The 9th of November (neunter November) is a significant day in German history. It was the day the Berlin Wall was finally torn down, the day Hitler and his early followers carried out the ‘Beer Hall Putsch’, the day that saw the formation of the SS in 1925 as well as the start of two German revolutions in 1848 and 1918. However, perhaps the most infamous event that took place on this day were the series of attacks and persecutions on Jewish livelihood throughout Germany in 1938.
‘Kristallnacht’, or ‘Pogromnacht’ as it is referred to in Germany (the meaning of which I will explain further on), was a remarkable event not only for the victims of these horrific attacks, but also unique in the history of the collective consciousness of the German people at the time. For the first time since the the Nazis took over power in 1933, the Jewish community in Germany was the victim of a public display of mass aggression and violence. Not only did many Germans turn their backs on what was happening, some actually became the perpetrators themselves. Stores were ransacked and destroyed, houses of prayer were desecrated and burned to the ground, Jewish-owned business, accountancy and law firms were closed and spray-painted with the word Jude on its doors and windows. The streets of German cities were covered with glass of broken shop windows owned by Jews. Jews were victimised, not only by the Nazis, but by their own people.
Considering this then, the term Kristallnacht is a contentious one. For German Jews, in particular those who witnessed what took place, the term is unbefitting to the events that occurred. To make the comparison between the events of the night and a Kristall (German for ‘crystal’), a beautiful jewel, creates not only a sense of ambiguity but also trivialises the very essence of what the event means to German Jews today. Instead, most people in the community as in the rest of Germany use the term Pogromnacht (the night of the Pogrom) to describe that November evening in 1938.
Whilst the story of the Pogromnacht is steeped in terror, anguish and despair, there are also moments that shine through the darkness of this tragic tale. One individual, a police officer named Otto Bellgardt, is an example of such a moment. In the early morning of the 10th November, Otto arrived at Oranienburger Straße to see the Neue Synagoge (New Synagogue) in flames. Knowing that the building was a protected landmark of the city, he ordered the Nazi’s to disperse, took out his pistol and further ordered the firemen to extinguish the fire before it caused any fatal damage to the building. Because of his actions, the Synagogue was saved from destruction and still stands on Oranienburger Straße to this day. Bellgardt was never punished for what he did and often goes unmentioned in history books.
However, whether you call it Kristallnacht or Pogromnacht, there is something to learn, not just from the horrific acts of tyranny that took place but also from stories of hope and the message that sometimes one individual really can make a difference.
Benny Fischer, EUJS President