The November pogrom, which became known as Kristallnacht due to the glass shattered over the streets after the attacks, marked an intensification of antisemitic oppression under the Nazi regime and for many historians represents the beginning of the Holocaust itself.
The images show uniformed members of the SS and SA Nazi paramilitary organizations actively participating in the violence — lighting fires, vandalizing homes and humiliating residents.
“Although I think many images of Kristallnacht are upsetting and disturbing, I think these are especially so. Because there’s a cruelty to them,” historian Toby Simpson, director of the Wiener Holocaust Library, told The Washington Post.
“They are unlike other images I’ve seen of Kristallnacht,” he said, adding that other photographs of the night tend to avoid directly showing the complicity of Nazi officials. “In some senses it didn’t suit Nazi propaganda to have people in SA uniform photographed committing crimes. This wasn’t necessarily the images the Nazis wanted to portray.”
It is not known how the photographs, taken throughout that night during the attacks in Nuremberg and nearby Fürth, came into the possession of an American soldier who was serving in the U.S. Army’s counterintelligence department in Germany. He never spoke about what he witnessed, according to his daughter Ann Leifer, who discovered the photo album after his death when clearing his U.S. home, where the collection had remained unseen for decades.
The veteran’s family has donated the collection to Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to the Holocaust, making the photos public for the first time.
According to historians, the photographs offer rare visual evidence of the direct complicity of uniformed Nazi officers in the antisemitic pogroms, something rarely captured on film, and denied by Nazis at the time.
The records show a startled woman in her bed, SS soldiers confiscating piles of books, and the shattered remains of Jewish businesses, among other scenes of chaos and violence from that night.
Officials at Yad Vashem say the images are rare, and the scenes depicted representative of much of the attacks happening across Germany and Austria during the riots.
“We can see from the extreme close-up nature of these photos that the photographers were an integral part of the event depicted. The angles and proximity to the perpetrators seem to indicate a clear goal, to document the events that took place,” Jonathan Matthews, head of Yad Vashem’s photographic archives, said in a news 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.”
Other historical images exist of SA men participating in Kristallnacht by putting up anti-Jewish posters or watching on as the violence unfolds — but it is rare to see images of uniformed Nazis themselves holding piles of looted books and terrorizing women.
According to Yad Vashem, some of the images show wounded Jewish victims. In one, German SS soldiers can be seen confiscating piles of secular and religious books — presumably, according to the memorial’s archivists, to be burnt.
In addition to the houses that were ransacked, in some cases by the neighbors and acquaintances of the victims, thousands of Jewish businesses were torched, 267 synagogues destroyed, and scores of people killed. Some 30,000 Jews were rounded up on that night and sent to concentration camps.
The violence, which was unleashed amid a rising tide of antisemitism gripping Nazi Germany at the time, was incited by Nov. 9 instructions delivered by Hitler’s chief propagandist, Joseph Goebbels. “The Führer has decided that … demonstrations should not be prepared or organized by the Party, but insofar as they erupt spontaneously, they are not to be hampered,” Goebbels told Nazi officials.
Despite their intended appearance of spontaneity, the riots were planned in advance by officials. They were carefully timed to coincide across three countries. Non-Jewish properties were protected and local police officials were instructed to arrest as many Jews as the local jails could hold — suggesting advanced coordination.
“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,” Yad Vashem Chairman Dani Dayan said. “These photographs constitute important documentary evidence of the atrocities that were inflicted on the Jews of Europe.”
The fact that the unseen photo album was discovered in a family home is also a reminder that there is still historical evidence surviving from the Holocaust that has not before been examined by historians.
“Sometimes people assume that there isn’t any more historically significant material out there to be found – but there is. And that’s one of the crucial things that this shows us,” Simpson said.