Kristallnacht: What We Know Now

Rabbi Norman Patz

Temple Sholom of West Essex

Shabbat Toledot

November 9-10, 2018 / 2 Kislev, 5779

“Don’t send your boys to school in the morning.” That’s what a neighbor told the mother of John and Ernie Oettinger on November 9th 1938. The neighbor was a fireman who knew the SS plans for attacking Jews and Jewish institutions that night and the next day. The Oettingers lived in a small German town, Buttenhausen, where Jews had lived since 1800. Thanks to Fireman Schultz, the Oettinger boys didn’t go to school that day and they succeeded in fleeing to America where John, as a married adult, and his family became members of Temple Sholom of West Essex. Before his own untimely death, John told this story many times to the students in our religious school, motivated by his sense of gratitude to America and the vital need for Jews of the next generation to know.

Walter Klein, Laurie Katzmann’s older cousin, has memories that go back to when he was three years old. As an adult, he remembered and talked about his home in Bad Neustadt, where he played and slid down the cellar door with his dog Nellie. He particularly remembers the day when there was a parade outside. His parents told him to go inside and not look out the window. It was a Nazi parade of destroyers and looters. His father was arrested and imprisoned for four months. The family went to the prison every day to wave and talk to him. Walter remembers that his older brothers and sisters were expelled from school and not allowed to use the town swimming pool.

Fred Gottschalk’s mother chastised her eight year old son for leaving the family house in Oberwesel to watch Adolph Hitler pass by in a motorcade. She said, “A Jew risks a lot doing that.”

Why were these children told to stay inside? Why were they kept away from school? What was going on? It was Kristallnacht, the “night of broken glass,” November 9-10, 1938.

What happened to earn that night 80 years ago its name? SS storm troopers shattered the plate glass windows of 7500 Jewish-owned stores across Germany, half the whole year’s production of the Belgian glass industry. They attacked nearly 1400 synagogues, totally destroying 217 of them, throwing Torah scrolls into the gutter outside and stealing ornaments. Thirty thousand Jewish men, mostly well-to-do, were arrested and sent to Dachau, Sachsenhausen or Buchenwald concentration camps where a thousand of them died. Over a hundred Jews were murdered in their homes or on the streets. It was a night and day of unimaginable, out of control mob violence in a country that had long been admired as one of the most civilized nations in Europe. It shocked the world and traumatized the German Jewish community, which until then had tried to adjust to Nazi persecutions and to tough it out, until – they thought – Hitler would be gone.

What made Kristallnacht happen? The immediate cause or excuse was the death of a German consular official in Paris named Ernst vom Rath. He was shot by a 17 year old Polish Jew, Hershel Grynszpan, who was distraught about the Nazi government’s expulsion of all Polish Jews from Germany, dumping them on the Polish border. Among those 20,000 stranded Jews were Grynszpan’s parents. Vom Rath’s death gave the Nazi leadership an opportunity to solve a very challenging problem.

Before revealing the problem, we need to ask: Why was Kristallnacht such a shock? Antisemitism had been increasing in Germany from the end of World War I in 1918. One of the most widespread myths was that Germany had surrendered on November 11, 1918 one hundred years ago this weekend not because its armies had been defeated but because Germany had been “stabbed in the back” by Jews on the homefront. The Jewish Dolchstüss had caused Germany’s humiliating surrender.

When the Nazis came to power in 1933, one of the earliest arranged anti-Jewish events was a boycott of all Jewish-owned stores. On April 1, 1933, uniformed SA thugs stationed themselves in front of Jewish stores preventing customers from entering and they painted signs on the windows saying Kauft nicht bei Juden – don’t buy from Jews. This was a government campaign to identify and separate Jews from the rest of the population. Then came the Nuremburg laws of 1935, depriving German Jews of citizenship, firing all Jewish civil servants, and more. You’d think Jews were a big problem, but of Germany’s 1935 population of 67 million, there were about half a million Jews in Germany, less than eight-tenths of one percent total.

Identification, separation, isolation and deprivation of rights escalated, all cloaked in “legal” steps. The Berlin Olympics of 1936 had to be to look good, and so they seemed. But by 1938, the anti-Jewish campaign got more severe, particularly after the Anschluss in March, when Hitler took over Austria, bringing 185,000 more Jews under Nazi control. One success after another emboldened him and his followers. That April, the Nazis ordered Jews to register all their property, a value of two to six billion (1938) American dollars. In June, the synagogue in Munich was burned to the ground; in August the Nuremburg synagogue suffered the same fate.

In July, American president Franklin Delano Roosevelt convened an international conference at Evian in France to deal with the refugee crisis – that is, Jews trying to flee. The conference results: They appointed a committee to study the problem. No quotas were raised, not even for children. The only country willing to accept Jews was the Dominican Republic.

The Kindertransports that brought 10,000 children out of Nazi Europe without their parents were a private enterprise accepted by the British government. Most of the children were Jewish; one of them was John Oettinger’s brother Larry.

With the failure of the Evian conference, Chaim Weizmann said, “The seemed to be divided into two parts: those places where Jews could not live and those where they could not enter.”

