A prelude to horror

The evocative testimonies from victims of Kristallnacht


The thousands of books, the billion-fold repetition of the word, the endless aggregation of memorialisation of the Holocaust can have a dulling rather than heightening effect. What more that is new can be said? What can we learn that we do not already know? What have we not seen? What have we not heard? How can those too young to remember - the vast majority - comprehend?

Remarkably, this year has answered those questions not once, but twice. In April, 70 years late, the documentary film, German Concentration Camps Factual Survey, was finally assembled and released. Composed of footage shot by Allied army film crews going into the camps after liberation, it shows the most terrible things imaginable. In fact, no work of imagination in words or pictures has shown us anything like what the British cameramen filmed during weeks at Belsen - horrors of which, till then, the world knew little. Made to be shown to Germans, to confront them with what had been done in their name, it was never finished. Politicians decided the moment to show it had passed. Perhaps that was providential. Seeing fresh today what they were so shocked to find then brings the past into the present.

Now we have the publication of Pogrom - November 1938, a 750-page book about Kristallnacht. If Belsen was the end, Kristallnacht was the end of the beginning, when the ever-increasing oppression of Jews in Germany and Austria erupted in an orgy of fury and destruction. The numbers were shocking enough - 1,200 synagogues and thousands of Jewish shops, businesses and homes, destroyed, looted and burned; more than 90 people killed, 25,000 men detained, arrested and sent to concentration camps for torturous weeks and months. But numbers alone hardly begin to tell the story and Kristallnacht was soon dwarfed by what followed. As the book's editor Ruth Levitt writes in her introduction: "For most people alive today, particularly for young people in Europe and North America, the November events may be no more than a seemingly obscure incident occupying a few sentences in a history book." Among the collection of international press reports from that week, ranging from German and Austrian Nazi celebration to British condemnation, the book includes a long editorial from the Spectator headed The New Barbarism. It sums up Kristallnacht in one sardonic and tragically prophetic sentence: "It is true that Jews in Germany have not been formally condemned to death; it has only been made impossible for them to live."

Pogrom-November 1938 is a collection of 356 testimonies from people who experienced the nightmare of Kristallnacht many of whom were then arrested and sent to Dachau, Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen, where they experienced extreme brutality and witnessed worse. As the commandant of one of the camps said in his address to them: "You are not in a prison here, nor a jail - prisons and jails are humane. We are not humane!"

A book of 750 pages and 356 testimonies sounds like an archive, and so it is. For these are all the statements collected and collated by Dr Alfred Wiener and his colleagues. Wiener had in 1928 established a project in Berlin to log and combat antisemitism. In 1933, for obvious reasons, he was obliged to move to Amsterdam and, in 1939, he shipped his accumulated archive to London.

But if the word "archive" suggests dusty academic study, this is quite the opposite. It is the most dramatic evocation of terror. Now, 77 years on, after an epic labour of translation, it is published in English for the first time. We should be grateful not only that it exists but that it has taken so long to emerge. The passage of time does not detract from its vividness and pain, it adds to it.

There are letters here from named individuals to named individuals and there are terse reports: "The Fursorgeheim [Jewish Girls' home] in Neu-Isenburg, near Frankfurt am Main has burned down"… "Father in captivity, mother incurably ill, child without means"… Herr Dr X lists four suicides and adds: "In no case was economic hardship the motive for the act, but only a weariness of life when faced with persecution." But in the main there are full, detailed descriptions of events, expressed in a measured, unhysterical tone.

Clearly many are written by Wiener's practised reporters gathering information but even those directly affected appear matter-of-fact: "During a walk on the morning of 10 November I convinced myself that in no Jewish shop was there even one window pane or glass display-case still intact… My brother and nephew are arrested and transported to the Sachsenhausen-Oranienburg concentration camp where it is claimed they have not suffered until now." As we shall see, the reports from those who had been in Dachau are grimmer but similarly controlled.

Kristallnacht - the night of broken glass – was a name dreamed up by the Nazis for the events of November 9 and 10. It was, of course, a euphemism. On November 7, Herschel Grynszpan, a 17-year-old German Jew studying in Paris, shot Ernst vom Rath, who worked in the German embassy there. Grynszpan had been enraged by a postcard from his Polish-born father describing his expulsion from Germany back to Poland and the horrible, humiliating treatment he was receiving. When vom Rath died two days later, the destruction began. Sir George Ogilvie-Forbes, chargé d'affaires at the British embassy in Berlin, reported to London: "the opportunity offered by Grynszpan's criminal act has let loose forces of medieval barbarism."

How spontaneous was it? Martin Gilbert in his history of the Holocaust doesn't concern himself with the question; Ruth Levitt says only that there is evidence it had been planned for some time; Eric Johnson, in his book The Nazi Terror, reports that Goebbels made a rousing antisemitic speech in Munich saying that the Jews collectively must pay for the crime and calls were made to local party leaders. Johnson reports that, as Nazi groups throughout Germany were that night celebrating the 15th anniversary of Hitler's attempted putsch, mobilisation was easy.

Though many thousands of Jewish men were arrested and sent to concentration camps, and though many died there because of illness or ill-treatment, the Nazi agenda was not yet death. It was, as the Spectator said, to show that life for Jews was impossible. The programme was that, relieved of their worldly goods, they must emigrate. Blessed were the Jews who could find somewhere that would have them. Increasingly, many could not.

One very long, detailed almost forensic account of time in Dachau ends with this thought: "Two things have been learned from the stay in concentration camp: to do everything that can be done to arrange for those still in Germany, or more precisely in the camp, to get out and, secondly, constantly to tell oneself in every life situation: anything is better than the concentration camp!"

The events starting in November 1938 were worse than anything that had gone before and, of course, a prelude to much worse to come but, such was the pain of what they were already experiencing, there was very little looking ahead. Another contribution describes what happened to the rabbi of a small synagogue in Vienna when he was arrested: he was placed in the middle of the room, hairs were pulled out of his beard one by one and emblems cut into it. He was made to say Kaddish for himself and then to repeat it louder and louder for all the members of the group who would be shot at four o'clock. Time passed and, at ten past four, the doors were opened and the men returned to their dormitories.

In these 356 testimonies, there is much repetition as person after person reports similar, horrific ordeals, similar imprisonment, similar deaths and suicides.

This book is not supposed to be a work of art; it is a work of record. But, had it been intended as a work of art, it could not have been better: the sheer volume of material, published in its original rather random order, the overlapping accounts, evoke as powerfully as anything could what was experienced by so many. It was the prelude to the final reckoning survived by so few.

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