The “Temple of the Israelite Cultural
Community” in Reichenberg, burned
down during Kristallnacht

November 9-10 marks the anniversary of Kristallnacht, when in 1938 in all the territories controlled by the German Reich synagogues were burned down, Jewish shop windows smashed (hence the name “Night of Crystal”) and stores ransacked, Jewish property destroyed, and Jews themselves harassed, beaten, killed or sent off to concentration camps. It marked the beginning of the end for European Jewry under the Nazis.

I used to attend events at our synagogue here in Chicago, organized by old German Jews who had experienced that day, and whose families had subsequently fled. Sadly, they are not around anymore. But readings in memory of Kristallnacht are still held, and when I received another such invitation earlier this week, I thought it was time to create my own little commemoration with a tidbit from my family history.

Old postcard showing the Café Post on the left, where my grandfather
and great-uncle used to hang out, with the synagogue in the
background that my great-uncle’s father helped build.

My father’s family is from the town of Liberec in what is now the Czech Republic. During their time in the 1930s and 40s it was called Reichenberg, was part of Czechoslovakia and predominantly German-speaking. The father of my great-uncle Guido had been on the building committee that planned, financed and built the synagogue in Reichenberg, which opened on Rosh Hashana (Jewish New Year) in September 1889.

In October 1938, after the infamous Munich Agreement, Nazi Germany took over the so called Sudetenland, i.e. the mainly German-speaking border areas of Czechoslovakia, and made Reichenberg the capital of this new province of the German Reich. My family, all of them Social Democrats (both my grandfather and his brother-in-law Guido had served on the city council), found themselves on the wrong side of the fence in more than one way.

Guido was already ill with diabetes and in a sanatorium during Kristallnacht, and in a way this is a blessing as he did not witness the burning down of the synagogue his family had invested so much in.

In 2009 I traveled to Liberec and spent some time in the city library digging through the archives of newspapers from 1938, mainly in order to be able to recreate in my memoir what it must have been like for my grandparents, great-aunt and great-uncle to live through those times. It was chilling to read those articles from 1938 as they provide the uninterpreted version of a point in time; they are a lot more illuminating than a history book written with the benefit of hindsight.

I found this article from November 11, 1938 in the Reichenberger Stadtzeitung, the city newspaper which was then already a Nazi Party organ as the free press had been done away with. The article describes, quite unashamedly, the burning down of the synagogue, without mentioning, of course, that this was a deliberate act of arson and vandalism. Following is my unofficial translation of the article, if you’re interested. Immersing myself in this short text while translating had me wondering, yet again, how my family managed to survive in the inferno their city had become.

While it is easy to condemn what happened in 1938, and to see Kristallnacht as an unique historical event, I think we should remember that we ourselves still live in a time when, in some parts of the world, synagogues and churches are set ablaze.

Article from the Reichenberger Stadtzeitung (Nazi party paper), November 11, 1938:

Reichenberg’s Synagogue in Flames

Only the walls are still standing – the population protests against the murderous Jewish attack

[This refers to the murder in France of German diplomat Ernst vom Rath, who was shot by Herschel Grynszpan, a Jewish 17-year-old whose family had been expelled from Germany earlier that year.]

Reichenberg. As we already reported in the political part of the paper, fires broke out yesterday in the temples in Reichenberg and Gablonz [neighboring city].

An eyewitness of the fire in the synagogue in Reichenberg tells us that the fire developed around 1 p.m. and spread rather quickly. Flames were bursting out of the windows of the altar room. The fire brigade of Reichenberg arrived quickly and fought against the fire with several hoses. A few minutes after people heard about the fire, a crowd of spectators gathered and besieged the entrances, which were barred by police. Soon smoke came from the dome, and flames from the window above the entry. The crowd awaited the moment when the dome of the tower with the star of David would collapse. At 2:43 p.m. the iron arches of the dome were bending, and it come roaring down. A gigantic cloud of smoke and dust arose from the round tower towards the sky. Later, parts of the roof collapsed as well. At 5 p.m. the synagogue resembled a ruin with flames still licking its sides.
In the evening hours, spontaneous protest demonstrations happened all over Reichenberg to protest the cowardly, murderous attack by the Jew Grynszpan, whose victim was, as is well known, the Legion Secretary of the German Embassy in Paris, Vom Rath. The people marched through the streets, demonstrating their indignation at this vicious murder.