November 6, 2008
This collection of selections of oral history focuses on two days in prewar Germany that set the stage for the horrors that were to come.
Bard, who published The Complete History of the Holocaust in 2000, includes the memories of scores of witnesses to Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, on Nov. 9-10, 1938. That most were children at the time is all the more heartbreaking. At an age when their biggest worries should have been doing their homework or making friends at school, they were forced to contend with the Nazis’ destroying their families’ property, businesses, and lives.
As the rumblings of Kristallnacht began in the hours before the attacks, many of those interviewed recall warnings from their teachers about looking for a safe route home and remaining unobtrusive. These children could not fathom what was happening, why people who were their neighbors the day before now wore uniforms and armbands, why these same people were heaving bricks through their fathers’ storefront windows and threatening passersby with mayhem.
Adults were at a loss to offer explanations, just as stunned by the rioting and violence as the children. Many contributors speak of the (relative) good fortune of a family member — usually a not-elderly adult male — whose absence from the scene saved them from beatings, arrest, deportation, or worse.
Bard includes a chapter about the few “Righteous Germans” who refused to stand idly by. It didn’t take much to warn a neighbor; sometimes the simple act of speaking up to a brown-shirted German youth stunned the rabble-rousers into moving on to a different target.
What was more disturbing was the faith these naive men and women put in their government, certain that officials would step in and put an end to the madness. Little did they know that the municipal services, such as fire and police departments, were specifically instructed to let the synagogues burn and to protect only the property of non-Jews.
The recollections may strike the reader as somewhat repetitive when taken as a whole. But the experiences — no matter how shared — still serve as a lesson of shock and shame.
‘A night you will never forget’
IMAGINE YOU ARE nine years old, sleeping soundly in your warm bed. Before going to sleep you went through the normal bedtime ritual of brushing your teeth and washing your hands and face. Your mother came in to read a story. When you wake up, you’ll eat breakfast and then go to school like you do every day.
You’re suddenly awakened by loud banging coming from the front door. You’re not fully awake yet, but then you hear the door crash to the ground and people running in. As you bolt upright, your mother rushes in and grabs you by the hand. She leads you downstairs to the living room where you see your father shouting at a group of men who are all dressed in brown shirts and carrying axes and knives and broom handles.
One of the men hits your father with the end of a knife across the forehead, and he begins to bleed. “Daddy!” you shout, and rush to his side.
The other men begin to smash the tables and chairs and rip the upholstery off the couch. The hoodlums break the windows facing the street and begin to pull the family’s books from the shelves and throw them out the window. You can hear the sound of dishes breaking in the kitchen as another intruder pulls everything from the cabinets and throws it on the ground….
Over [your mother’s] shoulder you can see smoke rising from the synagogue burning down the street. The store windows of the Jewish businesses nearby are all broken, and people are walking out of the stores with clothes, jewelry, and groceries. People are shouting and laughing amid the sound of glass shattering.
It is a night you will never forget. Later, people will call it Kristallnacht.
— From 48 Hours of Kristallnacht by Mitchell G. Bard