Fire!


“As I drove up Berlin Tauentzien in a taxi on 10 November 1938 at about three in the morning, I heard glass shattering on both sides of the street. As if dozens of wagons filled with glass were overturned. I looked out of the cab and saw to the left and right a muscular man in front of about every fifth building, breaking the shop window with a long iron bar. When he was ready, he briskly moved on to the next one, and calmly began to break the untouched glass.

Apart from these men, wearing brown breeches, riding boots and civilian jackets, not a single person was seen near and far. The taxi turned into the Kurfürstendamm. Even here at regular intervals were men armed with long bars, smashing “Jewish” store windows. It seemed that each of them has a share of five to ten houses. A rain of cracking glass splattered onto the pavement. As if the whole town did not consist but of cracking glass. It was like a ride right through the dream of a madman.

Between Uhland- and Knesebeckenstraße I stopped the cab, opened the door, and just put my right foot on the ground, when a man stepped out from behind the closest tree, and energetically warned me: “Don’t get out. Move on immediately.” He wore a hat and a long coat. “But listen to me”, I began, “well, I’m just here…” – “No”, he interrupted me in a menacing tone. “It is forbidden to get out. Move on, immediately.” He pushed me back in the cab, gave a sign to the driver, slammed the door behind me, and the driver complied. We passed on in the spooky night of cracking panes. On the Wilmersdorfer Straße I again stopped the car. Again a man in civilian clothes approached us. “Police. Move on!” That afternoon the newspapers reported that in view of the authorities’ patience with Jewish shops, the public’s simmering soul had boiled over and spontaneously had taken matters into its own hand.”

Erich Kästner: Unser Weihnachtsgeschenk


The Berlin commemorations on the Pogromnacht of seventy-five years ago also include the small exhibition opened on the eve of the anniversary in the museum and research center Topographie des Terrors, established on the place of the former Gestapo headquarters.

The exhibition summarizes on nine columns, in nine short text blocks and archival photographs the details and precedents of the centrally organized pogroms of 9 to 10 November 1938. The semi-circular arrangement of the columns is explained by the fact that the first version of the exhibition was organized in the Neue Synagoge, destroyed during the war and rebuilt in 1993 as Centrum Judaicum, and their arc followed the apse of the former synagogue. It is really fitting to an exhibition organized on the 75th anniversary of the destruction of the German synagogues that its layout recalls the shape of a non-existing synagogue.


On the effect of the Nazi boycott propaganda and the territorial “economic advisers” forcing the acquisition of Jewish shops, by the beginning of 1938 some 60-70% of the former Jewish owners already gave up their business, as we have mentioned it in the post on Willy Römer. However, the liquidation of the rest met with a strong resistance both in business and government circles. Goering, responsible for the four-year plan, sought to gradually exploit Jewish property for the re-arming of Germany, while propaganda minister Goebbels, who was also the party leader of Berlin, needed a spectacular action to confirm his position. In the autumn of 1938 it was not yet clear which position would prevail. On 17 October SS Chief Commander Himmler expelled all Jews of Polish citizenship from Germany. Seventeen thousand were deported to the Polish border, where they spent a month in inhumane conditions, because the Polish state did not want to receive them. The seventeen-year old Herschel Grynszpan, whose family was also among the deported, on 7 November shot in Paris, out of revenge, the German diplomat Ernst vom Rath. Goebbels rushed to exploit the event.


The news of the assassination reached Hitler in the evening, while he was celebrating the fifteenth anniversary of the Munich Beer Hall Putsch on the Munich City Hall. After a short discussion with Goebbels he spectacularly left the room, which was interpreted by Goebbels to the assembled party leaders that Hitler would not oppose a spontaneous outburst of anger of the people. Instructions from the party headquarters were sent at 22:30 to the local party organizations nationwide, and they still managed to mobilize several thousands of party members, who at that time were celebrating in the pubs. Directed by previously distributed lists, they destroyed more than seven thousand Jewish shops, many Jewish homes, and all the synagogues, and they killed or chased into suicide about 400 people.


A unique piece of the exhibition is the Jewish calendar and Berlin synagogue guide published for the year of 5698, that is, from September 1937 to September 1938, in which its owner noted by hand, which synagogue on which day was destroyed. Goebbels, the organizer of the 1931 Charlottenburg pogrom explicitly demanded in a phone call the destruction of the Fasanenstraße synagogue in Charlottenburg (lowest line, in the middle), whose image in flames became an emblem of the exhibition.



At the same time there began a wave of the public humiliation of the Jews. During the night the Gestapo ordered the arrest of 30 thousand wealthy Jews, who were deported to the concentration camps of Dachau, Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen. Some of the detainees were previously forced to gymnastic exercises, led through the town in a musical procession, or thrown in the nearby lakes and rivers, where some of them drowned. The German population in most places did not participate in such actions – the secret report of the party emphatically missed public cooperation –, moreover, some even accommodated those who remained without a home, and in a few places civil resistance took place against the SA troops.


In the previous version of the exhibition the apse of the New Synagogue was the background of the nine columns. In the Topographie des Terrors this background is replaced with the photos of twenty-seven synagogues from all Germany (including Austria, the scene of the hardest pogroms, and the Sudetenland) ordered along the flat wall. The images of the Pogromnacht in the individual synagogues run through it as a single black stripe. The photos above the stripe show the synagogues before the destruction, and those below the stripe their slow, gradual metamorphosis after it. From the twenty-seven I highlight here four, of which three do not belong to present-day Germany.