April 1, 1933: Hitler proclaimed a one-day boycott of
all Jewish shops. German citizens were not to buy anything that day from Jews.
On April 7 a law was passed forcing non-Aryans to retire from government work.
All Jews in local, state, or federal offices lost their jobs. On April 21 Jews
were forbidden to slaughter or prepare their meat according to Jewish law. On
April 25 it was announced that fewer Jews would be admitted to German
universities in order to make more room for Aryans.
When Jews sought to flee the country, the German
government forced them to leave almost everything behind: their savings, their
belongings, whatever they had. The majority of German Jews refused to believe
that things could get worse. They stayed in the hope that the anti-Semitic fever
would soon cool. But it was more than a fever; it was a growing madness.
The Nuremberg Laws
From 1933 to 1935 there was a short breathing space for
Germany's Jews. Almost two years passed while Hitler worked to make his
government all-powerful, and no important anti-Jewish laws were passed. In
August 1934 President von Hindenburg died, and Hitler declared himself
chancellor and Fuhrer of the German Reich and people. Hitler’s growing
power frightened the Jews, but they still waited for things to change. Germany
was their ancestral home and for many years it had been one of the more
enlightened nations in Europe. Then in the fall of 1935 Hitler again focused on
"the Jewish question."
On September 15, 1935, the Reichstag met in a special
party congress in Nuremberg. For the Nazis it was a day of celebration. They had
just passed the so-called Nuremberg Laws declaring that Jews were no longer
German citizens--now Jews were "subjects." They were no longer allowed
to marry German citizens or to hire German women under the age of forty-five as
servants or household help.
In 1936 Jews lost the right to vote in elections.
Stores, shops, lawyers' and doctors' offices, displayed signs saying, “Jews
Not Welcome.” These signs were taken down when the Olympic Games came to
Berlin in August. But they were put up again as soon as the flock of tourists
from around the world had gone. A few token Jews were allowed to participate in
the Olympics; and the Nazis were upset when a black American, Jesse Owens, won
four championships in track events, breaking two world records and besting all
More Jews lost their jobs in the following years. In
July 1938 the Jews were told they could no longer be brokers, office managers,
tourist guides, or real estate agents. In September it was announced that Jewish
doctors were no longer doctors but just "medical assistants."
Even Jewish names came under attack. Any street name
that sounded Jewish was changed. Jews whose first names did not sound "Jewish"
enough were made to add the name "Israel" or "Sarah" so that
they would not be mistaken for Aryans. Jews had to carry special identification
cards showing that they were Jewish. In October 1938 all Jewish passports were
stamped with a "J" for "Jude" (Jew).
It was clear that the Nazis were trying to force Jews
to leave Germany. But the Jews, like all other Germans, had suffered from the
depression. Many were too poor to travel. And none of the countries surrounding
Germany wished to allow indigent Jews to enter. Hitler turned the matter over to
one of his lieutenants, Reinhard Heydrich. Heydrich's assignment was to find
ways of forcing Jewish emigration.
Heydrich had to act quickly. Poland had just passed a
law stating that any Pole living abroad for over five years would no longer be a
Polish citizen. Heydrich knew that many of the poorest of Germany's Jews had
originally come from Poland and were still Polish citizens. Somehow he had to
send them back to Poland before the new law would take effect on October 31,
Just before the deadline, Heydrich’s men rounded up as
many Polish Jews as could be found in Germany. Some fifteen thousand Jews were
transported by train to a small town on the German-Polish border. Their money
and belongings were taken from them, and they were literally pushed across the
border into Poland.
The Polish border guards were so surprised that, at
first, they fired their weapons at the approaching Jews. Finally, however, the
roadblock at the border was lifted and the men, women, and children--most of
whom had not eaten for two days--poured across the border.
