Thoughts and Reflections on the Occasion of the 80th Anniversary of the Kristallnacht

Hans and Paula Spira, the author's parents, in an undated photo

By S Franklin Spira on 9 November 2018
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Today is the 80th anniversary of the Novemberpogrome, or Kristallnacht. I was a 14 year-old boy then and my parents and I never thought of emigrating until the Kristallnacht, even though Jews were gradually being deprived of their rights before then. At that point, it became clear that my parents and I could no longer remain in our homeland.

March 13, 1938 was of course the Anschluß. The Austrian Chancellor, Kurt von Schuschnigg, after trying to appease German Chancellor Adolf Hitler, had been forced by Hitler’s machinations a few days earlier to resign so that the Germans could finally bring the Ostmark – Austria’s ancient name which the Germans then gave to Austria – back to the mother country. German troops swept across the Austrian border in response to a non-existent crisis in the Austrian government faked by German Foreign Minister Hermann Goering, encountering, of course, no resistance.

It shouldn’t have been a surprise. We had been reading about what was going on in Germany in the newspapers; reports about some Jews being sent to concentration camps had made headlines for the past couple of years. The Austrian National Socialist Party – which was illegal within Austria – had become bolder and more outspoken. In fact, it turned out that, despite its illegality, a larger percentage of Austrians were members of the party than Germans were in 1938 in the official German National Socialist Party, the NSDAP. So Hitler’s march into Austria had just been a logical step – yet, we and some 200,000 other Jews had remained in our homes in Austria – most of them in Vienna – thinking that, after all, the German Jews had, for the most part, survived since 1933, so it can’t be all that bad. Few thought of emigrating – until that fateful day in November of 1938.

The author (l.) in an undated photo, with his mother

The author (l.) in an undated photo, with his mother

Yet, even after the Anschluß, Austrian Jews didn’t even remotely expect what was to follow just a few short months later, and the majority didn’t try to find ways of emigrating. Certainly, the ever-present anti-Semitism of the Austrians had become more open, Jews were gradually deprived of many of the privileges they had enjoyed as full, equal citizens, but, they still felt, that things had to get better and, after all, they might still be considered bearable. O.K., so the Nazis made elderly Jews scrub the streets to remove pre-Anschluß election slogans; so a few rich Jews were dragged off to concentration camps so the Nazis could put pressure on them to “sell” their businesses to Aryans at ridiculous prices – in order to gain release, and then only on the condition that they would then leave the country.

But these and numerous other manifestations followed one another with such rapidity that the Jewish population could hardly grasp what was happening. Only slowly did Austria’s Jews wake up to the fact that they were not wanted, that they would have no choice – even if they hadn’t been sent to camps yet or otherwise abused – but to think of leaving.

But did it really matter what they wanted? What mattered is that no one wanted them. Indeed, there was practically no way of finding asylum. The United States, more so than most European and South American countries, simply stood by its quota system which made it possible for a minuscule number of Jews to immigrate every year, with waiting times for some running into several years. So why even plan to emigrate?

Click here to continue to Page 2The Run-Up to Kristallnacht

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