November 11, 2003

Professor Remembers Kristallnacht

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Prof. Emeritus Leo Gruenfeld, ILR – Organizational Behavior, spoke yesterday on Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, at 4:45 p.m. in Anabel Taylor Hall. The horrifying events involved took place November 9-10 of 1938; the talk thus fell out on its 65th anniversary. Prof. Gruenfeld was the first speaker in a series for Students for Tolerance, Awareness, and Remembering Survivors of the Holocaust and Genocide (STARS).

Dana Diament ’05, who started the group, introduced him. She spoke briefly about STARS and said that the group was honored to have Prof. Gruenfeld come speak.

Gruenfeld began by explaining that he would focus on what happened that one day in 1938, with his own personal experiences and memories from the time of the Nazi “reign of terror” and his family’s move to Shanghai.

“I don’t like the name Kristallnacht,” he explained, because “it is very misleading.” It means “night of crystals” but has nothing to do with crystals. Rather, “Jewish store windows were smashed, and … the broken glass symbolized crystals.”

But many other things happened that day and night as well — synagogues were burned, Jewish businesses ransacked and destroyed, Jews killed in the streets. Not only did the police and the state not intervene, but these acts “were usually tolerated, if not encouraged, by the government,” Gruenfeld said. He called it a “pogrom,” a continuation in a series. “Events like this go back to the Inquisition in 1492.”

“From a Jewish point of view,” he went on, these pogroms were “warnings that we should get out, that we weren’t welcome. But the tragedy is that many could not leave fast enough, and that some did not want to, and some did not take it seriously enough.”

When these people did decide to leave, it was too late, and there was no place that would take them. Though the French did take in Jewish children, and Belgium took in some Jews as well, Gruenfeld said he views Denmark as the only exception, who truly kept its doors open to the Jews. Even the U.S. closed its borders, as did Canada.

Gruenfeld told how he was the lone survivor of a class of 39 Jewish students when he left in 1940. Other friends and classmates had left earlier — Gruenfeld has since been in touch with them — but he was the last one out, and no one else survived.

After Kristallnacht, he and some of his friends decided that they had to “tell the world what happened, it was so brutal and so unprecedented.” So, by giving talks like this one, “I am fulfilling my obligation,” he said.

Kristallnacht happened after the Nuremberg laws were already being enforced, which forbid relationships or sexual contact between Jews and gentiles, Jewish doctors to treat non-Jewish patients or vice-versa, Jews to sit next to gentiles in buses or streetcars, and Jews to enter movie theaters or many restaurants. “If you went in, you would not come out alive,” Gruenfeld emphasized.

By the time he was six, he could not play with his gentile friends anymore. Gruenfeld’s mother also told him that he could no longer bring gentile girls in the house, or his father would be accused of child molestation and taken to a concentration camp — false accusations ran rampant.

To be so segregated was a shock, Gruenfeld recalled; “suddenly there was an ‘in-group’ that could be trusted, and an ‘out-group’ that didn’t trust you. The distinction, the scar, is with me to this day.”

Gruenfeld said that he feels that the “most amazing part in retrospect is that neither Jews nor gentiles resisted.” Though non-Jews inarguably were better off, the “last thing” his parents would have thought to do was resist. Though there were Germans who did not support the Nazi party, even they did not speak out. Gruenfeld said that this enabled the party to become so powerful, even though it was relatively small, especially in industrial cities, winning at most 17 percent in free elections. (Under Hitler, Gruenfeld explained, 99 percent voted for him, probably under threats to their lives.) Catholic priests and others who spoke out were killed, and people were afraid to resist.

Gruenfeld spoke of one young man seen as a hero at the time. Jossi Grynspan, who was 17 in 1938, was deported with his parents from Berlin when a large number of Jews were given overnight notice that they were being shipped back to Poland. Poland did not want to take them back in either; the Jews were finally let in, but were not allowed to work or stay in Poland and had to keep moving. Grynspan decided that he wanted to return to Germany, but on the trip back stopped in France, where he bought a pistol and decided that he wanted to assassinate the German ambassador to France. When another high-ranking official walked out first, Grynspan decided that was good enough, and shot and killed him. He was extradited to Germany and killed shortly after, but it was Grynspan’s actions that were given as the “formal reason” for the Kristallnacht pogrom.

