Kristallnacht: an unmistakable turning point
As Henry and his father listen to radio reports of the November 7, 1938 assassination of German diplomat Ernst vom Rath by Herschel Grynszpan, a young Polish Jew whose family has been deported from Germany, they are aware that there will be consequences for Jews throughout Germany. Through the night of November 9 and continuing through the next day, a storm of anti-Jewish violence erupts throughout Germany, annexed Austria, and German-occupied areas of the Sudetenland (Czechoslovakia). The name Kristallnacht (literally, “crystal night,” or the “night of broken glass”) is derived from the shattered windows of synagogues, homes and Jewish businesses that are looted and destroyed during the pogroms. On the morning of November 10, the full extent of what is happening is not yet apparent and Henry makes his way to school. As the day progresses, the scope of the violence being leveled against Jews becomes clear.
Henry Lowenstein: A member of the German delegation in the Embassy in Paris had been killed by a Jew. This was clearly a—it was a bad thing. The Jewish kid who did it should not have done it, but that’s beside the point. The Nazis picked upon that as a golden opportunity really to go after the Jews full tilt now. It was November of 1938 and I remember sitting with my father listening to our radio. And late in the night, and hearing that, Grynszpan was the Jew who did it, and I can’t remember the name of the German’s name who was killed, but anyway, I remember hearing that he had died, and saying “Oh my God, we’re in for it now.” Because it was perfectly obvious what they were gearing up to do.
In the morning we woke up to the sound of glass breaking and screaming and noise on the street and discovered that trucks with Nazi Stormtroopers were driving up and down the street. And wherever they saw what they surmised was a Jewish business, they would smash the store window, loot the store, drag the store owners out and beat them. And paint in big red paint on the floor—on the street “Jew.” Which meant that of course no one would dare go in there and buy anything, which essentially put them out of business.
So, all this was going on, and this was like in the early morning. We didn’t know—we had no way of knowing what was going on anywhere else, and there was a—we really debated whether I should go to school or not. And Herman, who lived just around the corner from us, Herman and I decided we would go to school. And we went on our bikes because I didn’t want to go on a bus because I was afraid if we go on a bus, we might be there, we have no control about what’s going on. So, we rode our bikes and, by the way, by this time in 1938, we were used to having to—we would get waylaid on the way to school there’d be Nazi gangs that would try to get us. And so, we’d have to—we changed our route daily so we wouldn’t go the same way because we were afraid that, you know. But anyway, we made it to school the two of us. We got there and discovered that there were very few students there, and very few teachers. And then we learned that this teacher had been arrested, that teacher had been arrested, and so on. This synagogue had been burnt down, this had happened, and so on. All this information came to us. We got to school I would say probably about 9:00 or so in the morning. By 10:30 it became perfectly obvious what had gone on around—the terror that was going on. And the few teachers who were there said look, go home, get out of here, hide, do whatever you can, don’t come back, don’t even think about coming to school until we know more about what’s happening.
One of the things that I learned there was that the synagogue in which I had just been bar mitzvahed that summer—the summer of 1938—the Fasanenstrasse Synagogue had been burnt down or blown up or whatever, and another synagogue that I used to attend, on Hauptstrasse, which was a much smaller place, we were told, and I truly don’t know if this is true or not, but we were told that the rabbi had, when they set fire to it he ran in to try to save the Torah. And um, they apparently forced him back inside and he died.
“We got there and discovered that there were very few students there, and very few teachers. And then we learned that this teacher had been arrested, that teacher had been arrested, and so on.”
USC Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive, Interview 11470
Interior view of the Fasanenstrasse Synagogue in Berlin, burned on Kristallnacht, November 9-10, 1938. Henry Lowenstein’s bar mitzvah was held here just a few months earlier.
After they learn that Henry’s uncle Georg – Max’s brother – has been picked up in a Nazi raid and arrested, the Loewensteins gather with friends and relatives in Georg’s apartment. They hide here for the next weeks, waiting for the situation in the city to calm down.
Loewenstein family portrait, 1940. Left to right, standing: Max, Alice, Marie, and Georg Loewenstein. Henry’s grandmother Ernestine Loewenstein is seated in front.
Henry Lowenstein: Anyway, we went home, and I got home about 11:00. And there was my father on the phone, and we had learned that my uncle had been picked up and his very good friend, Dr. [?] and several others. And that they were just going around picking everybody up. For some reason, they hadn’t come to our house yet. To our apartment. So, my father decided under the circumstances there was nothing to do but to get out of there as fast as we could. And the thought was since they had picked up my uncle that they wouldn’t go a second time to that apartment.
So, we made our way over there. We didn’t dare to take anything with us because we didn’t want to be obviously to be carrying anything. So, we went over to my uncle’s apartment where my grandmother also lived. And there was my aunt and my grandmother. And the word was that they had come and gotten him. That he was in his slippers, you know, and not expecting to go out. They would not permit him to put on shoes, they would not permit him to wear an overcoat, although this was November and in the winter. And had just taken him. That was it, we had no idea where he was or what was going on.
And so, we stayed there. And then several other relatives came. Friends and relatives gathered there. And altogether we must have been about 20 people in this apartment. Frankly, scared to death. We didn’t dare turn on any lights unusually or anything because we wanted to do nothing that would draw attention to us. And we stayed there. And ate what food there was and slept on the floor and, you know, just were there.
“We didn’t dare turn on any lights unusually or anything because we wanted to do nothing that would draw attention to us.”
USC Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive, Interview 11470