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Kristallnacht: A Turning Point in German Jewish History

Prof. Guy Miron
| 13/01/2009

During the night between Nov 9-10, 1938, a pogrom took place in the streets of Germany and Austria in which hundreds of synagogues were set ablaze and close to 100 Jews were murdered. Through that night and the following day, about 30,000 Jewish males were arrested and sent to concentration camps, the first systematic, wide scale arrest of Jews. Martin Buber, who was then already in Jerusalem, wrote an article several weeks later declaring the end of the German-Jewish symbiotic relationship. Indeed, Kristallnacht is perceived as marking a new era of persecution of Jews, and is often considered to be the opening event of the Holocaust.

In this article I will portray Kristallnacht as a turning point within the brief but very significant history of the German Jews under the Nazi regime.  I will demonstrate that certain lifestyles and attitudes that German Jews managed to develop beginning with the Nazi rise to power began to waver in 1938 and collapsed on the night of Nov. 9. I will claim that it is impossible to judge the behavior of the German Jews who lived under Nazi rule up to 1938.

The months following the Nazi rise to power in January 1933 saw a refashioning of Germany and German society. The non-Nazi parties were shut down one after another and parliamentary and judicial powers were redefined. Moreover, the Nazis, through what they called Gleichschaltung (forced coordination), worked aggressively to eradicate social pluralism in Germany and establish the ‘German community’ in every area of life. A variety of non-Nazi unions and organizations were closed and replaced by social and cultural organizations such as Hitler Jugend for youth and women’s and professional organizations, which operated under the auspices of the Nazi party. Heavy pressure was exerted upon German citizens to join these groups.

Paradoxically, the Jews were the only group under Nazi rule able to continue functioning within their own political and social framework. Of course, the Jews were hurt badly by the economic boycott, the anti-Semitic legislation of April 1933 and the fact that their political organizations were unable to voice criticism of the regime and were denied freedom of expression. At the same time, however, the Jewish communities and their old political organizations, chiefly the “Central Union of German Citizens of the Jewish Faith,” the “German Zionist Union,” and the “Union of the Jewish Front Soldiers,” continued to function. Nazi action against Jews at this stage focused on isolating them; they were not interested in dismantling Jewish organizations. On the contrary, as long as the Jews functioned within the framework of their own organizations, under police supervision, their segregation from the general population was reinforced. Thus, the authorities had no objection to the formation of the “National Representation of German Jews,” a united Jewish leadership led by Rabbi Leo Baeck,” in September 1933. While this body failed to negotiate a redefinition of the status of the Jews, it did function as a central force in re-organizing Jewish life in Germany under the Nazis.

When examining the range of initiatives and self-organizing activity by German Jews in 1933, one is likely to receive the impression of a Jewish renaissance, or “building within destruction,” as described by the Zionist thinker and educator Akiva Ernst Simon. Simon, who had made aliya to Israel in the late 1920’s and settled in Jerusalem, was asked by his teacher Martin Buber to return to Germany, and was active in establishing the “Adult Jewish Education Authority.” This body offered assimilated Jews a channel for connecting to Judaism through study of Jewish sources and history. In addition, community study halls were formed in a number of German cities, a variety of Jewish community schools were founded to accommodate Jewish children who were excluded from the German school system, and the rabbinical seminaries of Berlin and Breslau continued to function.

In 1933 Kurt Singer, booted from his job as director of the Berlin Opera, founded the “Jewish Cultural Association,” which rapidly spread to other German cities. The Society offered the Jewish public a wide range of cultural activity, from both German-European and Jewish repertoires, all supervised by the Nazi propaganda office which occasionally censured performances that were “too German” to be seen by Jewish audiences. Jewish organizations even ran sports activities, encouraged by the Nazis who exploited these for their propaganda needs, such as at the 1936 Olympic Games. All these activities were reported in detail by the German Jewish press, which not only continued to be published, but also significantly increased its distribution during this period.

Obviously, judging solely by the internal activity of the Jews would render an inaccurate impression. German Jews endured difficult years, and many suffered injury and humiliation. As time passed, many, especially younger Jews, understood that they had no future in Germany. Already in 1933, 37,000 Jews left Germany permanently and from 1934 about 20,000 left each year. A large part of Jewish organizations’ efforts was directed towards preparing for emigration. They offered professional training and language instruction, and distributed detailed information concerning various possible destinations. Nonetheless, in the early years, Jewish leadership, including Zionist leadership, did not contemplate immediate mass emigration from Germany, which was thought to be both impossible and irresponsible. Emigration was perceived as an inevitable but gradual process that would take many years and required responsible management.

Towards the end of 1937 the Jewish situation worsened, and greatly deteriorated in 1938. This at first took the form of increasing Aryanization, with forced sale of Jewish property to Aryans at ridiculous prices. This process of dispossession, at first gradual, was accelerated and became much more aggressive. Jewish businesses in areas where the policies towards the Jews had been less harsh, such as Hamburg, now suffered as well. The Anschluss, the annexation of Austria to Germany in March 1938, placed an additional 190,000 Jews under Nazi rule, and these were exposed to even more violent anti-Semitic policies than were the Jews in Germany. Austria, especially Vienna, was the first site of action by Adolf Eichmann’s unit to impose forced emigration on the Jews after stripping them of their possessions.

As the months wore on, 1938 saw increased signs of imminent collapse of the world in which German Jews had existed since 1933. In the summer of 1938, a long line of professions became closed to Jews, and the letter “J” (for Jude) was stamped in their passports. On October 28, 17,000 Polish Jews were expelled from Germany, an event that came to light mainly because the Poles were unwilling to receive the deportees and they remained in limbo for several days. The assassination of a German official in Paris by the Polish Jew, Herschel Grynszpan, whose parents were among those deported, served as the artificial trigger of the Kristallnachtpogrom; today we know that it was carefully planned and orchestrated by the Nazis.

These events placed German Jews in a completely new reality. On the days following Kristallnacht, when most of the Jewish community was busy worrying about the 30,000 Jewish men who had been rounded up and sent to Dachau, Sachsenhausen and Buchenwald, the Nazis ordered the dismantling of the Jewish political bodies, including the “National Representation,” closed the Jewish press and halted the activities of most of the Jewish social organizations. The exception was the “Jewish Cultural Association,” which continued to operate but under close scrutiny by the Nazi propaganda machine. All these events brought about the end of the period of Jewish social, cultural, and, to some degree, political autonomy that had existed since 1933. That existence was erased as if it had never been, and life for the Jews in Germany became intolerable.

There is a tendency among the Israeli public, and perhaps among others as well, to view the German Jews of this period as delinquent in their reading of their situation. They have also been judged harshly for not leaving Germany earlier, as developments were unfolding. It is important to bear in mind that German Jews and their leaders were well aware of the reality in which they lived under Nazi rule, and did exert efforts to promote emigration. However, they acted in accordance with the circumstances as they knew them from 1933 to 1937.  It was only the rapid deterioration of their situation, culminating in Kristallnacht, that forced them to prepare for immediate emigration on a massive scale.  In the wake of these events, the departure of the Jews from Germany shifted from a gradual, careful process of émigrés to a sudden flight of refugees. This rushed escape, combined with the collapse of organizations upon which Jewish existence had depended since 1933, marked not only the end of the “German-Jewish symbiosis” of 150 years as described by Buber, but also the end of a briefer but fascinating era described by Simon as “building within destruction.”

Dr. Guy Miron is an expert on German Jewry and Senior Lecturer in Jewish History at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies.

(English Translation: Penina Goldschmidt)

Photo: The streets of Berlin the day after Kristallnacht.

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