The night before my family had its property seized and was kicked out of Egypt, everyone went to the movies. This may seem like callous, even glib behavior on the eve of what was probably one of the most difficult events one can endure, but it is also a Jewish tradition as old as time. As was the case with French Jews who threw lavish parties in the months leading up to their deportation, or the Poles who helped manufacture the very weapons that would be used against them a year later, for my family the impending loss of their property, their homes, and even their lives seemed so surreal as to be almost impossible. They don’t actually mean it. They’ll make a show of it but we’ll be fine. There’s no chance we’ll really be gone tomorrow. The tragedy is that we don’t recognize how intractable these political climates are with a sudden timely realization, but rather as a slow burn—imperceptible until only after the damage is done.

This year, as the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht approaches, the Leo Baeck Institute developed the 1938Projekt—an online exhibit that demonstrates just how quickly the lives of German and Austrian Jews imploded. 1938Projekt uses diary entries, letters, and news bulletins from Jews in 1938 to stitch together a story about European Jewry and allow us to experience what it was like to be a Jew in the year that changed everything.

Every day since the start of 2018, the 1938Projekt website has posted a new story showing what happened on that specific day in 1938. In entries from January, it’s obvious that Jews sensed only the first rumblings of disaster on the horizon. Although almost 20,000 Jews had immigrated to the United States by 1938, most did not yet feel the need to leave. And while the Projekt shows us that some German Jews were making arrangements to emigrate in the early months of ’38, we also learn of the businessmen who believed, or at least told themselves and others, that the growing animosity toward the Jews wasn’t alarming enough a reason to leave behind the family business. We can watch, day by day, the slow erosion of rights, peeled away one at a time: the seizure of Jewish businesses, orders that restrict the movements of Jews, rules about what kind of artwork can be shown. We watch the pincers close in a way that simply isn’t possible if you’re living it.

In many cases, even for those who did feel a sense of alarm it was still subdued and it was difficult to understand how a series of unfriendly bureaucratic rules could eventually lead to Kristallnacht only 10 months later: On Jan. 31, the Projekt’s website highlights a postcard from a Jew on vacation in the French Riviera. Jews were still going on vacation rather than selling all their belongings and leaving. Butthree weeks later comes one of the earliest of many heartbreaking letters: Writing to a friend, a young lover contemplates being apart from his beloved because his family had decided to emigrate and hers had chosen to stay behind.

In April, the early deportation of small numbers of undesirables to Buchenwald begins. By summer, the bulletins on the Projekt’s website are more desperate. OnJune 16, a young woman writes to an American man she has met only once, asking for his help in arranging transit. Jews begin writing to distant relatives in the US asking for help. By September, those who had managed to secure papers to emigrate were making their final arrangements. By the end of the month, entire German-Jewish congregations would be empty. The Projekt tells the story a bar mitzvah of 15 teenagers in September attended by people who were planning  to emigrate and leave their homes forever only days later—some of them already had their suitcases packed. Still, they decided to congregate and celebrate together one last time for what would perhaps be one of the final services that this synagogue would ever host.

Among the documents that make up the Projekt are a series from the family of the artist Eva Hesse, whose father kept scrapbooks. “We’re emigrating,” says one of the entries in late September. They’d had enough.

The Projekt’s mission isn’t to highlight how German Jews didn’t get the picture. In fact, they may have understood it too well: Anti-Semitism felt like a fact of life and therefore was nothing to be alarmed by. Most of them simply didn’t believe that there was any credible reason why things would suddenly surpass normal levels of anti-Semitism and go from bad to catastrophic. You’d have to have been crazy to have predicted such a thing as the Holocaust. The story of 1938Projekt is more than just a catalogue of the final days of the European Jewry. It is the story of how easy it is to become inured to the progression of a deteriorating situation. Through its lens, we see the time more clearly for what it was: not just another brief chapter in the thousands-of-years-old story called anti-Semitism, but a tinderbox heating up with the passage of each day. It’s easy to look now and see a series of warnings plastered onto the walls of the past, plain and clear for all Jews to see, only for fools to ignore. But if someone were to tell you about a shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh and swastikas graffitied on the Upper West Side and Nazi marches and Jewish cemeteries being defaced and a president who calls himself a nationalist and ordinances that dissolve the rights of immigrants and of the queer community and a caravan of refugees, and told you to leave behind your family business and your belongings and your home and move across the world to a place where you didn’t know a soul and didn’t know the language, would you? You’d have to be crazy.

Instead, you might just go to the movies.


