In March 1938, after the flight of Polish Jews from
Vienna to Poland, the Polish government promulgated a decree to annul the
Polish citizenship of Poles living abroad for more than five years unless
those Poles received a special stamp in their passports by October 31,
1938. This was clearly an attempt by the thoroughly anti-Semitic Polish
government to free itself of the Polish Jews living in Germany. The special
stamp necessary for the passports, predictably, was denied the Polish Jews.
As a result, over fifty thousand became state-less. Not to be outwitted,
the Nazis made arrangements to expel the Polish Jews forthwith. In brutal
fashion, the Jews were uprooted and dumped in a no-man's land on the German-Polish
frontier. In Paris, a seventeen year old Jewish student named Hershl Grynszpan,
outraged at the expulsion of his parents from Hanover, Germany, shot and
fatally wounded the third secretary of the German Embassy, a man named
Ernst vom Rath who was, ironically, anti-Nazi.
On November 8, 1938, at the annual celebration of the 1923
beer hall putsch, Hitler was overheard telling Goebbels that the "SA should
have a fling."
Hitler left the beer hall before giving his expected
speech. This was an obvious effort to disassociate himself and the government
from what would later be described as a "spontaneous" outburst of German
anger against the Jews. That night the order went out to Nazi party offices
throughout Germany instructing the local SA in the details of what became
known as Kristallnacht, or Night of the Broken Glass, or Crystals. The
instructions were blunt: burn synagogues; smash windows of Jewish businesses;
ransack Jewish homes and businesses, and arrest all Jewish males and take
them to concentration camp. SA men dressed in civilian clothing led the
assault. Crowds of Germans invariably gathered, including the curious,
the delighted, and the appalled. Virtually all of the synagogues in the
Greater German Reich (Germany, Austria, and the newly incorporated Sudeten
territories) were torched (a few were spared because they were located
next to Aryan buildings and the dutiful fire department, as instructed,
was on hand to prevent the damage to German property); Jewish homes had
been raided; seven thousand Jewish businesses had been destroyed, the glass
from their windows littering the sidewalks and giving the pogrom its name:
Kristallnacht. Thirty thousand Jewish men were sent to concentration camps;
many perished but those with a visa to another country found the rare exit
from the camp. Over a hundred Jews were killed that night, and thousands
were subjected to sadistic torture. Not surprisingly, Goering and Heydrich
(a leading SS general and the "engineer of the final solution") were angered
by Goebbels' call for the pogrom. They saw it as a effort by he and the
SA to get a piece of the immense wealth involved in the expropriation of
the Jews. Goering and Heydrich wanted the anti-Jewish action to be done
in an orderly way; mob violence was not the answer. For example, who was
to pay for the six million dollars worth of plate glass that was shattered
on Kristallnacht? German insurance companies? No, that would exhaust Germany's
precious foreign currency reserves. The glass represented half the yearly
output from Belgium, the country whence it came. Goering decided that a
one billion reich mark fine should be levied on German Jews and that this
fine would pay for the destruction wrought on November 9-10, 1938. This
was an ominous precursor. There would be no budget for the destruction
of Jews. In the end, the Jews had to pay the costs of their own destruction.
"Incidentally," Goering said mockingly at a meeting
after Kristallnacht, "I'd like to say again that I would not like to be
a Jew in Germany."
Kristallnacht was the last occasion when violence was
meted out to Jews on the streets of Germany. When the destruction began,
the German Jews would be escorted to the train stations and whence to their
unknown future in Poland.
On November 15, 1938, the Ministry of Education issued
an ordinance barring all Jewish children from attending school. In December,
Jews were barred from all public places, theaters, movies, beaches, resorts,
and Pullman sleeping car compartments.
In the Greater German Reich, an estimated 20,000
children had been left both homeless and fatherless by the Kristallnacht
destruction and the imprisonment of Jewish men. In the U. S., Senator Wagner
and Representative Rogers proposed the Wagner-Rogers bill that would allow
these children to immigrate into the U. S. outside of the existing quota.
The bill would permit the admission of only these children. It would not
permit the admission of other children at a later date. It was a one time
only affair. According to a Gallup poll conducted at the time, two thirds
of the American public opposed the bill. In the end, the bill did not even
reach the floor of Congress for debate. It was squelched in committee.
During the debate on the Wagner-Roger's bill, President Roosevelt remained
silent. Once, when the president was on a cruise in the Caribbean, his
wife Eleanor Roosevelt telegraphed him to ask if she might state publicly
that both of them supported the bill. The president answered, "You may,
but it's better that I don't for the time being." The "time being" did
not change. The president never voiced an opinion, one way or the other,
on the Wagner-Roger's bill. He signed an internal memorandum on the bill,
In 1940, when Nazi Germany attacked western Europe
and German bombs began to fall on England, great numbers of Americans offered
refuge to British children who had been displaced by the bombings. This
was in great contrast to the lack of refuge offered to Jewish children
just two years before.