At the time of Kristallnacht, Gruenfeld was 11 years old. The day started off normally and he left for school; no one knew yet what was going on, “or my parents surely wouldn’t have let me out of the house!” he said. He remembers noticing people standing outside a particular candy store, taking things from the window display. “I paid attention because I liked candy,” Gruenfeld said now, “It didn’t occur to me that it was because it was a Jewish store.”

When the streetcar arrived at school, a teacher met them and told them to turn around and go straight home — the school was on fire. “I don’t remember what exactly went through my mind at that moment,” Gruenfeld somewhat laughed. “There were worse things that would happen.” But when he stayed to see what was going on, and saw that the school really was on fire — but that the fire brigade was there, and only protecting other houses and letting the school burn — “I began to understand that we were in deep trouble.”

When he returned home, his father was nowhere to be found; adult male Jews generally hid during times of trouble, but an uncle was in his father’s study. Gruenfeld’s mother told him not to tell anyone, because Jews were being picked up in the street. So instead, he went outside to see what was going on.

Gruenfeld remembers then seeing a huge Jewish department store being looted, including a store that sold corsets and underwear. Here, German women were standing on counters “with everything hanging out, as if they were putting on a show!” Gruenfeld was “stunned;” “The ‘German master race’ women, tall and blond, hopping around into undergarments, and taking them! In Berlin, the capital of Europe, the London and Paris of the day!”

Exploring some more, Gruenfeld found that a magnificent temple in the city had had its domes destroyed, and people were taking out the Torahs, throwing them on the floor, and even urinating on them. Several older religious Jewish men were tied up, their beards cut, and told to dance. “It was foolish for me to stand there, they could have done it to me,” Gruenfeld said now, “but I looked gentile, they didn’t touch me.” He also saw two teachers from his old school before students were segregated, and “lost respect for educators” when he saw the way the very people who “told students what is right and what is wrong” were behaving like lunatics in the street.

When he went home this time, his parents had already heard of the horrors occurring, but his mother was hysterical and told Gruenfeld to go to the store to pick up a pair of shoes she was having fixed. “Sending an 11-year-old kid out to the store [in the middle of a riot]?” Gruenfeld exclaimed now, but said that it was the experience of this trip to the store that made him understand that they had to leave Germany.

A group of boys w
ere waiting for him on the corner down the block, most of them in their late teens and early 20’s, with clubs and chains — but he decided he would march through, not run away. By the time they stopped him, “there were hundreds of them,” and no one said a word, everyone was silent. Finally the leader of the group, “about 17 or 18, blond and blue eyed, he looked like me,” said “one on one,” and another boy volunteered to take Gruenfeld on — one that he had been friends with years before. Gruenfeld won the fight.

“I didn’t think I could,” he said, “I’d never been a fighter.” But his father had taught him that the “right hand is the strongest,” and the boy “walked into my right hand. I gave it to him right in the eye.” The crowd opened and let him out.

However, the day wasn’t over. The crowd caught up to him again, and tied him to a fence with wire; “the fence is still standing!” Gruenfeld added. Believing in “eye for an eye,” they “gave me two shiners, one in each eye,” and left. He was briefly unconscious; but when he came to, he wiggled out of the sort of crucifix they had tied him in, and still went to the shoe store.

When he got back home (with the shoes!), he told his mother that he “didn’t want to live in this country anymore,” and that if they didn’t leave with him he’d flee by himself.

In 1940, his father was taken for an experiment in a concentration camp. Gruenfeld’s mother was able to have him, one of 11 survivors out of a group of 75, released, and they fled to China, the only place that would still take them. Still, life was not easy, and they were forced to live in a ghetto close to starvation. Zachary Weinstein ’05 commented that he “had seen a movie about a Shanghai ghetto and was interested in these stories as well.”

“I said I would go to Israel.” Gruenfeld finished. “It took a few years after I retired from Cornell, but I got there now.”

STARS is leading a group to Washington D.C. this coming weekend to see sights and to tour the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Archived article by Lauryn Slotnick