After Kristallnacht, American Jews Did Little to Demand Action from Their Government

On the evening of November 9, 1938 Nazi party operatives orchestrated anti-Jewish violence across Germany that left scores dead and hundreds of synagogues and Jewish-owned businesses destroyed. The German government followed up by sending some 30,000 Jews to concentration camps. While these events, known to posterity as Kristallnacht, garnered the attention of the international media, the organized response of American Jewry was tepid. Matt Lebovic explains:

Most notably, the influential General Jewish Council insisted on maintaining radio silence following Kristallnacht. Composed of leaders from the so-called “defense” organizations, the council issued instructions in the pogrom’s aftermath [that] “there should be no parades, public demonstrations, or protests by Jews.” . . . The council also reminded American Jews that it was in their interest not to advocate for admitting more Jewish refugees into the country. [Meanwhile], most prominent American Jews were afraid of how their fellow citizens would react to “demands” from the Jewish community. Few Americans supported going to war with Hitler, and anti-Semitism was more widespread than at any other point in U.S, history. . . .

The most prominent American Jewish leader to petition President Roosevelt [to respond to Kristallnacht] was Rabbi Stephen S. Wise. With FDR reluctant to condemn the Nazi regime in public, the venerable Wise pleaded with the president to issue—at least—a statement against the violence.

In his four-sentence “condemnation,” the president did not mention the Nazis or Hitler by name. With few Americans in favor of going to war, FDR was keen to prevent anti-Nazi rhetoric emanating from his bully pulpit, even after Hitler began to carve up central Europe. . . . President Roosevelt’s Jewish advisers pressured him to make some gestures after Kristallnacht. FDR recalled his ambassador to Berlin for “consultations,” and he helped solidify the status of some Jewish refugees already in the U.S. The president refused, however, to support legislation that would have permitted an additional 20,000 German Jewish children into the country.


Stunning posthumous release from ‘Shoah’ director resonates post-Pittsburgh

Filmmaker Claude Lanzmann died this past July, but a new work, ‘Shoah: Four Sisters,’ compiled from past footage to debut in NY, is chillingly applicable today

Claude Lanzmann poses for photographers upon arrival at the premiere of the film 'The Man Who Killed Don Quixote' and the closing ceremony of the 71st international film festival, Cannes, southern France, Saturday, May 19, 2018. (Photo by Vianney Le Caer/Invision/AP)

Claude Lanzmann poses for photographers upon arrival at the premiere of the film ‘The Man Who Killed Don Quixote’ and the closing ceremony of the 71st international film festival, Cannes, southern France, Saturday, May 19, 2018. (Photo by Vianney Le Caer/Invision/AP)

NEW YORK — Claude Lanzmann may have died in July of this year but his work lives on. And it still provokes powerful and emotional reactions.

The foremost chronicler of the Holocaust on film, Lanzmann gave 220 hours of additional footage from his 1985 master work “Shoah” to Yad Vashem and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1996. They are still being indexed.

Four remarkable interviews Lanzmann conducted for “Shoah” didn’t quite fit thematically. They are survivor’s stories, and “Shoah,” by design, is meant to be a relentless examination of destruction and death with no exit. But the interviews are connected in a way, as they are stories (one-on-one conversations with Lanzmann) about women of tremendous ingenuity, stamina and luck.

These interviews range from 52 to 89 minutes, and are grouped to form the two-part theatrical release “Shoah: Four Sisters.” The films screened at last year’s New York Film Festival, but make their theatrical debut on November 14 from Cohen Media Group. (The Cohen-owned repertory theater in Manhattan, Quad Cinema, is using this as a springboard for a complete Lanzmann retrospective from November 9–20. If you live in New York, make an effort to come downtown; some of these films are not currently available on streaming or DVD.)

Filmmaker Claude Lanzmann is fitted with a hidden microphone to record Nazi testimony, circa 1978. (Image courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum/Yad Vashem)

Temple Emanu-El’s Streicker Center on New York’s Upper East Side hosted a special screening this week of the longest, and, in my opinion, most devastating of the four interviews, subtitled “The Hippocratic Oath.”

Before the tale of survivor Ruth Elias unspooled, a few speakers offered a benediction. First, Rabbi Joshua Davidson opened with a remark about the recent shootings in Pittsburgh, referring to anti-Semitism as “the world’s oldest hatred.” Then, the French Ambassador to the United States, Gérard Araud, began with an “erev tov,” the Hebrew term for good evening, and spoke about the rise of anti-Semitism in France and how French Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron is “aware of the situation and taking it and Holocaust denial seriously.”

After Araud, French intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy took the podium and, reading a speech from his iPhone, rattled the walls of the Streicker Center with a booming remembrance of Claude Lanzmann, whom he compared to Orpheus, Dante and Homer.

“He was drawn to the abyss, and we may never understand why,” Lévy said, suggesting that his life’s work was a sacrifice for the rest of us.

