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Kristallnacht: A Family Recollection

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The SA men, some of whom were drunk, hoisted gasoline cans and began drenching the exterior of the synagogue. Others with crowbars disappeared inside to wreak havoc. The most vocal of the Brownshirts produced lit torches and with cruel smiles on their faces turned the synagogue into a wall of flames. The firemen did nothing, remaining alert, however, to ensure that the flames would not jump to adjacent non-Jewish property. Ironically, Philip and his family had raised money to fund their fire trucks.

The Jewish men stood helpless as their beloved synagogue was destroyed. When the flames died down, the Stormtroopers bundled the heartbroken Jewish men into a military lorry and took them to an unknown destination.

* * * * *

My father heard this account and understood at once the full magnitude of the horror. The torched synagogue had once been the center of a 300-member Jewish community. But in recent years Jews had steadily left, fleeing abroad or moving to big cities where they could live more anonymously. Now, Ihringen’s Jewish world was gone.

“What are we going to do?” one of his aunts wept helplessly. My father recalled that despite his shock, he knew at that moment what he needed to do. He had to take care of things the women could not. He went to each family’s barn and tended to the livestock. All the cows needed to be milked and given fresh feed and water. At his Uncle Marx’s barn, he noticed a pony looking wild-eyed and panic stricken, spooked by the events. My father found a handful of oats and fed it to him, walking him around the barn. Forcing himself to be calm for the animal’s sake helped him soothe his own welling sense of panic. By the time he returned to his mother’s kitchen, he knew he was now the man of the family. He would cheerfully keep his mother’s and aunts’ spirits up while he took care of things until the men’s fates were known.

The Nazis had shut down all Jewish newspapers but from what he had witnessed and through word of mouth he knew the destruction was widespread.

The fuse for the pogrom’s explosion was lit on October 18 when the Nazis, seeking to make Germany judenrein, expelled over 12,000 Polish-born Jews residing within their borders. The anti-Semitic Polish government accepted only 4,000 back. The remaining Jews found themselves languishing in villages and train stations along the Polish-German frontier. The largest concentration of this misery was at the Zbaszyn train station where 7,000 people had little food and were forced to sleep on the cold stone floor. At least five committed suicide.

Stranded at that station was a couple who had lived in Germany for twenty-seven years and had a teenage son, Hershel Grynszpan, living in Paris. Through a heart-rending postcard sent from the station, he learned of his parents’ plight and the expellees’ dire situation. Enraged, Hershel bought a pistol and on November 7 went to the German Embassy in Paris, demanding to speak to the ambassador, pretending he had an important document to deliver. He was met by career diplomat Ernst vom Ram. Shouting “Here, in the name of 12,000 persecuted Jews, is your document!” he shot the Nazi.

Vom Rath was rushed to the hospital and the German Embassy immediately relayed the news to Berlin. Hitler dispatched his personal physician to Paris to care for the diplomat, who hovered near death for two days. On the evening of November 9, Hitler was commemorating the anniversary of his 1923 Beer Hall Putsch. During the event, word came from Paris that the diplomat had died.

Propaganda Minister Goebbels and the Nazi leadership had long laid plans for a mass action against the Jews. Grynszpan’s desperate act provided them the perfect excuse. Goebbels called police and Nazi party leaders, setting phone lines buzzing across the country, and told them to begin “spontaneous” demonstrations.

The German media helped whip up anti-Semitic hysteria, holding the Jews collectively responsible for the assassination and claiming it to be part of a greater Jewish conspiracy against the Reich. Goebbels gloated at the ferocity of the savage rampage, writing: “As was to be expected, the entire nation is in an uproar. This is one dead man who is costing the Jews dear. Our darling Jews will think twice in the future before simply gunning down German diplomats.”

About the Author: Ed Lion is a former reporter for United Press International now living in the Poconos.


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Judaism holds that nothing happens by chance, that everything is orchestrated by Hashem. And so it was long ago on a Sunday morning, about a month after Pesach when my father ran an errand for his parents.

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