|A PERONAL MEMOIR OF
"A wave of destruction,
looting, and incendiarism unparalleled in Germany since the Thirty Years War
(1618-1648,ed.) and in Europe generally since the Bolshevist Revolution
swept over Great Germany today as National Socialist cohorts took vengeance
on Jewish shops, offices and synagogues for the murder by a young Polish Jew
of Ernst vom Rath, third secretary of the German Embassy in Paris..."
Thus started the article on page 1 of the New York Times of
November 11, 1938, reporting the events which were to become known as
the November pogrom or „Kristallnacht". I recently reread this article
with very deep emotions almost 60 years after witnessing a small part of
this wave of hate and violence as a teenager in Berlin.
Thursday, November 10, 1938, started like any other day, I left
our apartment on Kaiserdamm in the Westend section of Berlin at around
7:20 for the nearest rapid transit (the so-called S-Bahn) station, a
half-mile walk past apartment buildings and one-family villas. There
were no signs of any unusual activities. From there I took the train for
a 15-minute ride to the Tiergarten Station in central Berlin near the
high school of the orthodox congregation Adass Yisroel where I arrived a
few minutes before the beginning of the school day at 8 o’clock.
When I entered my classroom, some of my classmates were telling
horror stories of what they had seen on their way to school like smashed
store windows of Jewish-owned shops, looting mobs, and even burning
synagogues. A fair number of students was absent. The 8 o’clock bell
rang signaling the beginning of classes, but no teachers were in sight
either in our class or in any of the other classes along our corridor.
That had never happened before. I don’t remember anymore how long it
took for the teachers to emerge from the teacher’s conference room
finally opened and the teachers streamed out to their various class
rooms, they all looked extremely grim.
Innenraum nach dem Pogrom
im November 1938
When our teacher Dr. Wollheim entered the room and closed the
door, all talking stopped instantly, and there was complete silence in
the class. That too was unique, for in general we were a fairly
undisciplined bunch, and it usually took several admonitions until some
quiet was established.
In a tense voice Dr. Wollheim announced that school was being
dismissed because our safety could not be guaranteed. This was followed
by a number of instructions which he urged us to follow in every detail.
Number one, we should go home directly and as fast as possible without
lingering anywhere or visiting friends so that our parents would know
that we are safe. Number two, we should not walk in large groups because
that would attract attention and possible violence by hostile crowds. He
concluded by saying that there would be no school for the foreseeable
future and that we would be notified when school would reopen again.
I quickly walked back to the Tiergarten Station and decided to
look out the window when the elevated train would pass the Synagogue
Fasanenstrasse where I had become Bar Mitzvah. It was a beautiful
structure built in Moorish style with three large cupolas. I literally
felt my heart fall into my stomach when I saw a thick column of smoke
rising out of the center cupola. There was no wind, and the column
seemed to stand motionless reaching into the heavens. At that moment all
rationality left me. I got off the train at the next stop and raced back
the few blocks as if pulled by an irresistible force. I did not think of
Dr. Wollheim’s instruction nor of any possible danger to myself. Police
barricades kept a crowd of onlookers on the opposite sidewalk.
Firefighter were hosing down adjacent buildings. The air was filled with
the acrid smell of smoke. I was wedged in the middle of a hostile crows
which was in an ugly mood shouting antisemitic slogans. I was completely
hypnotized by the burning synagogue and was totally oblivious to any
possible danger. I thought of the many times I had attended services
there and listened to the sermons all of which had fortified my soul
during the difficult years of persecution. Even almost six years of Nazi
rule had not prepared me for such an experience.
Suddenly someone shouted that a Jewish family was living on the
ground floor of the apartment building across the street from the
synagogue. Watching the fire, the crowd was backed against the building.
Someone else shouted: „Let’s get them!" Everyone turned around. Those
closest surged through the building entrance. I could hear heavy blows
against the apartment door. In my imagination I pictured a frightened
family hiding in a room as far as possible from the entrance door -
hoping and praying that the door would withstand, and I prayed with
them. I vividly remember the crashing violent noise of splintering wood
followed by deadly silence, then suddenly wild cries of triumph. An
elderly bald-headed man was brutally pushed through the crowd while
fists rained down on him from all sides accompanied by antisemitic
epithets. His face was bloodied. One single man in the crowd shouted:
„How cowardly! So many against one!"
He was immediately attacked by others. After the elderly Jew had
been pushed to the curb, a police car appeared mysteriously; he was put
in and driven off. I left this scene of horror completely drained,
incredulous, in a trance and went home.
Decades later i came across an article in the Berliner Tageblatt
of August 26, 1912, describing the dedication ceremony of the synagogue
on Fasanen Strasse. In the light of the destruction of that synagogue
which I witnessed 26 years, 2 months, and 15 days later on November 10,
1938, this dedication ceremony represents a bitter irony on several
planes. I think it is historically significant enough to quote some
excerpts from this article here: „The festive dedication of the new
synagogue on Fasanenstrasse took place at midday today in the presence
of the highest representatives of government, the military, and the city
... At 12 o’clock sharp the personal representative of the Kaiser, his
military adjutant Colonel General Excellency von Kessel arrived. He was
seated on a seat of honor on the bimah. Next to him sat the
Undersecretary in the Ministry of the Interior Holtz.
In the first row one could see the representative of the
Ministry of Religious Affairs, Director von Chappius ... and for the
High Command of the Armed Forces Colonel von Brauchitsch. The city of
Berlin was represented by Lord Mayor Wermuth, ... The Chief of Police
von Jagow in the uniform of a cavalry colonel, and his deputy, Councilor
Friedheim. In addition many representatives of the Protestant and
Catholic clergy were present as well as all of the rabbis of the Berlin
The ceremony started with a festive procession of the Torah
scrolls through the synagogue accompanied by songs by a choir and organ
music after which the scrolls were placed into the arc. After a singing
by the congregation led by the cantor, Rabbi Bergmann carried out the
beautiful ceremony at the lighting of the eternal light. In his address
he said that just as the light of this lamp so the love of fatherland of
this community will never extinguish."
What has remained and will forever remain in my memory
is the image of the thick column of smoke standing on top of the center
cupola of that beautiful synagogue and the bloodied bald head of an
Ernest Günter Fontheim
(Aufbau, No 26, December 18, 1998)
Groups in Berlin
09/10. November 1938