Hershl Grynszpan was outraged at the brutal expulsion of his parents from Hanover, Germany. He went to the French Embassy in Paris and shot and fatally wounded the third secretary, Ernst vom Rath. These are the events that led to Kristallnacht, which more accurately should be called Pogrom Night.
The Times-Picayune gave extensive coverage to Kristallnacht:
The first article in the newspaper appeared on page six on November 10, 1938. It recounted the German diplomat’s death and quoted Herschel Grynszpan: “I did not want to kill. I felt I had to do something to show our despair…I lost my head – I have done a horrible thing.”
The previous night, on November 9, 1938, at the annual celebration of the 1923 beer hall putsch, news of von Rath’s death reached Hitler and he was overheard telling Goebbels that the “SA should have a fling.”Hitler left the beer hall after giving an uncustomary brief speech. This was an obvious effort to disassociate him and the government from what would later be described as a “spontaneous” outburst of German anger against the Jews. That night the order went out to Nazi party offices and police stations throughout Germany. The instructions were clear: burn synagogues; smash Jewish businesses; ransack Jewish homes and businesses; protect non-Jewish property from damage, arrest all Jewish men and send them to concentration camps.
Kristallnacht in Berlin suburb
SA men dressed in civilian clothing led the assault. Crowds or ordinary people gathered to watch the spectacle. Nearly all of the synagogues in the Greater German Reich, which included Austria and the recently seized Sudeten territories, were ransacked and torched.
Kristallnacht in the Sudetenland
Only a few synagogues were spared - they were located next to German buildings. Fireman were on hand to protect buildings owned by Germans. Jewish homes were ransacked and thieving hands ran free.
Kristallnacht in Berlin
Seven thousand Jewish businesses were destroyed, their contents littering the streets. But it was the glass from the smashed windows that gave the pogrom its name: Kristallnacht, or Night of the Crystals. The name suggested that there was something beautiful about this night of violence.
Jewish men arrested at Kristallnacht
Thirty thousand Jewish men were sent to concentration camps. Many perished there. Those with visas to another country were released. Thousands were subjected to humiliation and torture, and the official tally suggested that a hundred Jews were killed that night. This figure may be taken as a gross underestimate.
The article referred to the “Mobs” and “wreckers” and “angry crowds” who caused the devastation. This conformed to the Nazi propaganda’s argument that the violence was “spontaneous” and “the justifiable and understandable indignation of the German people…”
The reporter noticed the peculiar behavior of the police: “At the height of the demonstration few police were seen.” This was a clever way of avoiding the ire of Nazi officials while telling the readers that the “action” was not “spontaneous” nor the work of “the German people” but of the Nazi brown shirts operating with the connivance of the police and on orders from above. The police were simply following orders, as they would a few years later when ordered to put the Jews on trains bound for the killing fields and death camps in “the east.”
Looting wasn’t part of the plan. Ordinary people weren’t invited to participate. They invited themselves: “The crowd surged into the store. Women started grabbing what they could lay hands on.”
On November 12, 1938, the readers of The Times-Picayune turned to page 3 and found information about the pogrom. The reporter described the police who “strolled” about and “kept looking the other directions whenever wreckers were at work.” We learn that nearly all of “the Jewish temples” in Germany were destroyed during the “mob’s well-organized assault,” and that Jewish men “were arrested in droves and carted off to undisclosed destination.” The reporter did not want to say “concentration camp” for fear of getting in trouble with the authorities. The meaning of “undisclosed destination” was left to the reader’s imagination.
The Times-Picayune’s editorial on November 12, 1938, came with the headline “Pogrom, New Style.” But there was nothing “New” about Kristallnacht. It was a pogrom like those in medieval history and would be the last traditional pogrom in Germany. A more systematic approach to exploitation and murder would follow. Referring to Goebbels’ suggestion that the Jews would soon be expelled from Germany, the editorial observed, “Where they would go, or how, none can say. But the German government would have their property and what money they have left.” No country would accept paupers. The Nazis wanted to get rid of the Jews but made it difficult for them to get out.
On November 13, 1938, the newspaper published a front page article with a bold headline on Kristallnacht. The article reported the U. S. government contemplated breaking off diplomatic relations with Germany (instead the ambassador was recalled), and that the Jewish community would be fined one million marks, the equivalent of four hundred million dollars. They would have to pay for the damage that the Nazis inflicted on their property. The German government would seize insurance payments.
Another article on November 13, 1938, appeared on page two. It described German Jews who attempted to cross the border to France but were turned back by French gendarmerie, “acting on strict orders from Paris.” Meanwhile, Cardinal Faulhaber’s palace in Munich was attacked by a Nazi mob. The local Nazi leader claimed that Faulhaber’s represented “Roman Catholic allies of Jews.”
This article, also found on page 3 of the November 13th issue, reported that Herschel Grynszpan “wept and prayed” when he was informed of the one billion mark fine levied against German Jewry “because of his act.” He said that he would “pray every Monday for forgiveness for what I have done to my people.”
Also on November 13th, an article on page 8 of The Times-Picayune featured Dr. Baruch Braunstein, who was described as a “student of international affairs” and a Zionist. He was conducting a three day “institute” at Touro Synagogue “on Jewish problems.” His solution? He recommended the opening of Palestine (then a British Mandate) to two and a half million Jews (or “Semites,” as the headline said). He spoke prophetically about “the great showdown” between Germany and Russia: “It is only when Hitler’s territorial ambition lures him into rich wheat fields and oil fields of the Ukraine that Russia will become aroused and the great showdown will be at hand.”