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Kristallnacht: Night of the Broken Glass, November 9-10, 1938

View of Frankfurt destruction from Allied bombing in spring, 1945.
(Credit: Institut fuer Stadtgeschichte, Frankfurt a. M)

A lot has been written about Auschwitz and other Nazi killing centers, necessarily so. If we do not talk and write about it, it will not be remembered. We remember the 9th of Av because every year we commemorate the destruction of the Temple. And so, we must remember the destruction of European Jewry, 6 million souls, including 2 million children.

I have also written about Auschwitz. Specifically, about my reasoning why it would have been a mistake to urge the Allies to bomb the rail lines and crematoriums at Auschwitz.

But today I want to talk about a lesser-known Nazi action that I have experienced personally. My own experience is only a small part of what happened. I have also written about that already, and all my writings have been published by The Jewish Link.

Of greater interest to the reader would be not what happened to me, but what happened to the broader community, specifically in Frankfurt, where I lived at the time. What happened in Frankfurt, happened all over Germany and Austria.

The reason the Nazis used as a pretext to start the well-organized destruction is well known and need not be repeated here.

On that night of November 9 to 10, 1938, my uncle’s restaurant was broken into and completely destroyed, together with their adjoining living quarters. The family came to live with us in a different part of the city where the apartment house was being protected by the owner to avoid damage to his property.

Later that night there was a loud kicking of boots against our entrance door, and my father answered it. He was told that all men 16 years and older will have to come with them for Schutzhaft (arrest for their own protection). That was their excuse/explanation. My father and my uncle, the only men within that age bracket, went with them.

They were taken to a building called “Festhalle,” a building with similar uses as Madison Square Garden in New York, except that it was one building, originally built in 1909. But on a huge area, where subsequently 12 more structures were erected, all as part of the overall entertainment projects for the public. Now on November 9-10 the “entertainment” for the Nazis was the arrest and confinement of Jewish men. These men not only came from Frankfurt, but from all the surrounding towns and villages, wherever Jews were living.

Destruction of Festhalle caused by major fire resulting from burning of German Army uniforms stored there, 1940. (Credit: Messe Frankfurt GmbH)

I personally saw the Festhalle when my mother decided on the morning of the 10th, that since the men had not taken any food or their winter coats with them when they were arrested, to go there and bring them sandwiches and their warm winter coats. My mother asked me to come with her when she called a taxi. We got to the huge parking lot in front of the Festhalle—this was before any of the 12 additional structures were put up—to the reception by thousands of Nazis screaming antisemitic slogans and throwing rocks against the building, where fortunately the police prevented anyone from entering. When the crowd saw a Jewish mother and her son coming, they now ran towards us, and we quickly had the taxi take us out of there without having accomplished our mission.

Eventually all the men were loaded onto buses and taken to the nearest railroad depot and shipped to Buchenwald and Dachau. My father was taken to Buchenwald, from where he was released after four weeks, once he was able to meet four conditions. He had to have been a frontline soldier during World War I; he had to agree to sell his business for pennies on the dollar; he had to turn over to the state the life insurance policies on his family; and he had to agree to be out of Germany within six months.

I have never talked or written about what happened to the men inside the Festhalle, nor what happened in Buchenwald, since I did not want children to read or hear of the horrors in both places.

I have now received a book titled “100 Jahre unter einer Kuppel” (“100 Years Under One Dome”) referring to the period 1909-2009 that is covered by the book. It is the story of the Festhalle Frankfurt, written by Dr. Thomas Bauer. Conveniently the authors “forgot” to include December 1940, when a huge fire caused by spontaneous combustion in German Army uniforms stored there caused a major destruction. They have also conveniently disregarded the almost complete destruction of the building resulting from repeated bombings by the Allied Air Forces during 1942-1944. The Festhalle was a building of 5,646 square meters (60,774 square feet), with a capacity, depending on the event, of 15,000.

The book is published by Messe Frankfurt Medien GmbH and includes eyewitness accounts from several Jewish men who had been held in the Festhalle. I have decided to quote here for the Reader one of the eyewitness reports translated by me from the German. I have taken the liberty to delete a few sentences which I do not consider appropriate for a Jewish family newspaper.

“Upon arrival, after examination for weapons, all watches, pocketbooks, and money were taken from them. Heinrich P. of Frankfurt reported that a SS officer made him crawl up a staircase on his stomach. On the other side he was forced to do somersaults, after which another SS man beat him with his Browning rifle. He broke several teeth and several ribs. Then Mr. P. was taken into the cellar to get a bucket of water, since another Jew had thrown up, which Mr. P. had to pick up with his bare hands. Then the SS man threw a large quantity of nails into a corner and forced Mr. P. to stand on his head there, resulting in many nails being embedded in his scalp. A friend later had to remove the nails from the scalp with a pocketknife. After this individual mistreatment, all the men had to do somersaults for several hours while being forced to sing.”

The above is not a word-for-word translation, but it conveys what went on in the Festhalle, the entertainment center for the city of Frankfurt.

After 1945 a memorial tablet was attached to a wall at the Festhalle stating, as translated by me: “In the Festhalle, during the night of 8th to 9th of November 1938, hundreds of Frankfurter Jews were forced to assemble there and were very mistreated. From here the first mass transports went to the concentration camps.” Nobody seemed to notice or mind that the date was incorrect and that the number of Jews held there was not hundreds, but thousands.

I urge the reader to remember what happened on November 9-10, 1938.

Norbert Strauss is a Teaneck resident and Englewood Hospital volunteer. He frequently speaks to groups to relay his family’s escape from Nazi Germany in 1941.

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