November 1938

 During the pogroms that took place in November 1938, police rounded up around 30,000 Jewish men (about one-tenth of the Jewish population still living in Germany) in warehouses and halls and gradually shipped them off to Dachau, Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen. Later, Nazi officials declared that around 91 Jewish people had been killed, based on “police reports … [that] included neither Jewish suicides nor the significantly larger number of Jews who were arrested in connection with the pogrom and would die in concentration camps in the following weeks and months”.

Source: Alan E. Steinweis Kristallnacht 1938. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2009; pp. 1, 57, 61, 107.


Kristallnacht the Night of the Broken Glass. This is the name given to events with which many will be familiar from school history lessons. The origins of the term are disputed and controversial, however, and more recently it has been less used because it places the focus on the destruction of property. It has been argued that the use of pogrom places the emphasis on attacks on people primarily, and on property as a secondary characteristic; and the term November Terror has also been proposed as a possible replacement. While historians argue this one out, I tend to use ‘the events of November 1938’.

The chronology of these November events is complicated, but they are generally deemed to have begun in public, at least, on Monday, 7 November 1938, when Jewish teenager, Herschel Grynszpan (Yad Vashem Shoah Resource Centre), shot a Paris-based German diplomat, Ernst von Rath.

By the end of that day, organised anti-Jewish riots had begun in several towns and cities across Germany, which were expanded on the following few days.

Source: Steinweis 2009.

Frankfurt au Main

In 1938 in Frankfurt au Main, where Werner Weissenberg was teaching at Philanthropin school, there was a Jewish population of around 35,000. There were three synagogues, the school, and many other Jewish cultural and social organisations, including a museum sponsored by the Rothschild family. As Jews had been ostracised and legislated against for many years by this stage, at least since 1933, the majority had extended links to others facing the same prejudices. Coupled with this, German authorities had gradually been drawing up lists of people and properties, so the act of locating Jews quickly during those November days was not difficult.

Postcard from Albert Hirsch at Philanthropin, 1939. Source: Werner Weissenberg, pers. archive, copyright retained

The attacks in Frankfurt started with a fire that was set in one of the synagogues at around 5am on 10 November. Young boys were forced to cut up the Torah scrolls and to burn them. By around 6.30am, a majority of Jewish homes were being invaded by squads of between five and ten men. Many hundreds of Jews sought help over this time in the offices of British Consul General Robert T. Smallbones, who ignored orders not to intervene. He was in constant touch with people, trying to obtain emigration permits for Palestine or the UK.

Source: Thalmann and Feinermann, Crystal night: 910 November, 1938. London: Thames & Hudson, 1974.

By midday on 10 November, “There was not a single Jewish shop which had not been ‘completely demolished and wrecked inside and out’ … Several Jewish-owned cafes and a hotel had also been destroyed … Meanwhile gangs of thugs marched through the streets shouting ‘Perish the Jews!’ and ‘Beat the Jews to death!'” Sections of the city where poorer Jews lived were attacked first, with Consul Smallbones noting “scenes of indescribably destructive sadism and brutality” (see, or on PDF in case of a broken link: Smallbones_The Association of Jewish Refugees).

Source: Read and Fisher, Kristallnacht: Unleashing the holocaust, London: Michael Joseph, 1989; p. 102/3.

By evening, the arrests had begun, with Jewish men rounded up and confined: “A large crowd had gathered outside, screaming insults and abuse at each convoy as it arrived. Inside … Jews were stripped of all personal possessions, including money, and held through the night and next day without food or water”.

Source: Read and Fisher 1989.

“The camps had been set up to ‘silence by terror'”

Thalmann and Feinermann, Crystal night: 910 November, 1938, 1974; p. 117

Thousands of people had long journeys to the camps and many of the methods that were to be seen in wartime concentration camp journeys and in the camps themselves were established here and now.

Those coming from Breslau, where Werner had been at university, had a “ten-hour journey to Buchenwald, during which they were viciously abused by SS guards” (Stenweis 2009; p. 98).

In early autumn 1938, Dachau had housed around 2,000 people; in late September, most were transferred to Buchenwald. Between 10 and 16 November, around 11,000 Jewish men arrived (including Werner, who was imprisoned from November 1938 to February 1939). The camp was simply not prepared for accommodating this number of people, despite having been extended during the later years of the 1930s. Many new arrivals had to sleep outside, in freezing November temperatures. There was little food or water, and few latrines or showers (Steinweis 2009; p. 109).

Arrival at the camps was traumatic for all, but in order to survive people had to adapt quickly. Detainees were received under harsh spotlights, “by ranks of hundreds of armed and helmeted SS troopers … They were kept standing without food or water for eight hours while they underwent admission formalities. Their heads were shorn and they passed through alternately icy and scalding showers (Thalmann and Feinermann 1974; p. 118). The men had to run a gauntlet of SS, “while being kicked and beaten … accompanied by a great deal of verbal abuse and humiliation” (Steinweis 2009; p. 109).

Hundreds died between 1938 and early 1939, many at the hands of SS guards; quite a number killed themselves on the electric fencing – also a sign of things to come. Many deaths also resulted from heart attacks and from other medical problems: there was no insulin for diabetics, for example, and proper medical attention generally was not made available (Steinweis 2009; p. 112).

“According to the most modest estimates, based on documents at the Wiener Library, the pogrom claimed the lives of between 2,000 and 2,500 men, women and children, and permanently affected all the others who survived its horror” (Thalmann and Feinermann 1974; p. 118).

Note: all books cited here were consulted at the Wiener Holocaust Library, London

Wiener Holocaust Library, London, Exhibition ‘Shattered’, 2018. Image, C Weissenberg, pers. archive, copyright retained