Lévy called Lanzmann a “man of fury,” a “poet” and a “nourished warrior” whose life was full of “bountiful adventures” and who refused to be a “humbled Jew.” He said that Lanzmann was also pro-Israel his entire life, despite supporting anti-Colonialist causes that led some of his colleagues to take anti-Zionist positions.

Bernard-Henri Lévy speaks at Temple Emanu-El’s Streicker Center on New York’s Upper East Side for a screening of one part of ‘Shoah: Four Sisters’ by Clause Lanzmann; November 5, 2018. (Courtesy)

I’ve been to a lot of film screenings in my day, and rarely does an introduction go on for 15 minutes, and rarer still does it lead to thunderous applause. I’ve watched Bernard-Henri Lévy on YouTube before, but to be there in person is to witness something truly extraordinary.

The film itself is a masterpiece of storytelling. It seems simple at first; just a camera pointed at a woman as she recalls her youth. Ruth Elias was born in Czechoslovakia and deported to Theresienstadt at the age of 19. She lost her entire family at Auschwitz and suffered some of the most cruel indignities I’ve ever heard. Her story involves numerous near-misses with death, thanks to a mixture of quick thinking and dumb luck. Her tale leads to a showdown of sorts with one of the worst figures of the Holocaust, Dr. Josef Mengele.

I’d seen the film before, but alone at home. Seeing it in a packed theater of mostly Jews was an entirely different story. This voice from the past was a voice we all knew; a mother, a grandmother, a neighbor. I don’t want to give away the ending, as it were, but Ruth lived by being put in an impossible position, one as heart-wrenching as the climax of “Sophie’s Choice.”

The film is not exactly upbeat. When the lights came back on I had a pounding headache. This was the fourth arts event I had attended in a Jewish space in the 10 days since the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and, to be honest, foremost on my mind was that I felt tired. Perhaps there was a little angry energy in the crowd.

To the stage came Prof. Deborah Lipstadt, a brilliant author and quick-witted speaker probably best known for taking the Holocaust denier David Irving to court (as dramatized in the film “Denial.”) She spoke eloquently about Lanzmann’s technique (it may seem hands-off, but it isn’t), his insistence on including narrative tangents and shades of gray in what we want out of heroes and villains. Most striking is Ruth Elias describing her tormentor Dr. Mengele as handsome.

From left to right: Rabbi Joshua Davidson, French Ambassador Gérard Araud, Deborah Lipstadt, Bernard-Henri Lévy, Charles Cohen, and Daphne Merkin, at Temple Emanu-El’s Streicker Center on New York’s Upper East Side for a screening of one part of ‘Shoah: Four Sisters’ by Clause Lanzmann; November 5, 2018. (Courtesy)

Alongside was author Daphne Merkin, whose demeanor stood in contrast with Lipstadt’s. With crumpled notes in her hand and a proclivity to drop names (plus breathing into the microphone when others were speaking) Merkin’s points rambled considerably, eventually annoying the audience into hisses as she paid Ruth Elias what could easily be interpreted as backhanded compliments.

Like I say, maybe the crowd was just feeling down, but the vibe was undeniably contentious. Questions from the audience were met with combativeness, particularly from Merkin. And since I was sitting close, I could overhear Lipstadt mutter a spare “oy” at one point.

Ruth Elias emigrated to Israel after the war (where she kept, oddly enough, a German Shepherd by her side) and spoke lovingly of the country in her interview with Lanzmann. A woman in the audience raised her hand and began asking a question about how the post-war influx of Jews who “dispossessed a whole society of Pales–”

At which point Lipstadt, sensing where this was going, threw up a yellow card: “I’m going to stop you right there. A) that is not the topic of tonight. B) that is a misrepresented view of history.”

This was met with applause, but was not enough for some in the audience, especially one man who started screaming “How dare you?!?” at the woman who was attempting to ask a question, and then just started shouting in general.

When Lipstadt tried to calm him with “Let’s all be grown-ups here,” this clearly lit his fuse, and he accused the speakers of “passing judgement on Holocaust survivors,” which was certainly an inaccurate statement about Lipstadt and, even though Merkin was speaking inelegantly and perhaps too dispassionately, unfair to her, too.

Lipstadt quoted Primo Levi’s epigraph to “If This Not A Man” (“You who live safe in your warm houses …”) to suggest that none of us could ever know how we would act if confronted with the horrors of the Holocaust. This, to me, is the very opposite of someone who is passing judgement. If I didn’t have such a headache, I would have shouted back at the guy who was shouting.

Like I said, I think everyone was a tad on edge.

