Op-Ed

Marking the prelude to the Holocaust

Herschel Grynszpan heads to a Paris court in the shooting death of Ernst vom Rath, a junior German diplomat, after hearing that his parents, brother and sister had been deported to Poland by the Nazi authorities. The assassination, run on the front pages of all German newspapers on the instructions of Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, was the excuse used by the Nazi regime to launch a massive pogrom against the German Jewish communities, historically known as the Reichskristallnacht.
Herschel Grynszpan heads to a Paris court in the shooting death of Ernst vom Rath, a junior German diplomat, after hearing that his parents, brother and sister had been deported to Poland by the Nazi authorities. The assassination, run on the front pages of all German newspapers on the instructions of Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, was the excuse used by the Nazi regime to launch a massive pogrom against the German Jewish communities, historically known as the Reichskristallnacht. AFP/Getty Images

It was on Nov. 6, 1938, when 17-year-old Herschel Grynszpan bought a handgun in Paris. He then entered the German Embassy where he was met by a low-ranking German official, Ernst vom Rath. “Here is the document in the name of 12,000 Jews,” he shouted before firing five times.

Vom Rath was hit but did not die until two days later. Late on that day and for most of Nov. 10, the Nazi party unleashed one of history’s most barbarous pogroms, Crystal Night. (The Nazis later called it ‘Reichskristallnacht.’) Given the massive savage attacks that occurred throughout Germany and Austria, it’s more proper to remember it as the November Pogrom. True, there were tons of shattered glass, but far worse was the destruction of businesses, synagogues, prayer houses, some cemeteries and of human lives.

To seek a better life, the Grynszpan family had left Poland in 1911 and settled in Hannover, Germany. In what was an imprudent and shortsighted action, Poland unexpectedly announced that the Polish passports of all Jews living in Germany would expire on Oct. 31, 1938. Germany’s National Socialist government promptly retaliated by expelling more than 12,000 unwanted Polish Jews before the deadline.

The Grynszpan family, along with thousands of others, was pushed across Germany’s border and held in the Polish border town of Zbonszyn. The deplorable living conditions deteriorated by the hour. Some victims committed suicide. When young Herschel heard the news about his parents’ dilemma, he sought revenge and murdered vom Rath. Following his arrest by French officials, he wrote to his parents that he had to “scream in protest so that the whole world would hear my call.”

Indeed, the whole world heard about it, but virtually all countries refused to admit the now stateless Polish Jews. Many German Jews, fearing severe consequences, disapproved of Herschel’s violent act. One critic, Alan Steinweis, stated that “to pull out a pistol and shoot an unarmed person by surprise is seen more as an assassination than an act of resistance.” What happened to Herschel Grynszpan? The Vichy government turned him over to Nazi officials who transferred him to the Sachsenhausen camp, where he disappeared after 1941.


The November Pogrom was far worse than generally stated. Thousands of Storm Troopers and other Nazi members, in an unparalleled night and day of terror, destroyed or vandalized hundreds of synagogues while firemen and police watched. At least 7,500 Jewish businesses were ruined and looted. Some 27,000 Jewish men were picked up and taken to the Sachsenhausen, Dachau and Buchenwald concentration camps. Some sources claim that 91 victims perished, but a much higher number seems more likely.

Herman Goering, a top Nazi official, decided that Germany’s Jews had to pay for the November Pogrom’s destruction. The amount demanded was 1.2 billion Reich mark. The catastrophic November events hastened the systematic disenfranchisement, seizure and confiscation of Jewish property and bank accounts, the exclusion of Jews from the Nazi economy and finance, the final expulsion of Jews from German lands and the social and cultural ghettoization of Germany’s remaining Jews. Crystal Night had become the prelude to the Holocaust.

We know that the Protestant church generally was silent in the days and weeks after Nov. 9 and 10. Some pastors were convinced that any public protest against the deportation of Germany’s Jews to various concentrations camps would result in their own deportation. After all, a large number of pastors already had been dismissed or imprisoned. For example, pastor Paul Schneider was taken to Buchenwald in 1937 where he was tortured to death on July 18, 1939. Nevertheless, several pastors, at their own risk, protested and spoke up.

One was Julius von Jan from the village Oberlenningen near Stuttgart. In his Sunday sermon on Nov. 16, 1938, from the book of Jeremiah, von Jan condemned the Nazis’ violence in unmistakeably clear words.

“Passions are unleashed; God’s commandments are despised, houses of worship that were holy for others have been burned down with impunity; the property of strangers robbed or destroyed. Men who served our German people faithfully and performed their duties conscientiously were thrown into concentration camps. ... And we, as Christians, see how this injustice incriminates our people before God and must bring new punishment upon Germany. ... What a person sows, so he shall reap. ... What a dreadful harvest will grow from it, if God does not grant us and our people the grace for honest repentance.” It was a strong, courageous sermon against persecution, prejudice and the violation of human rights.

In the evening of Nov. 25, von Jan was attacked by an SA-led mob and nearly beaten to death. Then he was dismissed as pastor and sent to prison. Miraculously, he survived his prolonged punishment and the war. He passed away in 1964.

Hans M. Wuerth of Chapel Hill is a professor emeritus of Moravian College in Pennsylvania.

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