About The November Pogrom 1938 Project
This website forms part of the Wiener Library's November Pogrom 1938 project, which provides information about the violent terror unleashed upon Jews in Germany and Austria on 9-10 November 1938. This website, together with a print book, is intended for teachers, students, historians, researchers, libraries, writers, journalists, politicians and others worldwide. Devastated interior of a Munich synagogue after 'Kristallnacht' in November 1938
The Wiener Library's mission is to serve scholars, professional researchers, the media and the public as a library of record; to engage people of all ages and backgrounds in understanding the Holocaust and its historical context through an active educational programme; to be a living memorial to the evils of the past by ensuring that the Library's collections are put at the service of the future; and to oppose antisemitism and other forms of prejudice and intolerance. The Library's reputation rests on its independence and the scholarly objectivity of its activities and publications. This website forms part of the Wiener Library's November Pogrom (Kristallnacht) 1938 project, which is providing information about the violent terror unleashed upon Jews in Germany and Austria on 9-10 November 1938. This website, together with a large-format book and an e-book, is intended for teachers, students, historians, researchers, libraries, writers, journalists, politicians and others worldwide.
At the centre of these resources is the Wiener Library's unique collection of 356 eyewitness reports of the events of November 1938, which are available here in English for the first time. The vivid and compelling reports are accompanied by related material from the Wiener Library's own collections and elsewhere, and a detailed Glossary, setting the events in their historical and international contexts. The project's testimonies are also of great interest because they are closely connected to the Wiener Library's own history.
At the heart of Holocaust education projects such as this (and the teaching and learning of history more generally) is the obligation to find ways to best describe and understand the past for the benefit of today's teachers and learners. It is not a simple matter to present the complex actions, perceptions and attitudes of people in possibly unfamiliar places and at moments in time that can now seem very distant and different. How we accommodate and comprehend our own ways of handling the passage of time shapes our ideas and the very narratives that we choose to consider. Alongside that responsibility we also have to understand the influences that customary commemorating of past events at their anniversary dates has in different places and for successive generations. Holocaust education and the study of such difficult history brings with it important responsibilities.
This project is helping to increase the Library's digital presence by removing barriers to accessing collections. In doing so, the project is furthering the Library's aim of attracting new audiences and better reaching existing audiences elsewhere. In addition to making the resources available digitally, by translating the testimonies the project is making this unique material available to a wider audience who use English rather than just those who can read German. This serves the Wiener Library's mission: 'To engage people of all ages and backgrounds in understanding the Holocaust and its historical context through an active educational programme.'
The Wiener Library is most grateful to Dr Ruth Levitt, Research Fellow, for designing, running and delivering this ambitious project for the Library - and for being willing to do so although the Library did not manage to secure the necessary funding for this work.
She has identified and obtained the many texts and images that comprise the project's resources, she has commissioned, checked and edited the translations and other texts, and identified and obtained permissions to include many additional resources. She has also devised and created the Glossary and Index and the presentation of Special Subjects, which provide important additional ways to reach into the content. She has worked closely with web developers IMAGIZ to design and create this site. She has established sound editorial principles and applied rigorous standards to support the educational and research aims throughout the project. She has initiated an international network of contacts.
Upon all these firm foundations the project will continue to develop and grow.
On and around 9-10 November 1938 simultaneously in hundreds of towns and villages in Germany and Austria thousands of Jews were terrorised, persecuted and victimised. During these incidents over 1,200 synagogues and thousands of Jewish shops, businesses and homes were desecrated, looted and burned. Countless individuals were attacked, abused and beaten, over 90 people were killed, and over 25,000 men were arrested, deported and detained in the concentration camps at Buchenwald, Dachau and Sachsenhausen, many of them for several months, where they were brutally tortured and mistreated. Hundreds of these individuals died in the concentration camps as a result.
The sequence of events that preceded the November terror included increasing restrictions and disenfranchisement of Jews in Germany and Austria, a wave of arrests in May and June 1938, the expulsion of Polish-born Jews from Germany to the border with Poland in October 1938, and Herschel Grynszpan's mortal attack on German diplomat Ernst vom Rath in Paris on 7 November 1938. Nazi Minister of Propaganda Goebbels used this as the pretext for launching the terror, although there is evidence that it had apparently already been planned for some time.
