“Kristallnacht” (Night of Broken Glass) occurred on the night of November 9, 1938, launching massive and widespread pogroms targeting Jews throughout Germany. The Nazi party’s Sturmabteilung (SA) paramilitary forces were joined by many civilians as they went on a rampage, destroying Jewish-owned businesses, synagogues, and homes. The violence continued during the day of November 10, and in some places, acts of violence continued for several more days.
Throughout the national riot, the German government remained silent and inactive in the face of the anti-Semitic violence. The Gestapo, the official security police of the Nazi party, ordered local officials across Germany not to intervene and firefighters stood idly by, only acting to prevent the flames from spreading to the properties belonging to non-Jews. 267 synagogues throughout Germany, Austria, and the Sudetenland were targeted and over 7,000 Jewish businesses were damaged or destroyed. Tombstones were uprooted and graves violated as Jewish holy books and Torah scrolls were burned in the streets.
Many historians mark Kristallnacht as the beginning of the Holocaust as over 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and incarcerated in the concentration camps Buchenwald, Dachau, and Sachsenhausen. Joseph Goebbels, the chief propagandist for the Nazi party, wrote in his diary that Adolf Hitler himself had ordered the arrest of 25,000 to 30,000 Jews, focusing on targeting wealthy Jews.
It was only three years after Kristallnacht that mass shootings of Jews began and the first gas chambers were being tested.
Some researchers claim that the main motivation for authorizing Kristallnacht was the Nazi Party’s need for funds and the desire to seize Jewish property. The Reich confiscated any compensation claims that insurance companies paid to Jews. Citing the murder in Paris of Ernst vom Rath, a German diplomat, by Herschel Grynszpan, a 17-year old Polish Jew, the Nazi party levied a collective fine or “atonement contribution” of one billion Reichsmarks on all the Jews of Germany (the equivalent of $7 billion in 2020 terms).
Kristallnacht and the ensuing persecution of European Jews were legally sanctioned by a democratically elected government. As the head of the Nazi Party (National Socialist German Workers’ Party), Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany in 1933. Two years later, the Nuremberg Laws stripped German Jews of their citizenship and prohibited Jews from marrying non-Jewish Germans. These laws resulted in the exclusion and alienation of Jews from German social and political life. Many Jews sought to leave Germany. In the ten months following Kristallnacht, more than 115,000 Jews emigrated from the Reich, leaving all their money behind. But many more chose to remain. In 1925 there were 564,378 Jews in Germany; in May 1939 the number had fallen to 213,390. The plight of the Jews was exacerbated when many countries closed their doors to Jewish immigration.
By the time Germany was defeated in May 1945, only seven years after Kristallnacht, about two-thirds of Europe’s 9 million Jews—including 1.5 million children—had died as a result of the Holocaust.
The complicity of the German civilians in Kristallnacht cannot be understated. In an interview with Israel365 News, Rena Quint, born as Freida “Freidel” Lichtenstein, was only three years old when, in 1939, the Nazis invaded her hometown of Piotrkow Tribunalski, Poland. Rena related an anecdote told amongst Holocaust survivors which she heard from Michael Berger, another survivor. Berger told her that in Frankfurt, Germany, all of the Jewish housewives would buy their fish for the Sabbath from a specific fishmonger. He was openly friendly with his patrons.
“When the Kristallnacht pogrom happened, marking the beginning of the Nazi oppression of the Jews, that fishmonger was the first to light a fire burning down the synagogue,” Rena said. “He was their friend, their shopkeeper, and their neighbor.”
Recently revealed Vatican documents show that Pope Pius XI, was made aware of Kristallnacht after it happened but Giovanni Pacelli, who succeeded him as Pope Pius XII and led the Catholic Church during World War II, persuaded him to refrain from condemning it, setting the stage for the Vatican’s silence during the Holocaust.
Rabbi Tuly Weisz, the editor of The Israel Bible, has a deeply personal connection to Kristallnacht.
“My grandfather, George Weisz, was born in Hungary and during WWII was sent to Auschwitz and several other Concentration Camps. His parents were killed, but thank God, he survived and went on to build a life in Cleveland, Ohio. Unfortunately, my grandfather just passed away a few months ago,” Rabbi Weisz shared.
“My grandmother, Peppi Weisz was born in Czechoslovakia and was also sent to Auschwitz. She miraculously survived and after marrying my grandfather, had two children, my father and my aunt.”
“Kristallnacht was not only the night of the ‘Broken Glass. It was the night that broke the myth that the Jews were safe and secure in Europe. Kristallnacht shattered the illusion that Berlin was the home and capital of the Jewish people.”
“However, within ten years of Kristallnacht, Hashem brought the Jews back to Israel,” Rabbi Weisz said.