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Ernst Marcus: ‘The Winter Sky Over Berlin was Blood-Red’

Ernst Marcus, a Berlin lawyer, woke up in his apartment in the German capital’s Grunewald district on November 9th, 1938, eighty-one years ago. What he saw was unbelievable.

“All of a sudden, the winter sky over Berlin was blood-red”, Dr. jur. Ernst Marcus wrote. His account of the events during the Night of Broken Glass, written in German, is part of the archive at Yad Vashem, the official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust in Israel.

Flames and Smoke

The news that even the “unremarkable private synagogue in the neighborhood” had been set on fire reached him that morning. He was also told that the police and fire brigade were just watching, without trying to extinguish the flames.

Ernst Marcus worked for the Paltreu trust, which helped Jewish migrants in Palestine. He immediately took a taxi to his office in Potsdamer Straße. On the way he saw “flames and smoke in many streets, broken and plundered stores in the elegant quarter around Kurfürstendamm“. This kind of sight had been “unfamiliar, even during the revolutionary times in Berlin in the years 1918 and 1919.”

Eighty-one years ago, the Nazis destroyed the synagogue in Berlin’s Fasanenstraße. Photo: Abraham Pisarek

Once he sat at his office desk, Dr. Marcus, who was then 38 years old, received several phone calls. Upset colleagues told him there was hardly any contact to the Nazi government and asked him to try to talk to people at the Reich‘s Foreign Ministry.

At the Nazis’ Foreign Ministry

“Because of the so-called ‘spontaneous’ activities by Hitler’s Schutzstaffel and Sturmabteilung (SS and SA),” which in fact had been ordered by Joseph Goebbels himself, “any events with unforeseeable consequences could have taken place at any moment”, Ernst Marcus wrote. “When I hurried down the stairs (…) I knew my life was in danger, but this aspect only strengthened my resolve.”

At Hitler’s Foreign Ministry, Marcus knew one diplomat he trusted. His name was Werner Otto von Hentig. In order to make sure he would not be arrested by the Gestapo before reaching the ministry, the lawyer decided to announce his visit by calling von Hentig’s office from a payphone.

On the way to the ministry, Dr. jur. Ernst Marcus saw “smoke and destruction” and “people standing in front of affected buildings”. According to him, the inhabitants of Berlin “had never seen this kind of brutal abuse of people and the anarchic destruction of tangibles under the protection of, and ordered by, the government. They were stunned and took note of the new developments.”

Diplomat Appalled

“Sure, the mob helped looting places, but a large majority of Berliners seemed to know who would pay for this one day”, Ernst Marcus wrote.

It might be hard to believe, but at least one diplomat employed by Hitler’s Foreign Ministry, Werner Otto von Hentig, was appalled. “Without paying attention to the SS officers, who were promenading up and down the (ministry’s) corridors, he shouted: ‘Doctor, what a disgrace! Those murderers! Those criminals!’ I had trouble calming him down.”

The gate at the former concentration camp in Sachsenhausen. Photo: Imanuel Marcus

In Ernst Marcus’ account it says von Hentig had been surrounded by “young attachés” that morning who condemned the attacks as well. “I am embarrassed by my people”, Werner Otto von Hentig said on November 10th, 1938.

Goebbel’s Plans

According to Ernst Marcus, the Gestapo and the ministry knew about von Hentig’s political opinions. But they needed an experienced diplomat like him who was an Orient expert and spoke important languages. So they did not persecute him.

That same morning, von Hentig agreed with Dr. Marcus that a march of Jewish men, escorted by the SA, which Goebbels was planning, had to be prevented. So, the diplomat called a colleague who did not want to get involved. He tried to convince other colleagues, without success.

After his talks at the Foreign Ministry, Ernst Marcus headed to the National Representative Agency of German Jews, only to discover that its office had already been raided by the Gestapo. “I almost fell into their hands too.”

Arrested by the Gestapo

Another aspect which might be surprising is the fact that Goebbel’s march through Berlin was indeed cancelled, due to the intervention of Ernst Marcus and Werner Otto von Hentig, who had managed to speak to some other people in high positions after all. On top of that, individual action against Jews during the days after Reichspogromnacht was prohibited.

Ernst Marcus was arrested by the Gestapo only days after those events he described in his account. He was taken to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, where he stayed for only five days. Otto Werner von Hentig managed to get him out of there. The two friends used their influence to get other Jews out as well.

Ernst Marcus returned to Germany after the war. He settled in Hamburg. Photo: The Marcus family

A few weeks later, Dr. Marcus and his wife Irene left Nazi Germany and settled in what was then Palestine. After the war and their divorce, he returned to Germany, where he became executive director of the Hamburg Symphonic Orchestra.

Discrimination Turned into Murder

During one week, from November 7th to 13th, 1938, as many as 400 Jews were murdered in Germany. Thousands of businesses and apartments owned by Jews were destroyed. Over 1,400 synagogues and other Jewish facilities were burned down while tens of thousands of Jews were brought to concentration camps. This was the time when the discrimination of Jews turned into their murder.

When the winter sky over Berlin was blood-red, many could not believe what they saw. When things got even worse, only very few tried to prevent it. Hitler’s “willing executioners” (Goldhagen) could do what they intended to do.

The Night of Broken Glass was not the first brutal outburst of antisemitism. Years earlier, in 1931, Nazis organized the Riot on Kurfürstendamm in Berlin, during which antisemitic hate crimes were committed. There were many more all over Germany.

Note: Ernst Marcus (1900-1973) was the author’s grandfather. According to files from the Russian State Military Archive and his own account, he was in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp from November 13th until November 18th, 1938, for being a Jew. He was granted a temporary release, thanks to his diplomat friend, which was turned into a discharge on December 2nd, 1938.