At 1:20 a.m. on Nov. 10, 1938, Reinhard Heydrich, the brutal Nazi security boss, sent an urgent telegram to German police nationwide.
The subject was: “Measures against Jews tonight.”
“Places of business and apartments belonging to Jews may be destroyed but not looted,” he wrote. “Non-Jewish businesses are [to be] completely protected against damage . . . the demonstrations are not to be prevented by the Police.”
“As many Jews in all districts – especially the rich – as can be accommodated in existing prisons are to be arrested,” Heydrich added.
“For the time being only healthy male Jews, who are not too old, are to be detained,” he instructed. “After the detentions have been carried out the appropriate concentration camps are to be contacted immediately for the prompt accommodation of the Jews in the camps.”
These were the official Nazi orders for the wave of savage anti-Semitic attacks that became known as Kristallnacht – Crystal Night, the night of the shattered glass. It was so called because broken glass littered the streets of many German and Austrian cities. The attacks are widely seen as a violent turning point in what would become the Holocaust.
It was a massive upheaval across Germany, Austria and the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia that killed scores of Jews and destroyed thousands of Jewish businesses. In total, 267 synagogues were destroyed. Torahs were burned. Jewish cemeteries were desecrated.
Houses were ransacked, often by neighbors and acquaintances of the victims.
The interior of Berlin’s beautiful, domed Fasanenstrasse Synagogue, which had opened in 1912 but was closed by the Nazis in 1936, was gutted.
The official number of dead was around 90, but some historians believe it to be much higher.
In Hamburg, Johanna Gerechter Neumann watched as the calamity unfolded.
“What I saw was hordes of people standing in front of our beautiful synagogue and throwing stones through these magnificent colored windows,” she recalled in a 1990 oral history interview preserved at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. “It was total chaos, total destruction.”
The attacks, according to the Nazis, were sparked by the assassination of a German official in France by a Jewish teenager, Herschel Grynszpan. On Nov. 7, 1938, apparently angry at the Nazi’s expulsion of his parents and other Polish Jews living in Germany, Grynszpan went to the German Embassy in Paris and shot a junior diplomat named Ernst vom Rath. The Nazi response was to blame “world Jewry” for the assassination and whip up a public frenzy. Jews had to be arrested for their own “protection.”
The attacks stunned much of the world and were a terrifying warning of worse things to come.
“Kristallnacht was a turning point in the history of the Third Reich, marking the shift from antisemitic rhetoric and legislation to the violent, aggressive anti-Jewish measures that would culminate with the Holocaust,” according to the Holocaust Museum.
“I myself could scarcely believe that such things could occur in a 20th-century civilization,” President Franklin Roosevelt said after the attacks. He ordered the U.S. ambassador to Germany, Hugh Wilson, home for consultations.
The 80th anniversary of the massacre comes as the U.S. copes with the slaughter of 11 people at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue Saturday. The Pittsburgh shooting was the deadliest attack on Jews in the country’s history. The suspect is a virulent anti-Semite, Robert Bowers, a 46-year-old truck driver who lived just outside Pittsburgh.
Some observers find it as hard to believe in the 21st century as others had in the 20th.
Ernest Newbrun was a child in Vienna that November. He recalled in a 2006 oral history that his father was arrested during Kristallnacht while “waiting for a streetcar,” because he had Jewish identity papers.
“They arrested so many males that the prison couldn’t accommodate them,” Newbrun recalled in a videotaped interview that the Holocaust Museum has. “So he was held in a school. My father had long, beautiful, wavy hair. They shaved his head.”
The elder Newbrun barely escaped being sent to a concentration camp, apparently because he was a wounded combat veteran of World War I and later was a military police officer in Vienna.
“He was told if he left the country they would release him,” Newbrun said. His father agreed and was released several weeks later. “I . . . recall when he came home to our house, the shock I had of seeing him with his head shaven, and the smell. Children remember smells. For two weeks he’d not been able to wash.
“The day after Kristallnacht, there were Hitler [Youth] who had robbed a synagogue in the neighborhood who were driving around on a flatbed truck with things they had stolen from the synagogue,” he said. “They were blowing a shofar,” a horn used in Jewish religious ceremonies.
Leo Liffman was planning to leave Germany for the United States in December and was living and working near Weimar. He was at work the afternoon of Nov. 9 or 10, he recalled in a 1985 interview, now preserved at the Holocaust Museum.
“Police knocked on the door,” he remembered. “I was taken prisoner in the name of the German Reich.”
He was taken to the Buchenwald concentration camp, about 15 minutes away. “I didn’t even know it was there,” he said.
He watched as other “transports” arrived. “Jews, Jews, Jews,” he said. “All standing in the courtyard.”
Conditions were dreadful. Liffman said an old man fell in a camp latrine and drowned. Another man was strung up by his hands.
“This was just the beginning of that whole thing,” he said. “It was before they talked about the Final Solution and all that. ”
Liffman was at Buchenwald for about three weeks. A few days after his arrival, the prisoners were summoned by the authorities to fill out paperwork. One question was: Can you leave Germany? Liffman responded, yes, within three weeks.
A short time later, his named was called over the camp loudspeaker. He reported to camp officials. His head was shaved. He was allowed to wash his hands. He was released, he believes, because he had his papers to leave for the United States.
Many, like Liffman, were released by the Nazis, on the condition they get out of the country.
He had one final meeting with his father and mother before he left Germany.
After reaching the United States, he corresponded with his parents until World War II broke out. After that, his letters were returned, stamped “Deceased.”
(c) 2018, The Washington Post · Michael E. Ruane