On the night of November 9-10, 1938, hordes of uniformed Nazis accompanied by angry civilians poured into the streets of German cities to burn synagogues and destroy Jewish businesses. At least 92 people were lynched, an official number that some historians believe is an understatement. Around 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and sent to concentration camps in what is seen as a prelude to the Holocaust. Coinciding with the 84th anniversary of what is known as Night of the Broken Glass, The Yad Vashem center in Jerusalem has published a series of unpublished photographs that show new details of that wave of looting and barbarism seen from the perspective of the perpetrators.
In one of the images, it is seen how a Nazi uniform destroys a shop window while a crowd watches him. Some of those gathered, perhaps neighbors of the Jewish shopkeepers, laugh. In another, several SA and SS men pour gasoline or some sort of accelerant on a synagogue carpet. Another photograph shows the flames devouring the central nave of a temple. In one snapshot, a dozen uniformed men are seen carrying piles of looted holy books, probably to be burned. The victims are also portrayed: a woman lying in bed looks scared at the camera while she puts her hand to her heart; four other people, some in pajamas and robes, seem to be taking a break from the wound that one of them has on his forehead. Several photos show men bruised or bleeding.
The family of an American soldier assigned to counterintelligence work during the war discovered the photographs when the man died and gave them to the Yad Vashem center, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, which has just made them public on the occasion of the commemoration of the pogrom of the November 9. Archivists are sure the images were taken by Nazi photographers. It is unknown how they came into the hands of the soldier, who was Jewish. The man, who never spoke to his family about his experiences during World War II, kept the album for decades. One of his two daughters, Ann Leifer, found him cleaning her house.
“We can see from the extreme close-up of these photos that the photographers were an integral part of the event depicted. The angles and the proximity to the perpetrators seem to indicate a clear goal: to document the events,” said Jonathan Matthews, director of photography for the Yad Vashem archives, in a statement. They are “rare” photos, he explains, showing the Nazis setting fires and destroying Jewish businesses and homes. The images are further proof that the pogroms were ordered from above and therefore were not “spontaneous acts carried out by angry crowds, as they tried to make them appear”.
The publication of the photos has coincided with the commemoration in Germany of what is increasingly known as the November pogrom, instead of the night of the Broken Glass. In the academic and political sphere, this last expression is practically no longer used, as it is considered a euphemism created by the Nazis to downplay what really happened. Within a few hours, 1,400 synagogues were burned throughout Germany and Jews were humiliated and harassed, if not beaten and killed, by the paramilitary organizations led by Adolf Hitler.
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November 9 is a special day for Germany, because several key dates in its recent history are commemorated, the brightest and the darkest. From the democratic awakening brought about by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, to the night of the Broken Glass, which reminds the Germans of “the abysses and horrible crimes” of which they were capable. The expression was used by the German president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, in his speech this Wednesday: “November 9 will forever remain a painful day of remembrance that unites us especially to the Jewish community,” he assured, and called to continue fighting antisemitism. Authorities have warned of an increase in anti-Semitic attacks in Germany. In 2021 alone, 3,027 crimes of this type were registered, a third more than the previous year and the highest number since they began to be registered.
“As if I were going to burn my hands”
The American soldier’s family donated the photo album to Yad Vashem to be part of the project titled gather the shards, which collects items from the Holocaust era kept by survivors and their descendants. The images correspond to the pogroms in the city of Nuremberg and the nearby town of Fürth, both in Bavaria, in southern Germany. “When I opened the album I felt as if my hands were going to burn,” the US soldier’s granddaughter, Elisheva Avital, explained on her Twitter account shortly after finding it.
The photos surfaced four years ago, when her grandfather passed away and she, her mother and sister went into his house to take care of his belongings. Some images had already transpired in a documentary. “My grandfather never talked about the war, so we never knew much about that time, but from the patches on his uniform we think he worked in intelligence,” she added. Many photos are dated: November 10, 1938, Nuremberg, reads on the back. Several names also appear. Avital looked them up on the internet and found that they were photojournalists working for the Nazis. After donating the album to Yad Vashem, the archivists of this institution digitized the material and cataloged it.
Many of the photographs, such as those inside synagogues, are especially valuable for documenting the events because until now there have been few images from the perspective of the perpetrators. “They will serve as eternal witnesses long after the survivors are no longer here to bear witness to their own experiences and will pass on individual accounts and the history of the Holocaust to the entire world, in Israel and abroad, for generations,” says Dani Dayan. , president of Yad Vashem, in a press release.
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