Kristallnacht: 75th anniversary of world-changing ‘Night of Broken Glass’

Kristallnacht came … and everything was changed.”
Historian Max Rein, 1988

Black-and-white photo of destroyed Munich synagogue

The Ohel Yaakov Synagogue in Munich, destroyed after Kristallnacht. Photo released by collection owner, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 9: 75 years have passed since the world-changing tragedy of Kristallnacht, literally “Crystal Night,” commonly known as “The Night of Broken Glass.” So called for the shattered glass that covered streets and sidewalks after thousands of Jewish synagogues and buildings were destroyed, Kristallnacht was a coordinated series of attacks by the Nazis in Germany and Austria. (Wikipedia has details.) German law-enforcement officials were ordered not to intervene during the destruction. Jewish persecution moved into a dramatically public and violent phase. While their schools, stores, hospitals and places of worship were being destroyed, Jews were beaten in the streets and detained for concentration camps.

Foreign journalists in Germany reported on the events, alerting their respective homelands of the shocking events: For the first time, the public fully understood the alarming intentions of the Nazi regime. (Get perspective from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, or the Jewish Virtual Library.)

International support of pro-Nazi movements declined almost overnight, and many reports compared Kristallnacht to the gruesome pogroms of Imperial Russia. As was written in The Times of Kristallnacht: No foreign propagandist bent upon blackening Germany before the world could outdo the tale of burnings and beatings, of blackguardly assaults on defenseless and innocent people, which disgraced that country yesterday.

A PREMEDITATED ATTACK:
FROM ERNST VOM RATH TO KRISTALLNACHT

Black-and-white photo of young man walking down street with a broom, citizens walking street in background, shattered glass on sidewalk

Cleaning the streets after Kristallnacht. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In the 1920s, German Jews lived as other citizens: operating businesses, obtaining licenses and having access to education. Yet with the appointment of Adolf Hitler as Chancellor of Germany in 1933, things quickly began to change. Hitler immediately introduced anti-Jewish policies and forbade inter-religious marriage. When Jews sought refuge, foreign countries began locking down admissions. (Learn more from PBS and History.com.) In August 1938, residence permits for foreigners were cancelled; thousands of Jews were forced from their homes with nowhere to go, their possessions seized by Nazi authorities. It was with these expulsions that the ground was laid for Kristallnacht.

Among those expelled from Germany was the family of Herschel Grynszpan, a 17-year-old Jew living in Paris with his uncle. When his family wrote, pleading for help, Grynszpan assassinated German diplomat Ernst vom Rath—stating that his protest had to be heard around the world. The following day, the German government removed Jewish children from public schools and halted Jewish cultural activities and publications. When word of vom Rath’s death reached Hitler, a pogrom was organized—an act that Hitler and his inner circle had been planning already, just awaiting a trigger like the shooting.

Kristallnacht ensued that evening.

DOCUMENTARY ‘REFUGE’ PRESERVES HEROIC STORIES

The millions who experienced the Holocaust are passing away, and a documentary that premiered in 2012 is making an impression around the world. Refuge: Stories of the Selfhelp Home follows the personal stories of the survivors who now live together in the Selfhelp Home, a retirement community founded more than 60 years ago for Jews who were victims of Nazi persecution. Real-life accounts of this history are told by six of the twelve remaining residents, including Margie Oppenheimer, who vividly recalls waking up to a Nazi pointing a rifle in her face on the morning of Kristallnacht. (The Washington Post published an extensive article on the residents of Selfhelp.)

On this, the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, Refuge will be aired on many public television stations. (As always, check your local PBS listings.) “Within 10 years or so, there will be no Jewish victims of Nazi persecution living at Selfhelp,” the film’s director, Ethan Bensinger, told the press. “As a filmmaker, I feel obligated to give a voice to these last eyewitnesses to life as it was before, during and after the war, so that future generations understand the consequences of intolerance, injustice and unmitigated hatred.” (Learn more about the film from the Heritage Florida Jewish News.)

GERMAN CHANCELLOR WARNS OF ANTI-SEMITISM

As the world observes the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, German Chancellor Angela Merkel laments the fact that Jewish institutions in Germany still require protection by the German police. (Haaretz reported.) In a statement, Merkel asked Germans to “show civil courage,” and to “ensure that no form of anti-Semitism is tolerated.”

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