As the guests left the stage I walked out into the rain. (Classic.) I wasn’t in a good mood. Then I heard a young woman talking to her sister and her dad.

“Yeah, she’s just like that in class,” she said. Rachel Kramer, 20, studies at Emory University and is a student of Lipstadt.

“She’s amazing, super opinionated and confident,” Kramer told me, and, laughing, added that “You can tell she’s warm, but she’s stern; I would not go up against her.”

More importantly, we discussed Ruth Elias and the film. “I went to a Jewish day school and have heard from lot of Holocaust survivors. But I thought this was one of the most powerful stories I’ve ever heard,” she said.

When the analysis and the arguments simmer down, a new generation of Jews learning these stories is, I think most would agree, the most important thing.


80 years after Kristallnacht terror, survivor revisits once glass-strewn streets

Walter Frankenstein, who helped save orphanage and synagogue on November 9, 1938, returns to the building where he saw Germans unleash horrors on the Jews of Berlin

BERLIN (AP) — Walter Frankenstein was 14 years old when a police officer came to the Jewish orphanage he was living at in Berlin, urging all children to leave the building immediately because “something bad will happen tonight.”

It was early evening, November 9, 1938. Later that night, he climbed up on the roof of the orphanage and saw fire lighting up the city.

Frankenstein, now 94, was describing Kristallnacht — the “Night of Broken Glass” — when Nazis, among them many ordinary Germans, terrorized Jews throughout Germany and Austria. They killed at least 91 people and vandalized 7,500 Jewish businesses. They also burned more than 1,400 synagogues, according to Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial.

Up to 30,000 Jewish men were arrested, many taken to concentration camps such as Dachau or Buchenwald. Hundreds more committed suicide or died as a result of the mistreatment in the camps years before the official mass deportations began.

Walter Frankenstein born in 1924, witness to the November 9, 1938 terror against Jews in Berlin and one of the few survivors of Auerbach’sches Waisenhaus orphanage poses for a photo at the orphanage memorial site for an interview with the Associated Press in Berlin, November 5, 2018. (Markus Schreiber/AP)

As Germany marked the 80th anniversary of the anti-Jewish pogroms this week with a series of memorial events, Frankenstein returned to the place where he witnessed the violence as a teenager.

One of the dwindling number of Holocaust survivors, Frankenstein needed a walker as he slowly entered the compound where the Auerbach’sches Waisenhaus orphanage once stood. But his memory is still sharp, and he remembers exactly how the events unfolded that night.

Kristallnacht destruction in Magdeburg, Germany, November 1938. (German Federal Archive/Wikipedia Commons)

“A few hours after the plain clothes police officer had warned us, a group of men in uniforms came and told us, ‘you need to leave now, we want to set fire to the building,’” Frankenstein said during an interview with The Associated Press this week.

There would have been no way to take the youngest children to a safe place that quickly, he said. Frankenstein and some of the older boys at the home managed to convince the uniformed men, who belonged to the paramilitary SA, that if they burned down the orphanage the fire would spread to surrounding buildings.

“So instead, they went into our synagogue and turned off the sanctuary light in front of the holy ark,” Frankenstein said. “They did not turn off the gas and after they left, we suddenly could smell gas everywhere inside the building.” Frankenstein and his peers ran inside the synagogue, tore open all windows, and turned off the gas before it could lead to an explosion.

“The men probably thought that if enough gas would stream out, the building would blow up,” he said.

In this Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018 photo, a Nov. 10, 1938 photo from the AP Archive, showing by Nazis destroyed Jewish shops at the Kurfuerstendamm street, is placed at the same location 80 years later in Berlin. (AP/Markus Schreiber)

Kristallnacht is often referred to as the beginning of the Holocaust. It would still be years before the Nazis formally adopted their “Final Solution” for the Jews of Europe, when boycotts, anti-Semitism legislation and expulsions would evolve into a policy of mass murder. In all, 6 million European Jews were killed in the Holocaust.

Guy Miron, who heads Israel’s Yad Vashem’s Center for Research on the Holocaust in Germany, said Kristallnacht represented an end to Jewish life in Germany, a point of no return.

The Borneplatz synagogue ablaze on Kristallnacht (photo credit: Courtesy)

The Borneplatz synagogue ablaze on Kristallnacht. (Courtesy)

“Until then, the Jews could still try to convince themselves that the wheel could be turned back. After it, the rupture was complete. They realized it was over,” he said at a Yad Vashem event this week marking the anniversary. “Before Kristallnacht people emigrated. After it, they fled.”

Standing under an old poplar tree shedding its bright yellow leaves, Frankenstein gazed at a red brick wall — the only remainder of the orphanage in the city’s Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood. The building was badly destroyed during a World War II air raid in 1943, and the ruins were torn down in the 1950s.

