The photos were discovered in an album owned by a Jewish-American soldier, but even his family isn't sure how they came into his possession.
Starting on November 9, 1938, bands of Nazis roamed the streets of Germany and Austria, destroying and ransacking Jewish businesses, houses, and synagogues and brutally attacking anyone they suspected of being Jewish. Now, never-before-seen photos of this harrowing pogrom, dubbed Kristallnacht or the “Night of Broken Glass,” have been released by Yad Vashem.
The photos offer a chilling look at Kristallnacht, and, according to Yad Vashem, further proof that the attack on Jews in Germany and Austria was coordinated by the Nazis and not spontaneous, as it was reported to be at the time. The proximity of the photographers to the action suggests to experts that they were there in a professional capacity to document the event.
“We can see from the extreme close-up nature of these photos that the photographers were an integral part of the event depicted,” Jonathan Matthews, the Head of the Photography Section of the Yad Vashem Archives, explained in a Yad Vashem press release. “All this serves as further proof that this was dictated from above and was not a spontaneous event of an enraged public, as they tried to make these pogroms appear.”
A harrowing look at Kristallnacht, the photos depict stunned people facing the camera, SS officers collecting books — probably to burn later on — and fires raging inside synagogues. Matthews noted that these photos are some of the first that he’s seen taken indoors and told the Associated Press that they offer a more “intimate image of what’s happening.”
“Although I think many images of Kristallnacht are upsetting and disturbing, I think these are especially so,” Toby Simpson, director of the Wiener Holocaust Library, told the Washington Post. “[T]here’s a cruelty to them.”
Adding that the Nazis wanted to avoid a direct link to the attack, Simpson explained that the photos are rare because they show men clearly wearing swastika armbands. “In some senses it didn’t suit Nazi propaganda to have people in SA uniform photographed committing crimes,” he explained. “This wasn’t necessarily the image the Nazis wanted to portray.”
Kristallnacht took place between November 9 and 10, 1938, across Germany and Austria. Mobs attacked Jewish-owned shops, businesses, and homes, burning some 1,400 synagogues to the ground within a few hours. By the time the dust settled, 92 people had been killed and 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and sent to concentration camps.
The new photos of Kristallnacht, Yad Vashem explained, were taken in the Bavarian cities of Fürth and Nuremberg, apparently by Nazi photographers. But the album’s path from Kristallnacht to Yad Vashem is a bit of a mystery.
According to the Yad Vashem press release, the album was discovered among the possessions of a Jewish-American serviceman who worked in counterintelligence in Germany during World War II. The veteran, whose name was not released, never spoke about the war. After he died, his daughter and her children found the album while cleaning his house.
“When I opened the album, I felt as if a hole had been burned through my hands,” Elisheva Avital, the granddaughter of the soldier, told Yad Vashem.
His family decided to donate the album to Yad Vashem, which oversees a program to collect Holocaust-era possessions kept by Holocaust survivors and their descendants called the “Gathering the Fragments” project. Now, Yad Vashem hopes that these horrific and long-hidden images will stand “as everlasting witnesses” of the terror of Kristallnacht.
“Seeing these images of humiliation of Jews, and the destruction of their homes, businesses and even synagogues is extremely disturbing and difficult,” Dani Dayan, the Yad Vashem Chairman, said in the press release. “But all these years later we must bear witness to the atrocities of the past.”
Dayan added: “These photographs clearly show the true intention of the Nazis and the systematic and deliberate lengths they would go to in order to accomplish their murderous agenda. These photographs constitute important documentary evidence of the atrocities that were inflicted on the Jews of Europe.”
After reading about the previously unseen photos of Kristallnacht, look through these harrowing pictures taken during the Holocaust. Or, discover the stories of Jewish parachutists who risked their lives to save people during World War II.