Immediately afterwards, on 12 November 1938, Nazi leaders met to assess the outcomes of the operation and to discuss further expropriation, expulsion, deportation, and the extermination of the Jews. For those Jews able to emigrate, a swift departure was urgent but not easy, because of the intricate snares of bureaucratic procedures imposed on them along with punitive taxes and the seizure of a large proportion of their property and assets. For those who could not get out, ghettoisation, poverty and desperation intensified as more and more Jews were rounded up and sent to Poland as forced labourers, and random attacks and executions of Jews were common. Poland was invaded in September 1939, war was declared and the so-called 'Final Solution' that was the Holocaust gathered pace.
It is now more than 77 years since the so-called Novemberpogrom, also labelled (Reichs)Kristallnacht or Novemberaktion. These labels translate as 'November Pogrom', '(Reich) night of broken glass' and 'November operation'. Each term is problematic because:
- some people dispute that this was a 'pogrom', which they regard as 'exterminatory violence against a social group', rather than 'state-directed terror against the Jews'.1
The Oxford English Dictionary offers two definitions for 'pogrom':
- In Russia, Poland, and some other East European countries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries: an organized massacre aimed at the destruction or annihilation of a body or class of people, esp. one conducted against Jewish people;
- an organized, officially tolerated, attack on any community or group.
- some wish to avoid the term 'Kristallnacht' because they regard it as misrepresenting what happened by implying only windows were broken, thus diminishing the extent and severity of the murders and other harms caused to the Jews at the time;
- some wish to avoid Nazi vocabulary, such as the word 'Aktion'.
1. In discussion with historian Dr François Guesnet, University College London, a speaker at a workshop held at the Wiener Library in May 2014 on "Pogroms: Contemporary Reactions to Antisemitic Violence in Europe, 1815-1950."
Labels used for the November 1938 events carry significant associations, implications and interpretations, which may not necessarily be initially obvious. Nevertheless, these meanings can infiltrate subsequent perceptions, commentaries and analyses about the events and consequences of November 1938. The same could be said for the term 'Holocaust', which is also a problematic label even though it is so widely accepted and used. As 'November Pogrom' and 'Kristallnacht' have become the most recognised terms for the 1938 terror, we have retained them for users' convenience even though they are not wholly accurate and we are not endorsing them. The project will enable users to develop for themselves a sound understanding of the events in their original and contemporary contexts.
The relationship between the events of November 1938 and the unfolding of the Holocaust is itself a further complex topic. Yet for most people alive today, particularly for young people in Europe and North America, the November events may be no more than a seemingly obscure incident occupying a few sentences in a history book. The Wiener Library project therefore attempts to present information in words and images that support much greater and deeper understanding of what happened in November 1938 and why.
Within the collection of testimonies several different styles of description, narrative and voice are apparent. Some are raw and personal, using language that conveys unconcealed distress, despair or anxiety, expressing great misery, fear or desperation. Some beg for help. Others are angry or defiant or scornful towards the perpetrators. Those that are written in a matter-of-fact, impersonal way, with little or no overt emotion or commentary, are equally chilling; a few try to present a scrupulous balance of positives and negatives. Some are minutely detailed, others are much less so; several are bravely stoical; a few manage an ironic tone of gallows humour; one or two present hair-raising escapes or describe attempts to hide as exciting adventures. Some of the reports record actual names and places, dates and times; whereas these details are omitted or 'anonymised' in many others. Many of the reports present the plight and first-hand encounters that individuals had to go through, while a number of others give a broader overview or list details obtained from relatives or other people and places. Taken altogether the collection provides a highly specific set of word pictures from different personal perspectives, which corroborate many features of how the terror was perpetrated.
There is fulsome description of the way the arrests were planned and carried out in people's homes, who the intruders were, how they broke in, their disrespect in speaking to the occupants, physical violence, verbal attacks, the damage they did to furniture, fittings, windows and doors, the clothing they stole or ripped, the money and other possessions they looted, and how they forced the occupants out into the street and what transport they used to take them away. Then follow the details of arrival at assembly places, police stations, prisons and how they were spoken to and treated there, how long they were kept standing, whether they were put in cells, the deprivation of information, whether they had any food, water, sleeping accommodation or access to lavatories, what they could find out from other prisoners about what would happen to them, the personal information they had to give to their captors and guards, who was released (at what point and on what grounds), who was detained and when and where they were moved.