The wall was turned into a memorial for those Jewish orphans who did not survive the Holocaust, with the names and ages of 140 children inscribed on the bricks. The youngest one, Cilla Fuks, was ten months old when she was murdered.

The memorial site of Auerbach’sches Waisenhaus orphanage in Berlin, November 5, 2018. (Markus Schreiber/AP)

Frankenstein was one of the few who survived. In 1943 he went into hiding with his wife Leonie, whom he had met at the orphanage, as the Nazis were deporting thousands of Jews from Berlin to Auschwitz.

“We had promised ourselves not to do what Hitler wanted,” he said, still feisty after all these years. “So we went into hiding.”

Together with their newborn son Uri, the couple spent 25 months in hiding in Berlin. A second son, Michael, was born in 1944, during their time on the run.

In 1945, after the collapse of the Nazis’ Third Reich, the Frankensteins immigrated to what was then still British Mandatory Palestine. Eleven years later, in 1956, they moved from Israel to Sweden where they settled for good.

Walter Frankenstein, witness of the November 9, 1938 terror against Jews in Berlin and one of the few survivors of Auerbach’sches Waisenhaus orphanage shows a box with the Yellow badge the Nazis forced him to wear and with the Germany’s Federal Cross of Merit he got in 2014, during an interview with the Associated Press in Berlin, November 5, 2018. (Markus Schreiber/AP)

Nowadays, Walter Frankenstein returns to Germany several times a year. He often talks to schoolchildren about his life and on Friday, the anniversary of November 9, 1938, he will be honored in an award-giving ceremony by Germany’s Culture Minister Monika Gruetters.

In 2014, he received Germany’s highest civil honor, the Federal Cross of Merit.

Every time Frankenstein travels to Berlin, he brings along the small blue case containing the cross. Inside the case’s lid, he has attached the first “mark” he got from the Germans: The Yellow Badge, or Jewish Star, that he had to wear during the Nazi reign to identify him as a Jew.

“The first one marked me, the second one honored me,” he said as he slowly closed the lid.


Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass

The widespread violence of Nov. 9-10, 1938 signaled an escalation in the Nazi reign of terror.

The November pogrom, carried out with the help of the most up-to-date communications technology, was the most modern pogrom in the history of anti-Jewish persecution and an overture to the step-by-step extirpation of the Jewish people in Europe.

Jews Leaving Germany

After Hitler’s seizure of power, even as Germans were being divided into “Aryans” and “non-Aryans,” the number of Jews steadily decreased through emigration to neighboring countries or overseas. This movement was promoted by the Central Office for Jewish Emigration established by Reinhard Heydrich (director of the Reich Main Security Office) in 1938.

In 1925 there were 564,378 Jews in Germany; in May 1939 the number had fallen to 213,390. The flood of emigration after the November pogrom was one of the largest ever, and by the time emigration was halted in October 1941, only 164,000 Jews were left within the Third Reich, including Austria.

READ: Sept. 16, 1935: Nazi Laws on Jews Put Into Effect

The illusion that the legal repression enacted in the civil service law of April 1, 1933, which excluded non-Aryans from public service, would be temporary was laid to rest in September 1935 by the Nuremberg Laws — the Reich Citizenship Law and the Law for the Protection of German Blood and Honor. The Reich Citizenship Law heralded the political compartmentalization of Jewish and Aryan Germans.

Economic Exclusion

The complementary ordinances to the Reich Citizenship Law, dated November 14-28, 1935, sought to define who was a Jew; it also created a basis for measures limiting the scope of Jewish occupations and the opportunities for young Jews to get an education. Following the March 1938 annexation (Anschluss) of Austria, which brought 200,000 Austrian Jews under German domination, exclusion of Jews from the economy began first through the removal of Jewish manufacturers and business chiefs and their replacement by “commissars” in charge of “aryanization,” the expropriation of Jewish businesses.

READ: Feb. 14, 1934: Jewish Agents Thrown Out of Reich System

Within a short time, from January to October 1938, the Nazis aryanized 340 middle-sized and small industrial enterprises, 370 wholesale firms, and 22 private banks owned by Jews. The November pogrom was the peak of a series of events intended to expel the Jews from economic life and to force a hurried emigration.

Kristallnacht damage Nazis Holocaust

A sequence of normative legislation in 1938 heralded economic despoliation. Under the Law Concerning the Legal Position of the Jewish Religious Community (March 28, 1938), the state subsidy for the Jewish community was withdrawn. Under the decree of April 22, 1938 against “continuing concealment of Jewish business activity,” Jews were obliged to declare their assets–an indication that their possessions might be seized.