Now I want to speak about the other very challenging problem that Germany was facing beyond figuring out how to get rid of their Jews: an acute financial problem. In 1937, Germany had a trade surplus but owing to the costs of the Nazis’ ambitious rearmament problem, by 1938 the government was 413 Reichmarks in debt and unable to pay back bond obligations of 12 billion Reichmarks. The solution? Make the Jews pay. And vom Rath’s death presented the opportunity. The Jewish community was forced to pay an “atonement” fine of 1 billion Reichmarks for hostility to the Jewish people and Reich. The insurance claims for damages to Jewish-owned properties that should have been paid to the Jewish owners were taken by the government and all Jewish property in the entire country was confiscated, “Aryanized.” Jews seeking to emigrate had to pay a huge “flight tax” in addition to surrendering their property. By early 1939, Göring reported to Hitler that Nazi finances were sound.

So Kristallnacht was not just the product of blind, irrational, Nazi-instigated Jew-hatred bursting out in “spontaneous” anger. It was that but it was much more:  a wholly orchestrated, government-initiated and ordered operation, a massive, pre-planned assault on Germany’s Jews, an ideological cover for the coldly calculated, fiendish theft that solved the Nazis’ financial crisis.

Some Jews thought it was the climax of persecution. Others, however, knew better. It was the beginning of the end.

How does this compare with the attack in Pittsburgh? Some contrasts with Pittsburgh are important.

First, Kristallnacht was government-organized. The Etz Hayyim gunman acted alone.

Second, in Germany the police stood by. In Pittsburgh, the police risked their lives and rushed in to rescue.

Third, the leadership of the Jewish community – already weakened by Nazi law – was stunned into paralysis. All they could do was carry on “business as usual” even though it was anything but. One German Jewish official wrote memos and dictated letters at his desk while through his window he watched the Fasanenstrasse synagogue go up in flames. And the leaders of the American Jewish community in 1938 decided against public protests, having good reason to fear an American antisemitic backlash. Remember Henry Ford’s Dearborn Independent, which published an English language translation of the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion forgery; Father Coughlin’s radio attacks on Jews and Charles Lindbergh’s anti-Semitic isolationism. Today, we see a rather more energetic, unapologetic public outcry.

Fourth, in Germany the crowds witnessing the destruction were silent and unhelping. In Squirrel Hill, everybody pitched in to help and the national reaction was a closing of ranks in solidarity with American Jews. It’s an American problem as well as, as much as a Jewish problem. It’s even possible that some rapprochement between Black advocates and Jews might emerge. Reverend Eric Manning, the pastor of the Charlotte, South Carolina where nine people 2343 murdered in June 2015, flew to Pittsburgh to show solidarity with synagogue members there. When he met with Rabbi Myers, the rabbi of the Etz Hayyim synagogue, they hugged. He said he didn’t want the rabbi to feel alone, and he read the 23rd psalm at Rose Mallinger’s funeral, the last of the eleven. That’s a hopeful note in this time of darkness.

As Kristallnacht was a wakeup call for German Jews, the massacre of Jews at worship in Pittsburgh should be a warning and an alert for us. Read Ruth Wisse’s article* in the silent sermon you have at hand.  Read my 2015 sermon on Kristallnacht on the Temple Sholom website.** These map out the dimensions of our immediate concerns.

And by way of highlighting these concerns, consider two stories: John Oettinger’s father fought in the Kaiser’s army in World War I. He was awarded an Iron Cross for his bravery. Tonight his grandson Kenny, who grew up in our congregation, brought the documentation. Having earned that award didn’t help many German Jewish veterans, but it may have made John’s brother Larry’s escape possible and thereby the rest of John’s family, an instance where a Jew’s love of his country helped. That Iron Cross may have also prompted the fireman neighbor to family on that fateful night. One lesson here is that Jews should be strong, engaged patriotic citizens and not take our American comforts for granted. We all worry about the divisions in America today. We need to work to strengthen civil society in our country while it is still possible.  

The second story: Fred Gottschalk whose mother told him to avoid the Hitler parade became a rabbi and was the president of HUC-JIR, our Reform movement’s rabbinical school, for 25 years until 1996. The day after Kristallnacht, Fred’s grandfather gave him shreds of a Torah scroll he had rescued from the river after that night of terror, telling him: “One day, we will put them together again.”

That’s our second lesson. Not literally to put shredded Torah scrolls together again but to be good Jews.

We need both: to be diligent, seriously committed American citizens and to be good Jews – for our own sake and for the safety and security of this country we love. Each can and ought to strengthen the other. Yes, the German Jews were loyal to Germany: Fully 20% of German Jews volunteered to fight in the First World War, a huge number! They won more Iron Crosses than any other group. It may have helped at the beginning but it wasn’t enough to withstand Nazi hatred. America is different! And yet Jewish history teaches us that we can never be complacent.  Our vigilance is vital for Jews and for democracy.


*Ruth Wisse, “The Many Faces of Jew-Hatred,” The Wall Street Journal, October 31, 2018:

** “Kristallnacht + 77: What Have We Learned?” NRP sermon of November 13, 2015