One of these Jews was Zindel Grynszpan. From Poland he
wrote to his son Herschel who was living in Paris. He told Herschel of the
frightening trip to the border, the two days of near starvation, and the terror
of walking into firing guards at Polish roadblock. Herschel, just seventeen
years old, was determined to take revenge on the Germans. On November 7 he went
to the German embassy of Paris and asked to see the ambassador. Beneath his coat
he carried a revolver with which to assassinate the ambassador. When he was told
that the ambassador was away, he went out into the hall of the embassy, drew his
pistol, and shot a minor German official, Ernst vom Rath. Vom Rath was taken to
the hospital where he died two days later. Grynszpan was sent to a German
concentration camp, and probably executed there. He was never again seen alive.
On the day that vom Rath died, November 9, 1938, the
Nazi propaganda minister Goebbels called for demonstrations against the Jews of
Germany for what the Jew Grynszpan had done in Paris. Rioting, he said, was not
to be discouraged.
This "night of [broken] glass" took place in
Berlin. For Jews it was the beginning of the end. Heydrich sent instructions to
all local police officers not to interfere, and Nazi police actually took part
in the "demonstrations" against the Jews. Synagogues were burned,
stores were looted and destroyed, and apartments belonging to Jews were broken
into and their owners' possessions smashed. Heydrich ordered the arrest of as
many Jews, "especially rich ones," as the prisons could hold; from
prison they were to be sent to the concentration camps.
On that night, November 9, and for the next two days,
Jews were thrown out of moving trains and buses, beaten in the streets, and
humiliated. Those who tried to escape were often shot. In all, 191 synagogues
were burned, 76 more were totally destroyed, cemetery chapels and community
centers were torn down, thousands of businesses were ruined, large stores were
destroyed, twenty thousand Jews were arrested, thirty-six Jews were killed, and
thirty-six more seriously wounded.
Later, Dr. Benno Cohen of Berlin recalled:
I could not
believe my eyes when I saw the Berlin synagogue burning. The fire brigade was
there, but did not lift a finger. They were instructed to be on the spot only
for the protection of the nearby Aryan houses. Jews were rushing into the
burning building and saving the Holy Scrolls while the hilarious crowd all
around jeered at them. [Testimony given at the Eichmann trial]
The rioting and destruction lasted almost two full days,
but it came to be known as Kristallnacht, literally, "Glass Night."
German insurance companies had insured much of the Jewish property that was
destroyed. From all over Germany these companies began receiving claims. For
broken windows alone the insurance claims came to six million marks. Hermann
Goering, the Nazi in charge of Germany’s economy, complained to Heydrich,
“You should have killed two hundred Jews and done less property damage.” But
Goering ordered that the Jews pay for the damages.
New laws followed forbidding Jews to own businesses or
attend plays, movies, concerts, or exhibitions. Jewish children were expelled
from public schools and special curfews were set up for Jews. Jews had to ride
in the backs of buses or trains. Jews were not allowed out on the streets during
Nazi holidays. Jews were forced to sell property, to hand over stocks, bonds,
and jewelry to the government.
The War Begins
Meanwhile, Hitler had been making plans for war. He had
put Germany back to work building up the army and navy, just as he had promised.
In 1930 the last allied troops withdrew from the Rhineland. In 1936 Hitler
remilitarized the Rhineland for Germany. No one opposed him. In 1938 he annexed
Austria. In 1939 the Nazis took over Czechoslovakia. These countries were weak,
and Hitler met with no resistance. In Czechoslovakia the German minority may
have looked forward to better leadership under Hitler. And the rest of the world
watched, hoping with each claim that Hitler would be satisfied. Hitler continued
to speak of needing Lebensraum, "living space," for the Aryan
race to expand. Since the time he had written Mein Kampf, Hitler had
always thought of Russia as providing potential Lebensraum. But between
Germany and Russia, there was Poland.
Hitler concentrated his army along the German-Polish
border and made ready for a blitzkrieg, a "lightning war" on
Poland. To make sure that the Russians would not interfere with his plans,
Hitler concluded a treaty with the Russian Communist government. The two
governments promised not to attack one another. Poland was left without
On September 1, 1939, Hitler sent his tanks and troops
into Poland, even as the German air force attacked from the sky. The Poles were
defeated before they could get their outmoded forces into action. Within five
days Poland was conquered. On September 3 Britain and France declared war on
Germany. World War II had begun.