For those who were taken to concentration camps there are several very full accounts of the journey, lack of food, water or lavatory facilities, the treatment by their guards, impressions on arrival, their reception, the beatings and other mistreatment, the incessant routine of lengthy roll calls and the work or punitive drills they were forced to do under threat of punishments or death. There are full accounts of the food they were given, the washing and sanitation arrangements, the illnesses, wounds and medical treatment or lack thereof, sleep or lack thereof, the cold, the heat and the uniforms they were issued. The psychological and emotional toll of torture emerges from these testimonies, even where the experiences are described in uncomplaining terms. Those who had completed the bureaucratic procedures for emigration before they were arrested as well as the financial and travel arrangements were usually released quite quickly. For all the imprisoned men, however, the physical and mental suffering that was inflicted on them is graphically conveyed, communicating the acute shock and bewilderment that many felt at first. This initial shock was soon followed for many by learning how to try to survive and what to do or avoid doing when coping with the brutality and the acute deprivation and distress they were under.
Testimonies about the November terror came to the JCIO from all over Germany, as well as from Austria, several of these provided by reporters in transit away from their homes or having already travelled abroad. Some recount the shocking information they gleaned from relatives and friends about attacks, beatings, looting and deaths in other towns and villages or that they saw for themselves when visiting the homes or offices of family, colleagues and acquaintances. Several of the reports describe in detail how during the terror synagogues and houses of prayer were broken into, their contents desecrated, the buildings set on fire and allowed to burn down with the fire brigade looking on. In addition, there was deliberate humiliation of rabbis, synagogue staff and committee members.
A number of the reports shed light on the predicament of parents who were desperately seeking help to get their children to safe places away from Germany and Austria, including some by the same impoverished families and lone parents who were on the brink of breakdown or suicide. Among these is a compilation of short postcards to families at home written by children on a Kindertransport train carrying them through Holland to safety in England.
At the outset, the editors of the project created some principles to guide the translating and editorial work. The objective was always to enable the reader to understand what the reporter had tried to convey and how they had conveyed it. It was important to always be aware that most of the accounts were expressed in German, over 75 years ago, very close in time to the shocking events and many of the individuals were in a state of bewilderment, shock or distress. The principles therefore sought to make English texts which retain the intention, style and voice of each source by maintaining the register and 'feel' of the language and preserving idiomatic colour and tone as much as possible. Furthermore, the English texts deliberately retain certain German words, followed immediately by their translation, where, for example, the reporter has specified particular concentration camp language, or the names of the many permits, regulations, taxes and processes, or the names of organisations. The German vocabulary, unfamiliar to many readers, is an important part of the history, but it must not be a barrier to understanding that history, and has been translated conscientiously. The work on the text was guided by a commitment to achieving clarity while not modernising, over-anglicising or 'sanitising' the texts. This was done even if a so-called 'better' translation might have been possible, in the sense of making it 'easier' for some of today's readers. Using anachronisms or turns of phrase that might fit when translating a modern source would have violated the significant historical origins of these testimonies.
To further assist readers who encounter unfamiliar words or facts, there is also a bespoke Glossary, which defines and explains all the specialised terminology and the main contextual factors associated with the November 1938 events. The Index identifies people and organisations, places and subjects in the testimonies.
Certain subjects are covered in particular breadth and or depth in the reports as a whole. The scope of these Special Subjects is outlined below. Using the Special Subjects as a guide should enable readers to consider the specific information in this site in conjunction with the Glossary, including:
- Eyewitness reporters and locations
- People (including rabbis, doctors, lawyers, children, women and others)
- Harms (including taxes and regulations, mistreatment, arrests and interrogations, expropriations, property damage, deaths, suicides and other harms)
- Sites of harm (including homes, shops, synagogues and elsewhere)
- Concentration camps (Buchenwald, Dachau and Sachsenhausen; information on types of prisoners)
- Places (including towns and cities in Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Netherlands and beyond)
- Terror events (in June, October and November 1938)
- Nazi organisations
The historically important documents that are included here include some contemporary reports of the November Pogrom, which the Jewish Central Information Office issued in 1938-9, and a number of photographs and maps. The political context and significance of the November Pogrom is set out in texts written by the Mémorial de la Shoah in 2008.