The Fourth Decree (July 25, 1938) under the Reich Citizenship Law deprived Jewish doctors, as of September 30, of their practices among Jewish patients. An edict by the police president of Breslau dated July 21 ordered that shops and businesses belonging to Jews should bear a notice: “Jewish Firm.” Air Ministry political-economic guidelines of October 14, 1938 were accompanied by a recommendation, summed up by Hermann Goring (then head of the ministry): “The Jewish question must now be grasped in every way possible, for they [Jews] must be removed from the economy.”

Goring also said that he was in favor of the creation of Jewish ghettos in German towns. His words gave notice of a general anti-Jewish offensive in the coming weeks. The most favorable opportunity for unleashing the attack was afforded by the fatal wounding of the German diplomat Ernst vom Rath on November 7th 1938 in Paris by the 16-year-old Polish Jew Herschel Grynszpan.

READ: Nov. 8, 1938: Polish-Jewish Youth, 17, Shoots Nazi Embassy Official in Paris

A Top-Down Pogrom

Ernst vom Rath’s death gave the signal to the Reich propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, to unleash the pogrom against the Jews. The news of the death was received by Adolf Hitler during the traditional dinner for the “old fighters” of the Nazi movement, held in the assembly room of the Old Town Hall in Munich on the anniversary of the bloody march on the Feldherrnhalle and the unsuccessful putsch of November 9, 1923.

The atmosphere for announcements of victory or incitements to hate and revenge was optimal, not only in Munich but also among Nazi organizations throughout the country, where Germans awaited the radio transmission of the customary memorial celebration and Hitler’s speech. The signal for retaliation had already been given by Goebbels (with Hitler’s agreement) in an unusually aggressive speech, which Hitler did not attend. The political propaganda initiative and management of the pogrom was in Goebbels’ hands, though he held no written authority from Hitler.

While the Fuhrer went to his Munich apartment, the propaganda minister told the Nazi notables and old fighters present that there had already been acts of revenge on November 8 in Kurhessen and Magdeburg against State Enemy No. 1 — the Jew. Synagogues and shops belonging to Jews had, he said, been destroyed.

His words were understood by his audience to signify “that while the party would not openly appear as the originator of the demonstrations, in reality it would organize them and carry them through” (secret report of supreme party judge Hans Buch to Hermann Goring, February 13, 1939). These intimations were immediately passed on by telephone to the headquarters of the various districts and were followed by telegrams from the Gestapo. Heydrich’s secret order, sent by teleprinter to all Gestapo offices and senior SD sections, was transmitted at 1:20 a.m. on November 10.

Once Goebbels had given the Nazi district leaders the impetus to unleash a massive pogrom, the further initiative lay in their hands. The execution of the pogrom, under direction of the highest Nazi party leaders, was entrusted to police and state agencies, to units of the SS, and in part to SA members. By means of the latest communications technology — telephone, teleprinters, police transmitters, and radio — within a few hours the pogrom had reached almost every part of the Reich without meeting any resistance.

Desecrated Synagogues, Looted Shops, Mass Arrests

During the night of November 9-10, 1938 Jewish shops, dwellings, schools, and above all synagogues and other religious establishments symbolic of Judaism were set alight. Tens of thousands of Jews were terrorized in their homes, sometimes beaten to death, and in a few cases raped. In Cologne, a town with a rich Jewish tradition dating from the first century CE, four synagogues were desecrated and torched, shops were destroyed and looted, and male Jews were arrested and thrown into concentration camps.

Brutal events were recorded in the hitherto peaceful townships of the Upper Palatinate, Lower Franconia, Swabia, and others. In Hannover, Herschel Grynszpan‘s hometown, the well-known Jewish neurologist Joseph Loewenstein escaped the pogrom when he heeded an anonymous warning the previous day; his home, however, with all its valuables, was seized by the Nazis.

In Berlin, where 140,000 Jews still resided, SA men devastated nine of the 12 synagogues and set fire to them. Children from the Jewish orphanages were thrown out on the street. About 1,200 men were sent to Oranienburg-Sachsenhausen concentration camp under “protective custody.” Many of the wrecked Jewish shops did not open again.

Following the Berlin pogrom the police president demanded the removal of all Jews from the northern parts of the city and declared this area “free of Jews.” His order on December 5, 1938 — known as the Ghetto Decree — meant that Jews could no longer live near government buildings.

READ: Dec. 5, 1938: Nazis Take Drivers’ Permits from Jews, Ban Use of Central Berlin

The vast November pogrom had considerable economic consequences. On November 11, 1938 Heydrich, the head of the security police, still could not estimate the material destruction. The supreme party court later established that 91 persons had been killed during the pogrom and that 36 had sustained serious injuries or committed suicide. Several instances of rape were punished by state courts as Rassenschande (social defilement) in accordance with the Nuremberg laws of 1935.

