Initially, the Nazis simply wanted all the Jews out of German territory. In fact, they helped Jews emigrate to Israel. But little by little, the pressure was turned up and the doors shut tight.
In 1936-38, various anti-Jewish signage began to appear in public: "Parks Not For Jews." "Jews Not Wanted." "Proudly Announcing the Re-Opening of a Former Jewish Business, Now Owned By a German."
Yet many Jews still didn’t realize they were supposed to leave. Germany was considered a pinnacle of civilized living. More than any other country, Jews in Germany had made progress in terms of human rights and integrating into the society. No one could imagine what was about to happen.
Rabbi Eliyahu Ellis of Aish Jerusalem relates:
My dad told me a story of his life as a young man living in Germany. He worked in a big department store and one day his boss, also a Jew, asked him to stay overtime.
Everyone went home, and my dad and his boss were the only ones left in the store. The boss said, "Pull down all the shutters, let’s black-out the store." So they did. They waited a few hours after dark. Up pulled an S.S. command car, and quickly popped out an S.S. general and his wife. The general’s wife wanted to shop and as the general said, "I like to come to Jewish stores because I know I’m going to get a good deal."
As a young man, my dad was an athlete – a top soccer player on the regional team. Apparently, the general had seen my dad play and really admired him. So while his wife was shopping, the general chatted with my father.
It was very hard to get out during those years, but he finally found a route out. However, there was a problem: My dad’s papers were held up somewhere and he couldn’t access them. So one day he approached the S.S. general to help out.
The general said, "Don’t worry, you can stay in Germany and you’ll be under my personal protection."
My dad thanked him very much, but said, "I think I should leave." The general agreed and a day later, my father’s papers showed up.
The Evian Conference
In July 1938, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, along with other world leaders, called a conference to discuss the Jewish refugee problem. Thirty-two nations participated in the conference. But the unwritten fine print of the invitation said: "While we try to figure out what to do about the Jews, no nation will be asked to take any more Jews than its quota already allows."
The result was sadly predictable.
While acknowledging the plight of Jews in German lands, the nation of the world arose to do... nothing. The big countries did not want more Jews, and the small countries followed this lead by also refusing to take any. With the lone exception of the Dominican Republic, no country made a concrete offer to accept Jewish refugees.
The conference was a dismal failure. Commentators sarcastically pointed out that the location of the conference, Evian (France), spelled backwards is "naïve."
The Jews had finally realized it was time to leave Germany. Yet there was no place to go.
The Germans were looking for a way to get rid of their Jews. Send them anywhere, but just get them out. Many Jews of Polish origin had come to Germany because conditions were much better than in Poland. The Germans saw this as a group to be easily rid of.
These Jews were rounded up and on one cold, rainy night, were herded and beaten across the border. Some 15,000 Polish Jews – no longer considered Poles – found themselves in a small Polish border town with a total population of 6,000. There was no place for them, so they were stuck into military stables, under impossible conditions. They hadn’t eaten for days.
Two of these Polish Jews had a 17-year-old son named Henry Grynszpan, who was living in Paris. He was frantic with concern for his parents and felt that he needed to "do something” to publicize the plight of the Jews in Germany. So he got a gun, walked to the German embassy in Paris, and shot an embassy official named Ernst Von Rath. (He died two weeks later.)
This triggered a "spontaneous" uprising against the Jews – which had actually been planned for a while, but now had a pretext to put the plan into action.
In one night of terror, November 9-10, 1938, German mobs destroyed many vestiges of Jewish presence. A total of 1,350 Jewish synagogues were burnt to the ground or destroyed; 91 Jews were killed; 30,000 Jews were thrown into concentration camps; 7,000 Jewish businesses were destroyed; and thousands of Jewish homes were ransacked.
This was called "Kristallnacht," the "Night of Broken Glass," because the streets were covered with broken glass from all the Jewish windows.
Germany did not produce plate glass at the time, and it took Belgium’s total plate glass production six months to replace all the broken windows. To top it off, the Jews were charged one billion Deutsch Marks to pay for the damages.
It is hard for us to imagine the scope of destruction on Kristallnacht. Germany was filled with beautiful, old synagogues that existed for centuries, and every German town had its own small "shteibel" synagogue. Overnight it all went up in flames.
The Jews finally got the message: It was time to leave. But where to go?