Kristallnacht is not a “Jewish day” as such. It was a day inflicted on Jews, a time of terror and destruction in Germany and Austria, a prelude to the more widespread devastation to come. But Jews mark this event, as they other calamities in Jewish history, with acts of remembrance intended to prevent the evil from being forgotten and to honor those victimized by it. In this case, the secular date, November 9, is commemorated. In 1938, exactly sixty years ago, Kristallnacht fell on the fifteenth of Heshvan.

It was a pogrom more brutal and widespread than any the Jews had suffered in Czarist Russia. Beginning on the evening of November 9 and through the day of the 10th, the Nazis smashed thousands of windows in Jewish houses and storefronts all over Germany and Austria–hence the name Kristallnacht, Night of the Broken Glass. The Nazis murdered dozens of people destroyed more than 800 shops, and set fire to close to 200 synagogues.

The government, which instigated the action, later pretended it had been a spontaneous demonstration against the Jews. Yet in the course of the violence, the police arrested more than 30,000 Jews–about one in ten of the Jewish population–and sent them to concentration camps. The government itself fined the Jewish community one billion marks, sadistically holding it responsible for the outrage against it.

The tyranny had been triggered by the assassination of a German diplomat by a Jews, and that, in turn, had resulted from Nazi polices begun earlier to drive the Jews from Germany. In October, the Germans had rounded up about 17,000 Polish-born Jews living in Germany, and sent them, in sealed cars, to the Polish border. But earlier, in March, the Polish government, anticipating the German action, had taken its own steps to keep those Jews out of Poland. It passed a law annulling citizenship of Poles living abroad for more than five years unless they received a special stamp from the Polish consul, then made it almost impossible for Jews to obtain that stamp.

The Jews deported from Germany became stateless, driven from the land they had inhabited for years and refused entry into their homeland. They were kept at the Polish border under horrendous condition in the small town of Zbaszyn, living in temporary shelters built with funds supplied by the Polish Jewish community. Only months later, under international pressure, did the Poles allow the Jews in.

Among the deported Polish nationals in Zbaszyn was a family named Grynszpan, who had lived in Hanover for more than twenty years. The eldest son, seventeen-year-old Hershl, was studying in Paris at the time. Hearing of his family’s plight and in despair, he went to the German embassy in Paris and shot Ernst von Rath, third secretary. The shooting took place on November 7. Two days later von Rath died, setting off the Kristallnacht rampage.

With Kristallnacht, the German war against the Jews escalated beyond abuses already committed toward open barbarism. Before that night Jews had been pushed out of their jobs, Jewish business firms given over to “Aryan” owners, and Jewish community activities placed under the control of the police. Now the government prohibited Jews from all public places and barred their children from public schools. From there it was a short step to forcing them to emigrate from Germany. In fact, some of the people sent to concentration camps during Kristallnacht were released and their lives made so intolerable they felt pressured to leave the country.

Tragically, as the terror increased and more and more Jews tried to leave, few of the world’s nations would accept them. With the Nazi invasion of Poland and the outbreak of World War II in September 1939, the forcible Jewish emigration became, instead, deportation to the death camps.

Among the many synagogues burned and destroyed during Kristallnacht was the Oranienburgerstrasse synagogue in Berlin, completed in 1866 in a Moorish revival style. It was the largest synagogue in the world at the time, seating more than 3,000 people. More than anything else could, it symbolized the confidence Jews had in themselves and in their lives in Germany. Today it remains just a shell of a building in the former East Berlin, a testament to the betrayed sense of security of Germany’s Jews.

excerpted From Jewish Days: A Book of Jewish Life and Culture Around the World (Farrar Straus Giroux 1996).
Francine Klagsbrun has written more than a dozen books and numerous articles on social, religious, feminist and family issues. She is a columnist for The Jewish Week and Moment magazine, and lectures extensively throughout the United States.



Subscribe to the JHOM mailing list for updates.

Contact us

Tell a friend