At least 267 synagogues were burned down or destroyed, and in many cases the ruins were blown up and cleared away. Approximately 7,500 Jewish businesses were plundered or laid waste. At least 177 apartment blocks or houses were destroyed by arson or otherwise.

It has rightly been said that with the November pogrom, radical violence had reached the point of murder and so had paved the road to Auschwitz.


A Family Photo Album Provides a Rare Look at the Vanished World of Lithuanian Jewry

By Morton Landowne

A recently opened exhibit at the Yeshiva University Museum features photographs that once belonged to Annushka Matz Warshawska and were kept safe by Lithuanian Gentiles for 70 years before they were discovered. (To read more about Warshawska’s family, which includes Annushka’s grand-nephew Jacob Wisse, the museum’s curator, please see the memoirs of her niece, Ruth Wisse, now being published by Mosaic in serial form). Morton Landowne describes the exhibit:

The tale begins in the autumn of 1943 when . . . Warshawska, smuggled her family photo album out of the Kovno Ghetto and entrusted it to the safekeeping of a non-Jewish Lithuanian woman, Terese Fedaraviciene. Shortly afterward, Annushka and her two young daughters were deported to the Klooga concentration camp in Estonia where they were murdered. Also killed in the Shoah were Annushka’s husband and seven of her eleven siblings.

Fedaraviciene and her family held onto the album . . . until, in 2013, her grandson, Juozas Federavicius, showed it to a historian interested in the history of the Slobodka [neighborhood], where the Kovno Ghetto was located. The scholar, Raimundas Kaminskas, organized an exhibition of the photographs in his hometown of Kaunas, [as Kovno is now known], where it was seen by the English photographer, Richard Schofield, who runs the International Center for Litvak Photography in Kaunas.

Schofield . . . became determined to discover the identities of the large and vital family depicted in the many scenes of holiday outings, cultural events, portraits (both formal and informal), and photographs and postcards of musical and theatrical celebrities, some personally inscribed. He contacted the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and enlisted the institution’s help in digitizing the photographs from the album. Upon receiving the digital images, Schofield posted them on Facebook under the heading “A Lost and Forgotten Family.” . . .

For all the details, you’ll need to see this beautifully conceived and lavishly mounted exhibition, but suffice it to say that a historian at the Vilna State Jewish Museum, Saule Valiunaite, saw the Facebook post and responded to it with what a wall label characterizes as “serious sleuthing.”


This German group renovates Holocaust survivors’ homes in Israel for free

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski, right, wrote a Facebook post about his conversation with a German man who travels to Israel to renovate Holocaust survivors’ apartments. (Wishedski)

(JTA) — Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski had an unexpected encounter on a recent flight to Israel.

Wishedski, who was flying on Monday from Basel, Switzerland, where he works as a Chabad emissary, was praying when a man seated next to him handed him a piece of paper.

The note was from an organization called the Saxon Friends of Israel and described how the group brings volunteers from Germany to Israel to renovate Holocaust survivors’ apartments for free.

The two started talking and the man, a house painter named Roland, said that he had been traveling to Israel twice a year for around five years from his home in the south German state of Baden-Wurttemberg to do the volunteer work.

“I cannot change or repair the whole world, I cannot repair all my people did 70 years ago,’” the rabbi recalled 54-year-old Roland telling him. “All I can do is painting. It’s what I’m doing, bringing a little bit of good to the world.”

Wishedski, who was born in Israel but has been living in Basel for 16 years, was touched by the selfless story.

“This was very, very good because sometimes we give up because we can’t change the entire world, and he told me that if you can change the house of one woman, it’s worth it,” the rabbi told JTA.

Wishedski snapped a selfie with Roland and shared it on his Facebook profile. The post, which he wrote in Hebrew, received over two thousand likes. Writer and public speaker Emanuel Miller translated it into English in a post that received over three thousand likes.

JTA attempted to contact the Saxon Friends of Israel to get in touch with Roland but did not receive a response.

Meanwhile, Wishedski has been fielding calls from journalists from Israel and the United States.

“I’m enjoying my 15 minutes [of fame],” he said.

This promotional video from 2013 gives a little more information on the Saxon Friends of Israel and shows them in action fixing Holocaust survivors’ houses. One volunteer explains that both of his parents were avid Nazis and that he is the only one in his family who wants to “deal with the issue.”


In essence, every Jewish building in Berlin is in itself a monument to the Holocaust.

THE JEWISH MUSEUM BERLIN, once known as the City of Berlin Museum.