The type of British child most typically requested
by American families was "a six year old girl, preferably with blond hair."
CASE STUDY #3: KRISTALLNACHT
On November 9-10, 1938, the Nazis staged a pogrom
against the Jews in Germany, in newly annexed Austria, and in the Sudeten
territories recently seized from Czechoslovakia. The Nazis called it Kristallnacht,
or Night of the Broken Glass, or Crystals. Synagogues were torched, Jewish
homes and businesses pillaged, the windows of Jewish shops shattered, and
Jewish men sent to concentration camps.
1. Mimi Brandt was living with her mother in an apartment in Vienna.
The father had already fled to Poland. An SA man, a neighbor, had eyed
the family's apartment for some time. Mimi knew the SA man. She had grown
up "playing with his daughter on the street." Then came Kristallnacht.
2. Henny Milstein tells of her father's narrow escape from the Nazis
and the role played by an envelope from the American consulate.
3. Fifty years after Kristallnacht, Mimi Brandt returned to the apartment
in Vienna from which she had been expelled on the night of November 9,
4. After Kristallnacht, the Wagner-Roger's Bill was proposed on Capitol
Hill in Washington. The bill called for admitting twenty thousand German-Jewish
children into the country.
5. Irene Woods, a Jewish girl in Berlin, describes the difficulties
of seeking emigration to America. "They really didn't want us," she said.
"That message we got."
6. In 1987, Kurt Waldheim, a former officer in the German army, ran
for president of Austria. At the same time, Waldheim was accused of being
an accessory to war crimes during World War II, notably in the deportation
of Jews from Greece to their death in Poland. After the war Waldheim served
as head of the United Nations. In his presidential bid, Waldheim met strong
resistance from what he described as Jewish groups "in New York," and answered
them by turning anti-Semitism to his advantage in the traditional manner.
Paul Grosz, president of the Viennese Jewish community, explains.
In September 1939, coinciding with the outbreak of
war, Hitler ordered the killing of mentally deficient and physically deformed
children in Germany. As historian Nora Levin has noted, "With its morbid
preoccupation with youth and health, National Socialism had made illness
a crime." The euthanasia program was known as T-4, named after the Berlin
address at Tiergartenstrasse 4 from which the program was administered.
The first people destroyed by the Nazis were Germans who did not measure
up to Nazi racial ideals. Five thousand children were gassed in euthanasia
centers. The adult insane were similarly gassed. In the Nazi lexicon, these
people were grouped in the category of "Life unworthy of living." The Euthanasia
program led to that rare event in Nazi Germany: public protest. There was
no disguising the killing operations; the smoke alone presaged similar
plumes in the Polish skies; locals pointed at the buses arriving with the
doomed patients; rumors flourished. Parents of the handicapped children
were devoted to their children precisely because the children were handicapped.
They did not accept the facile explanations about the sudden death of the
patient. In addition, religious leaders protested the killings.
Pastor P. Braune, a leader of the Lutheran Church,
wrote Hitler in July 1940, "Where is the limit? Who is abnormal, asocial,
hopelessly sick? How will soldiers fare who acquire incurable ailments
fighting for their country?" Braune was arrested.
The Nazis, however, halted the euthanasia program. Hitler
was very sensitive to public opinion, particularly during war time; he
did not want a revolt on the home front which, he believed, had caused
Germany's defeat during World War I. The euthanasia program resumed operations
when the war turned the public's attention to more pressing concerns. Significantly,
the same individuals who operated the euthanasia centers in Germany later
built and operated the Nazi death camps in Poland. They had already perfected
the assembly line of death, and later they simply expanded it.
ROAD TO WAR
On March 15, 1939, the German army occupied the rump
state of Czechoslovakia, shattering the agreements made at the Munich Conference
where Hitler promised that the Czechoslovak territory known as the Sudetenland
was his "last territorial claim" in Europe. In response, the governments
of Britain and France, the self-congratulating signatories of the Munich
accord, stunned by Hitler's violation of the agreement, extended a pledge
of support to Poland should that nation be invaded by the Germans. Hitherto,
the Polish government enjoyed relatively good relations with the Nazis,
particularly on the Jewish question, but now saw itself confronted on three
sides by the Wehrmacht. The Poles hastened to accept the offer of western
protection, though relations between Poland and the western democracies
had been less than cordial. The West viewed the Polish government as fascist
and anti-Semitic. When the Wehrmacht attacked Poland on September 1, 1939,
England and France, bound by their pact with Poland, reluctantly declared
war on Germany two days later.
