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1938 Attacks Foreshadowed Holocaust : W. Germans Look Back at Terror of 'Crystal Night'

November 07, 1988|WILLIAM TUOHY | Times Staff Writer

FRANKFURT, West Germany — Fifty years ago, on the evening of Nov. 9, Nazi thugs attacked Jews and their institutions throughout Germany--a vicious, violent assault that foreshadowed the Holocaust.

That dreadful evening in 1938 has gone down in history as Kristallnacht --"crystal night," which is sometimes called the "night of the broken glass," a phrase coined by the Nazis. But that characterization is deeply resented by Jews today since it conjures up images only of shattered windows, glass shards and fragments on the streets, rather than a pogrom, or unprovoked persecution and massacre, that the event really was.

Synagogues were destroyed across the Third Reich, in large cities and small towns, wherever Germany's 550,000 Jews lived, worked and prayed. As many as 1,118 places of worship were desecrated in Germany and Austria. At the time, official figures put the number of synagogues vandalized at a mere 195.

Jewish homes were broken into everywhere and many set ablaze. Non-Jewish friends and neighbors joined in the abuse, beatings and destruction, or stood by, watching. Firemen and police also watched without interfering.

The official death toll of Jewish victims was set at 36, but historians subsequently have estimated fatalities as high as 1,000. In addition to the deaths and destruction during that fiery night and the next day, about 30,000 Jews were seized and sent to concentration camps, the beginning of the darkest period in German history.

Kristallnacht gave the world its first look at Nazi anti-Semitic terror.

"It was the end for German Jewry," said Georg Heuberger, director of the Jewish museum that will be opened here Wednesday to mark the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht. "And it was the beginning of the process of destroying millions of Jews in Europe.

"Remember, this was peacetime, in the middle of Europe, against a Jewish population that had been living here and contributing for centuries."

Planned Well in Advance

As the 42-year-old Heuberger pointed out, the Kristallnacht pogrom had been planned well in advance: Adolf Hitler was only waiting for an excuse, which was provided when a young Polish Jew, Herschel Grynzspan, reacting to the deportation of his family from Germany, assassinated a diplomat, Ernst von Rath, at the German Embassy in Paris a few days before.

To commemorate the appalling events of Nov. 9-10, 1938, civic leaders in all parts of Germany are holding a variety of observances.

In Frankfurt, a restored synagogue will be opened by West German President Richard von Weizsaecker and Chancellor Helmut Kohl along with leading members of the Jewish community. And the Jewish Museum will open its doors in an old mansion along the Main River that belonged to the Frankfurt branch of the Rothschild banking family.

The building, which survived Kristallnacht and wartime bombing, houses an exhibit that incorporates audio-visual displays tracing the history of Jews in Germany, how they contributed to Frankfurt itself (and how they were deported), as well as explaining some basics of Jewish life, religion, and customs.

Educational Presentation

"It's an educational presentation to tell visitors about Jewish life," said Heuberger.

While Frankfurt is one focal point of the commemoration, major observances will also be held at the Bundestag--the federal legislature in Bonn--and in West and East Berlin.

"Hundreds of smaller towns have prepared exhibits to show what happened in their own community, whether the local synagogue was burned down or sold," said Eckhard von Nordheim, a Protestant minister who heads the Society for Christian-Jewish Cooperation in West Germany.

In East Germany, the Parliament will hold a special session and other ceremonies will include laying a foundation stone at a war-ravaged East Berlin synagogue being renovated as a museum and cultural center. Books, films, plays, articles and a big exhibition are also being used to depict the pogrom and its consequences.

Silence and Sorrow

Roman Catholic bishops in East and West Germany and Austria have also recalled with sorrow the silence of the church during Kristallnacht --and later--and have declared in a recent, widely circulated statement that they now accept "the burden of history."

The leader of the opposition Social Democratic Party, Hans-Jochen Vogel, said of the commemorations: "No one can be held responsible for the guilt of their fathers and mothers, but we must accept this part of our history and live with it."

West Germany's Social Democrats have already organized one symposium at which Jewish survivors of Kristallnacht described their experiences to high school students.

"The loneliness of the Jews then had such a quality of finality that it hasn't really been overcome even today," said Gad Beck, head of a Jewish elementary school in West Berlin.

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