THE JEWISH MUSEUM BERLIN, once known as the City of Berlin Museum. (photo credit: BECKY FRANK)

There are many museums in the world which are architectural wonders: The Louvre in Paris or the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Since I travel the world, I would like to add to the list one of the most remarkable museum buildings you will ever encounter: the Jewish Museum Berlin (Jüdisches Museum Berlin), which was opened in 2001 and is the largest Jewish museum in Europe.

Museums are not static in their presentations. News that the Jewish Museum Berlin is now reinventing itself by creating both a new permanent exhibition and a children’s museum, should not stop the visitor from touring this fabulous structure. Only the two upper levels of architect Daniel Libeskind’s building are not accessible until late 2019. But one can still view the architectural highlights of the Libeskind building, namely, the Axes in the basement, the Garden of Exile, and the impressive Voids – as well as the current exhibitions and art installations.

“One of the great glories of the architectural rebirth of the unified city of Berlin,” exclaimed one writer discussing the museum and the Reichstag. Those two structures stand as perhaps the only pieces of 21st century “avant-gardist architecture” in the city. The outer walls of the building are covered in zinc, pierced by slashes of window that could be lightning or a shattered Star of David.

I remember my first tour of the Jewish Museum 15 years ago when it was empty of exhibits and yet, it was one of the most challenging visits to a museum dealing with the tragedy that befell the Jewish people. More than 350,000 persons came to the museum in the two years before the exhibitions were installed.

Museum officials stress that the museum depicts the history of not only Berlin Jews, but of German Jews as a whole and that it is not a Holocaust memorial – it is a Jewish history museum that shows the creative role that Jews played in Germany before the Nazis took over in 1933. No doubt about it, Jews influenced the city’s cultural life, and that is shown here.

Still, as you walk through this now elongated, sharply angled and folded building, you cannot but recall the Holocaust. The building’s narrow galleries with slanting floors and zig-zag turns evoke a sense of dislocation and are interspersed by voids embodying the vacuum left behind by the destruction of Jewish life.

In essence, every Jewish building in Berlin is in itself a monument to the Holocaust.


The museum consists of three buildings, two of which are new additions specifically built for the museum by Libeskind. The third building, the old City of Berlin Museum, serves as its entrance. After you move through the latter doorway, the floors you walk on in the new building are uneven. You might even fill a little dizzy. At certain points you will be disorientated. You will stand in space voids. You will enter a dark angular tower, an oppressive space that obviously stands as a symbol of the Holocaust. One tourist noted that he found the tower “more powerful than museum images of the reality.”

When I toured the museum, I glanced at the guest book which included quotes in Japanese, Chinese, French, Hebrew and English. They ranged from “with great admiration,” to “I think my grandparents would sigh with relief and grief if they could visit this place. I will lend them my eyes. The Jewish Museum Berlin has ‘lent us its eyes,’” written by a woman from the Netherlands.

A highlight of the museum is the Garden of Exile, consisting of 49 tilted pillars to represent the foundation of the State of Israel in 1948, plus one for Berlin. The garden also symbolizes the forced exile of Germany’s Jews. I found the Garden of Exile  very thought-provoking and powerful.

In any discussion of the Jewish Museum in Berlin, mention must be made of the background of 72-year-old Daniel Libeskind, the Polish-American Jewish architect whose buildings also include, among others, the extension to the Denver Art Museum; the Danish Jewish Museum in Copenhagen, and the Wohl Center at the Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan. In 2003, Libeskind won the competition to be the master-plan architect for the reconstruction of the World Trade Center site in Lower Manhattan. His work has been exhibited in major museums and galleries around the world. Born in Poland, Libeskind moved with his family to Israel in 1957 and then onto the US in 1959.

Opening last December was the new exhibit “Welcome to Jerusalem at the Jewish Museum Berlin,” which will run until April 30, 2019. The 1,000 square-meter exhibition explores aspects of the city’s history, in which religion, politics and everyday life are inextricably intertwined. The exhibition opened in the Old Building.

“Welcome to Jerusalem” tells the history of Jerusalem from Herod’s time until the present day through a wide selection of themes. Ten rooms present Jerusalem’s many and diverse challenges through historic objects, artistic responses, and multimedia installations.

Those stopping at the exhibit will find objects that illuminate cultural history, with loans from private collections and international museums, including the Victoria & Albert Museum, Tate Modern, the Musee du Quai Branly, the Uffizi Gallery and the Israel Museum, as well as works by contemporary artists.

Some museum guests, including those who have visited the capital of Israel, said that the “Jerusalem exhibit was so informative and made them feel like they were back in Jerusalem.”

The Jewish Museum is located at Lindenstraße 9-14, 10969 Berlin.
Tel: +49 (0)30 259 93 300.