HITLER'S THREATS TO THE JEWS
On January 21, 1939, Hitler told the Czech foreign
minister Chvalkovsky, "We are going to destroy the Jews. They are not going
to get away with what they did on November 9, 1918. The day of reckoning
has come." On January 30, 1939, in his annual message to the Reichstag,
Hitler uttered an explicit threat to the Jews of Europe, blaming them for
the war Hitler was preparing:
"If international finance Jewry within Europe and
abroad should succeed once more in plunging the peoples into a world war,
then the consequence will be not the bolshevization of the world and therewith
a victory of Jewry, but, on the contrary, the destruction of the Jewish
race in Europe."
WORLD WAR II
With a method of warfare known as Blitzkrieg, or
Lightning War, the German army quickly destroyed the valiant but antiquated
and hopelessly outgunned Polish army. On September 17, 1939, the Soviet
Red Army crossed Poland's eastern frontier and occupied a huge swath of
Poland's eastern territories. The Soviet action was undertaken in accordance
with the Nazi-Soviet Pact signed a week before the Nazi attack on Poland.
Though mortal enemies, Hitler and Stalin put aside their differences on
the matter of Poland: the pact, in a secret protocol, allowed for the division
of Poland between the two totalitarian powers. Warsaw, the Polish capital,
fell to the Germans on September 27, 1939, after a terrific pounding by
artillery and the air force, which appeared to delight in singling out
the Jewish Quarter of the city for punishment.
Following immediately behind the German troops were
mobilized units of SS killers known as the Einsatzgruppen, or strike commandos.
As the German army general Franz Halder noted in his diary, the mission
of these killers was "cleaning out: Jewry, [Polish] intelligentsia, clergy,
The first targets of the Nazis were the representatives
of the Polish elite, the ones perceived as most likely to organize underground
resistance to the Nazis. The best and the brightest of the Polish nation
were murdered at killing sites such as Palmiry outside of Warsaw: doctors,
lawyers, teachers, university professors, police, army officers, priests,
etc. The Poles were viewed as "sub-humans" by the Germans. They would treated
as slaves of the "master race." It would be enough, said Himmler, if the
Poles knew enough to count to ten in German.
On September 21, 1939, as the Polish campaign came to
an end, the Nazi leader Heydrich held a conference to map out Nazi policy
in occupied Poland. He ordered that lists be prepared with the names of
all top and middle level Polish leaders, including teachers, clergy, nobility,
and army officers. As for the Jews in Poland, Heydrich's memorandum of
September 21, 1939, provided a blue print for the "final solution." Heydrich
instructed that the Jews be concentrated in city ghettos "for a better
possibility of control, and later possibility of deportation." He made
a distinction between the "ultimate goal," which required a certain period
of time to implement, and the short-term measures "leading to the fulfillment
of the ultimate goal." Heydrich called for the establishment of Judenrats,
or Jewish councils, to facilitate the flow of orders from the Germans to
the Jewish populace. The Jewish owners of small businesses were to disappear.
Jewish property was to be handed over to Aryans.
INVASION OF RUSSIA
On June 22, 1941, Hitler unleashed the Wehrmacht
on the Soviet Union, bringing to an end the twenty-one month old "friendship"
with Stalin. The invasion of Russia signaled the beginning of the Nazi
wholesale slaughter of Jews. Before, it had been piecemeal destruction.
On March 30, 1941, in preparation of the Russian invasion, code named Barbarossa,
Hitler harangued two hundred of his leading officers:
"The war against Russia will be such that it cannot
be conducted in a knightly fashion. This struggle is one of ideologies
and racial differences and will have to be conducted with unprecedented,
merciless, and unrelenting harshness. All officers will have to rid themselves
of obsolete ideologies...German soldiers guilty of breaking international
law...will be excused."
In the aftermath of this speech, there was apparently
much discussion among the officers present concerning the traditional honor
of the Germany army and the moral obligations involved in following Hitler's
order. The leading German officers, however, were afraid to mention the
complaints to Hitler, fearing his ire and its consequences for personal
On June 6, 1941, the German high command issued the
Commissar Order, an order to govern the actions of German troops during
the forthcoming Russian campaign. All commissars, that is, political officials
attached to the Soviet Red Army, were to be executed upon capture. In addition,
"all Jews" were to be shot, the formula equating Jews and Communists having
long been prepared. The German soldier was given a free hand in the execution
of enemy civilians and the right to apply collective retaliation. Total
immunity would govern his behavior in the east.
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