75 Years Ago, Kristallnacht Presaged The Holocaust

It was once impossible to imagine Germany without Jews. You only have to look at the Yiddish language to have a sense how richly the Jewish experience was integrated in the cultural life of Germany. That ended in the most vicious and heinous manner, 75 years ago Saturday, in what became known as Kristallnacht — "The Night of Broken Glass." The broken glass was from Jewish homes and buildings, and came to symbolize shattered Jewish lives. Some also consider it the start of the Holocaust. Back in 1988, NPR reporter Ketzel Levine pulled together some of the sounds of that period. This is an excerpt from that story.

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It was once impossible to imagine Germany without Jews. You only have to look at the Yiddish language to have a sense of how richly the Jewish experience was integrated in the cultural life of Germany. That ended in the most vicious and heinous manner 75 years ago today.

Kristallnacht. In German, out of context, it sounds pretty: crystal night. But the crystals were the shattered glass from Jewish homes and buildings, shattered Jewish lives and, some would say, the start of the Holocaust. Back in 1988, reporter Ketzel Levine pulled together some of the sounds of that period.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Heil Hitler. Sieg heil.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Heil.

RATH: Here, from the archives of 1988, is an excerpt from that story.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: From The New York Times, Monday, November 7, 1938, Paris. Seeking to avenge his fellow Jewish sufferers from Nazi persecution and oppression, 17-year-old Herschel Grynszpan, a German-born Polish emigre of Jewish extraction, today shot and wounded Ernst vom Rath , third secretary of the German embassy. Vom Rath is said to be in serious condition. In Berlin, the official German correspondent service has charged that international Jewry is responsible for the assassination attempt.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in foreign language)

KETZEL LEVINE, BYLINE: Hitler's pretext for the Kristallnacht was an angry aloof teenager upset by a postcard he'd received from his sister. She wrote that their family was among thousands of Jews deported from Germany to Poland. He bought a gun, and on Monday, November 7, fired five shots at a German embassy official - five shots that marked the end of Herschel Grynszpan's revenge and the beginning of a national pogrom.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in foreign language)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: The New York Times, Thursday, November 10, 1938, Berlin. In a day of terror surpassing anything even the Third Reich has seen, National Socialist cohorts took vengeance on Jewish shops, offices and synagogues for the murder of a German diplomat by a young Polish Jew. Beginning systematically in the early morning hours in almost every town and city in Germany, wrecking, looting and burning continued all day.

Huge but mostly silent crowds looked on as raiding squads of young men roamed unhindered through shopping districts, breaking shop windows with metal weapons, tossing merchandise into the streets and leaving unprotected Jewish shops to the mercy of vandals in an unprecedented show of violence. By nightfall, there was scarcely a Jewish shop, cafe office or synagogue in the country that was not either wrecked, burned severely or damaged.

ERMGARD ZENGER: (Through Translator) We saw something burning, and we asked our teacher what it was. He answered sadly: The synagogues are burning.

LEVINE: Ermgard Zenger(ph) was a 14-year-old schoolgirl living in Frankfurt at the time of the Kristallnacht.

ZENGER: (Through Translator) And after school, children as we were, we wanted to see what had happened. And on the way home, we saw a large group of young Nazis. They knew where the Jews lived, and they were throwing their furniture out of the houses and into the streets. And the people watching below were really charged, even cheering the young Nazis on. And I remember seeing a woman, a Jewish woman, standing at the window tearing her hair out and screaming.

LEVINE: The German solution to anti-Semitism was extermination. It was announced unequivocally November 9, 1938, because the Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass, was not a night of madness. It was, instead, another piece of the master plan.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: The New York Times, Friday, November 11, 1938, Berlin. National Socialist propaganda minister Dr. Joseph Goebbels today openly sanctioned the wave of terrorism and destruction that swept over Germany yesterday. There was no word of condemnation or regret for the excesses. On the contrary, Dr. Goebbels declared that the nation followed its healthy instincts. There is only one thing the Jews can do, Dr. Goebbels said in his statement to the foreign press, shut up and say nothing further about Germany.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Singing in foreign language)

LEVINE: I don't know what it means that I'm so terribly sad - the first verse to one of Germany's best-known folk songs, "The Lorelei." Four days after the Kristallnacht, the song was banned. The words had been written by Heinrich Heine, a German Jew.

CHARLIE AND HIS ORCHESTRA: (Singing) Another war, another profit, another Jewish business trick. Another season, another reason for making whoopee.

LEVINE: German propaganda against the Jews was as varied as it was vicious, including printed diatribes, harrowing films and Charlie and his Orchestra.

ORCHESTRA: (Singing) We throw our German names away, we are the kikes of USA. You are the goys folks, we are the boys folks, we're makin' whoopee.

LEVINE: Seven years would pass before the death camps would be liberated and the survivors separated from the human debris. By then, a third of German Jewry was dead. Guilt and responsibility for the Kristallnacht are not solely German concerns. While Nazi Germany did perpetrate the crime, world apathy condoned it.

News of burning synagogues, mass deportations, Jews begging on their knees to cross borders appeared on the front pages of America's newspapers throughout November 1938. On this anniversary, memories of the Kristallnacht do not gain or lose in importance. The exercise is to remember, the triumph is to never forget. I'm Ketzel Levine.

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