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Destruction, Persecution, Annihilation

The synagogue was destroyed on the night of November 9, 1938. This photo presumably dates from the following day. © Erfurt Municipal Archives

On the night of November 9, 1938, the synagogue overseer Hermann Kormes rushed up to this attic from his living quarters just one floor down. He and his wife had come home around midnight. His brother Willi, who lived nearby, had accompanied them to make sure all was in order. Everything seemed fine, but the quiet proved deceptive. In the testimony he gave in 1963 during investigations of the arsons, Hermann Kormes described what happened then:

"My wife and I had gone to bed as soon as we got home. We had just fallen asleep when we were awakened by a tremendous explosion. I ran to a floor hatch through which I could see the entire interior of the synagogue. The whole space was already a sea of flames. I immediately called the fire department from the telephone in my apartment. […] Then my wife and I threw on some clothes and rushed down the stairs. As we were running down, we heard people chopping through the door between the synagogue interior and the stairway with an axe. It was the door on the second floor, leading from the choir to the stairway. My wife and I managed to slip by the door before they broke through it. We ran outside and down the street a way towards the Catholic hospital. We didn’t get far though, because two men caught up to us. They were dressed in civilian clothing. One of them threatened me with a pistol and twisted my arm behind my back. I also got a blow on the head with the handle of a walking stick. The men took me to the building of the SA brigade. The way there took us past the burning synagogue again."

The November Pogroms of 1938

The destruction of the Erfurt Synagogue was one of many incidents in a night of terror against the Jewish population carried out by order of the Nazi party leadership. With the help of civilians, members of the SS and the SA looted and destroyed synagogues, Jewish cemeteries, businesses, and homes all over the Reich. The instructions from the high-ranking party functionaries had arrived at the Erfurt government headquarters in the evening: The synagogue was to be set on fire, and the fire department was not to intervene except to protect the adjacent buildings. Members of the SA and the SS surrounded the synagogue and broke through the doors. They stole valuable Torah crowns and silver hangings as well as records from the synagogue archive and books from the library. They used axes to smash the furniture, doors, and windows. They sprinkled gas on everything and set it ablaze. Mayor Walter Kiessling was present and watched the destruction along with many other bystanders.

Detention in Buchenwald

Hermann Kormes saw his brother Willi a second time that night – in the gymnasium of the Higher Vocational School, the present-day Humboldt School. All night, the SS and SA forcibly removed the Jewish men from their homes and dragged them off to the school. The police were also involved in the maltreatment that took place in the gymnasium. In the early morning hours of November 10, busses carted 189 Jews of Erfurt to the nearby Buchenwald concentration camp. The lawyer Dr. Harry Stern later recalled their arrival in the camp:

"We had to run onto the muster ground as they chased and beat us with whips and clubs, so that many of us came away with bloody heads. We stood there all day without food, and without anyone paying us much attention. We didn’t know where we should relieve ourselves, and when we asked, we got a slap in the face or dirty remarks in response. When it was dark, they chased us into a barrack. We still had not gotten anything to eat."

The Magnitude of the Violence / Self-Help

Four Jewish men of Erfurt lost their lives in Buchenwald and many were severely injured. When they were released from the camp over the weeks that followed, the women of the Erfurt Jewish community organized first aid. Along with other women, Dina Schüftan – the widow of Rabbi Dr. Max Schüftan, who had died in 1936 – attended to the men at the Weimar Station. She worked untiringly to help members of the congregation who were subjected to persecution. Her home on Friedrichstrasse 13 served as a makeshift community center. Worship services were held there, the synagogue office carried out its work there, and later a room for treating Jewish patients was set up there as well. In January 1939, the synagogue congregation declared: 

"Words do not suffice to pay tribute to the services Mrs. Schüftan rendered in the hard and hardest times. Countless are the persons who were saved from despair thanks to her work. Countless those who, through her work alone, were able to find a new occupation or emigrate. Countless those for whom her counsel and ever-present readiness to help meant their salvation."

Expulsion and Annihilation 

The city of Erfurt demanded that the Jewish community pay to have the synagogue ruins cleared away. It also charged them for the two canisters of gas used to set the building on fire. The congregation was unable to raise the sum in question because the Gestapo had blocked their account. Then the city forced them to sell the lot, at the same time denying them access to the proceeds. On March 17, 1939, the municipal authorities took possession of the land and used it from then on as a storage area.

The extreme acts of violence and the increasing persecution led to a great exodus of Jews from Germany. Many, however, did not manage to leave. Dina Schüftan, who had done so much to help other members of the congregation emigrate, was deported to the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp on March 2, 1943 and murdered there.

In 1932, there had been 1,290 Jews in Erfurt. Under National Socialism, they all became victims of anti-Semitic persecution. Even persons who did not consider themselves Jewish but had Jewish ancestors were subjected to Nazi persecution. Hundreds of Erfurt citizens were killed by the National Socialists. Those who managed to flee lost people close to them and everything their lives had consisted of until then.