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Jan 2009 Journal

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Recollections of Kristallnacht

Merely to have seen, at the age of seven years and eight months and 25 yards from my bedroom window, the setting on fire of the famous Schiffschul, one of Vienna’s 23 synagogues, and the desecration of its contents does not in itself confer any particular expertise on the subject of Kristallnacht. It does, however, lend a certain perspective to one’s recollections.

The term Kristallnacht is, of course, a complete misnomer since the destruction of some 800 synagogues and shtiebels in Germany and Austria effectively shattered the spiritual and communal life of these communities far more than the smashing of the plate glass of the shop windows.

The best general remark I ever heard was that of Chief Rabbi Jakobowitz, who on the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht in 1988 said that those who burned synagogues and books would never rest until they had burned the bodies of those who read the books.

Was there any help from non-Jewish neighbours? I know of three such instances. First, after the initial night, we moved out of my father’s hotel and restaurant (Hotel Barschak), located in the 2nd district, which in Vienna was the epicentre of the violence and arrests, and stayed for three or four nights in a flat in Floridsdorf belonging to a non-Jewish Social Democrat. Second, in the 3rd district a small group of Hitler Youth were running around a block of flats in order to mislead a crowd of Nazis, SA and Gestapo, shouting ‘No Jews here!’

But perhaps the most incredible account is given by a friend of mine who tells of his father having been arrested on the first day and having left him, aged five, in the care of grandparents. Following the mandatory beating, an SS officer (no less) asked his father why he was shaking. He said he was worried he had had to leave a five-year-old to fend for himself – which was, of course, not strictly true. The SS man looked around, then said: ‘Right, clear off!’ (perhaps using a more vulgar expression). Father and son finally reached England.

Most of the evidence points either to indifference on the part of the vast majority of the non-Jewish population or even, in some instances, to participation. If they had objections, it was due principally to the breakdown of order. And when the figure of ’92 dead’ is trotted out, one should never forget to add to this number the 1,000 or so victims who perished as detainees, mostly in Dachau within two months, as a result of the ‘treatment’.

The immediate result of Kristallnacht was mass panic, especially of parents of young children, and a desperate attempt, represented by the Kindertransports, to get the children out.

Kristallnacht actually saved Jewish lives, especially in Germany. Austrian Jews, having experienced violence from day one of the Nazi takeover, needed no special impetus to emigrate, but thousands of German Jews who had come to believe that Nazism would sooner or later moderate, now made huge efforts to leave. Over 120,000 Jews left Germany between 1938 and 1939; some 170,000 German Jews and 63,000 Austrian Jews perished.

These events also influenced the larger political scene, in particular bringing about a massive change of public opinion in England.
 

Fred Barschak

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