These 84-Year-Old Nazi Photos Paint a Harrowing Picture of Kristallnacht

The images show mobs ransacking Jewish-owned homes, businesses and synagogues in 1938

Synagogue on fire
Nazis set an estimated 1,400 synagogues on fire during Kristallnacht. Courtesy of Yad Vashem Photo Archive

On November 9 and 10, 1938, Nazis wreaked havoc on thousands of Jewish-owned businesses, homes and synagogues throughout Germany and Austria. Mobs attacked Jewish families, looted and vandalized shops and torched buildings. Some 30,000 Jewish men were rounded up and sent to concentration camps.

In the end, more than 90 Jews were killed during the pogroms, which took place nearly a year before the start of World War II and became known as Kristallnacht, or the “Night of Broken Glass.”

Last week, Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial museum, shared a series of striking photos from the attacks, bringing renewed awareness to the horrific massacre in remembrance of its 84th anniversary.

Photo album page
A page from an album of photos taken during Kristallnacht Courtesy of Yad Vashem Photo Archive

Nazi photographers captured the harrowing images during the pogroms in Nuremberg and nearby Fuerth. Some of the photos show the Nazis in the midst of their destruction—ripping couch cushions apart, violently yanking books off of shelves. Others show Jews standing in their pajamas, sometimes with blood on their clothes and bodies.

Still others depict the aftermath of the Nazis’ destruction: shattered glass storefronts, rooms filled with debris and burning synagogues.

Page from photo album with two photos
The photos are a record of the pogroms' violence and destruction. Courtesy of Yad Vashem Photo Archive

“We can see from the extreme close-up nature of these photos that the photographers were an integral part of the event depicted,” says Jonathan Matthews, head of Yad Vashem’s photo archive, in a statement. “The angles and proximity to the perpetrators seem to indicate a clear goal, to document the events that took place.”

The photos also suggest that the massacre was a planned attack, not a spontaneous outburst as the Nazis tried to make it appear, Matthews adds.

Nazis destroying synagogue
German forces damaging and pouring gasoline on furniture in a synagogue near Nuremberg Courtesy of Yad Vashem Photo Archive

An unnamed Jewish-American soldier who served in the U.S. Army’s counter-intelligence department during World War II took possession of the photos and kept them for many years at his home in the United States.

After the soldier died, his daughter, Ann Leifer, and two granddaughters found the album while cleaning out his house in 2016. The family does not know why the soldier had the photos, as he never shared his experiences during the war with them.

“When I opened the album, I felt as if a hole had been burned through my hands,” says Elisheva Avital, the soldier’s granddaughter, in the Yad Vashem statement.

Avital first shared the photos on Twitter four years ago. But Yad Vashem hopes that, with its wide reach, the images will find an even larger audience. While they are hard to look at, they serve as an important reminder of “the systematic and deliberate lengths [the Nazis] would go to in order to accomplish their murderous agenda,” says Dani Dayan, Yad Vashem’s chairman, in the statement.

“Seeing these images of humiliation of Jews, and the destruction of their homes, businesses and even synagogues, is extremely disturbing and difficult,” he adds. “But all these years later, we must bear witness to the atrocities of the past.”

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