This Day in Jewish History / Vandals Deface German Synagogue, Sparking anti-Semitic Tsunami

Less than 15 years after the Holocaust, the world was rocked by attacks on synagogues.

David Green
David B. Green
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The Roonstrasse synagogue in Cologne, Germany.
The Roonstrasse synagogue in Cologne, Germany.Credit: Hpschaefer / Wikicommons
David Green
David B. Green

On December 24, 1959, a synagogue in Cologne, West Germany, was daubed with a swastika and the words “Juden raus” (Jews out). Coming less than 15 years after the end of the Holocaust, this expression of anti-Jewish hatred in Germany was noted internationally, even though the physical damage was minor. What made the incident especially noteworthy – even shocking – however, is the fact that it was followed by a veritable flood of similar anti-Semitic acts, in countries around the world.

Over the next few weeks, synagogues and Jewish community buildings from in New York to,Vienna and London to South Africa were subject to acts of vandalism, and Jewish community buildings and individuals in places as far-reaching as South Africa and South America were vandalized or threatened.

The Roonstrasse synagogue in Cologne had only reopened to the public two months earlier, after a two-year process of reconstruction. Originally built in 1899, the neo-Romanesque Roonstrasse was one of five Cologne shuls destroyed by the Germans during Kristallnacht, November 9-10, 1938, when Jewish-owned businesses and community structures across Germany were subject to a wave of attacks, and hundreds were killed. The dedication of the rebuilt synagogue had been attended by West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer.

The day after the vandalism, on December 25, 1959, two young men were apprehended for defacing the Cologne synagogue. Both turned out to be members of the right-wing Deutsche Reichs party, which immediately disavowed both them and their actions.

In early February the men were quickly put on trial, in early February, which they used as an opportunity to make anti-Semitic speeches.

Within a week of the Christmas Eve incident in Cologne, a spate of similar acts were reported around West Germany: swastikas were painted on the Monument to Victims of Nazism, in Brunswick, and on the front of a Catholic church in Gelsenkirchen. In Offenbach, an 85-year-old Jewish man received a threatening letter. There were also reports of attacks in East Germany.

Copycats: ‘Make soap out of you’

Then the copycat incidents began occurring worldwide:. The words “Juden raus” appeared were painted on the wall of Vienna’s lone synagogue; Jewish community buildings in London and in Italy were defaced with graffiti. The editor of a Jewish newspaper in Vancouver, Canada, received a letter threatening “to make soap out of you,” and shop-owners in Johannesburg and Durban, South Africa, had anti-Jewish leaflets affixed to their windows.

Similar events occurred in Brazil, Norway, the Netherlands and Hong Kong. And In New York, on January 3, a swastika was daubed on the city’s prominent Temple Emanu-El.

According to the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism, during the first months of 1960, nearly 2,500 anti-Jewish actions were reported as taking place in 400 different locations globally, most of them desecrations of synagogues or cemeteries.

Theories as to what was behind the wave of incidents focused on two possibilities. First was that the actions, at least those in West Germany, were coordinated by a single source, possibly one that wished to embarrass that country. The second,more likely possibility was that the actions, and the wide publicity they received internationally, served as inspiration for other young vandals.

In many cases, it was postulated, the perpetrators were teenagers who knew little about Jews or anti-Semitism, but who liked the idea of doing something dangerous and offensive.

In fact, of the 150 arrests made in different places, nearly all of them were of people under the age of 21.

The publicity also had positive effects: It They served to galvanize the world community to unite in condemning the attacks. On January 8, 1960, in Berlin, tens of thousands demonstrated to show their disapproval of the anti-Semitic acts, and there were also protest marches in France and the United Kingdom. The World Council of Churches issued a statement condemning the acts, and the United Nations Subcommittee on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities convened and, in March, issued a statement condemning anti-Semitism and other racism.

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