Kristallnacht

The Holocaust begins

A synagogue in flames in Siegen, Germany, during the Kristallnacht (Photo: Yad Vashem)

A synagogue in flames in Siegen, Germany, during the Kristallnacht (Photo: Yad Vashem)

The pogrom that became known as the Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, began on the night of November 9-10, 1938, eighty-four years ago. Jewish businesses, homes and synagogues were attacked, ransacked and sometimes burned down by Nazi paramilitaries all over Germany and Austria, ushering in a new era of organized, large-scale violence against Jews. In some ways, the Holocaust can be said to have begun on that night and the following day.
 
Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in early 1933 and wasted no time in impressing his antisemitic ideas on the nation.
(Read our earlier article – Becoming Führer) Legislation gradually pushed Jews out of Germany’s political, economic and social life. Many Jews living in Germany (whether German citizens or not) hoped to escape the increasingly oppressive regime but could not: the world was still reeling from the effects of the Great Depression that began in 1929, and no country was eager to accept a large influx of refugees that needed to be cared for.

A Jewish businessman and his Christian girlfriend being humiliated for their mixed-race relationship in 1933 (Photo: Pictures from History)
A Jewish businessman and his Christian girlfriend being humiliated for their mixed-race relationship in 1933
(Photo: Pictures from History)

It was only a matter of time before the Nazis took antisemitic steps to a new level with organized violence in an attempt to further “encourage” Jewish emigration. Getting rid of Jews, however, was not the only motivation. The Nazi Party kept most of its income firmly in the hands of the party’s central organization, with regional or local units left to fend for themselves. Confiscating property from wealthy Jews was a tempting way for Gauleiters (regional Nazi party leaders) to supplement local finances. Additionally, Hermann Göring, who was in charge of the Four Year Plan to rearm Germany and make it financially self-sufficient, counted on foreign currency confiscated from Jews to buy industrial raw materials with. Other prominent Nazis, such as SS-leader Heinrich Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich, were more focused on simply driving the Jews out of Germany.

“Germans! Protect yourselves! Don’t buy from Jews!” – Nazi sign on a Jewish-owned shop (Photo: Bundesarchiv)
“Germans! Protect yourselves! Don’t buy from Jews!” – Nazi sign on a Jewish-owned shop (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

Things moved even closer to tragedy with the Polenaktion (“Polish Action”). Germany announced in August 1938 that all foreign citizens’ residence permits were cancelled, and the affected individuals would have to renew them. (Obviously, foreign Jews wouldn’t get theirs’ renewed and would have to either leave the country or stay as illegal residents subject to punitive measures.) At the time, one SS (“Schutzstaffel,” one of the Nazi paramilitary groups) source put the number of Polish Jews living in Germany at 70,000. 

Passport of Polish Jew Meilech Wolkenfeld, whose residence permit was annulled on October 28 (Photo: Jewish Museum Berlin)
Passport of Polish Jew Meilech Wolkenfeld, whose residence permit was annulled on October 28 (Photo: Jewish Museum Berlin)

Poland was not keen on getting 70,000 Jews back. In early October, the government declared that any Polish citizens living abroad for five years would lose their Polish citizenship at the end of the month and become stateless individuals unless they acquired a special stamp at a Polish consulate. Once Polish Jews living in Germany started showing up for the stamp by the thousands, they were rejected on various grounds.

Polish Jews being deported from Germany during the Polenaktion (Photo: Bundesarchiv)
Polish Jews being deported from Germany during the Polenaktion (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

Nazi Germany didn’t want to be stuck with stateless Polish Jews, and took drastic action on October 27, a few days before the Polish decree was set to take effect. 17,000 Polish Jews were rounded up, given one night to gather a single suitcase’s worth of personal belongings, then put on trains headed for the Polish border. 

The measure surprised Polish border guards, who allowed about 4-5,000 Jews through before closing down the borders, leaving some 12,000 trapped in the strip of land between Germany and Poland. These men found poor shelter in the hastily assembled refugee camps thrown up for them, with little food or protection from the late autumn cold. Conditions were so dreadful that several men tried to escape back into Nazi Germany and were shot in the process.

Jews at a soup kitchen in the border town of Zbąszyń (Photo: Yad Vashem)
Jews at a soup kitchen in the border town of Zbąszyń (Photo: Yad Vashem)

One family of trapped refugees was that of Sendel and Riva Grynszpan, who have been living in Germany since 1911. The family had a son, 17-year-old Herschel, who was staying in Paris as an impoverished illegal immigrant with hopes of emigrating to Mandatory Palestine, the British-controlled territory that would eventually become Israel. Herschel’s sister wrote a desperate letter to her brother about what happened and the conditions they were in, asking for his help. Herschel himself was in desperate straits and had no way of aiding his family. A deeply religious and sensitive young man, he suffered a breakdown and decided to avenge the persecution of his family and other Jews with violence. On the morning of November 7, he bought a revolver and took a metro to the German embassy in Paris, where he asked to speak with the most senior diplomat available about certain very important documents he was carrying. He just missed the ambassador, but was sent to the office of Ernst vom Rath, a more junior official. When vom Rath asked for the documents, Grynszpan pulled out his revolver, cried “You’re a filthy boche! In the name of 12,000 persecuted Jews, here is the document!” and shot the diplomat five times, wounding him fatally. (Interestingly, while vom Rath had previously argued that the exclusion of Jews was necessary for the good of the German people, he was also harboring anti-Nazi sentiments, and was under investigation for being politically unreliable.)

German diplomat Ernst vom Rath (Photo: unknown photographer)
German diplomat Ernst vom Rath (Photo: unknown photographer)

Grynszpan made no attempt to escape or resist. In his pocket, he had a postcard that read “With God's help. My dear parents, I could not do otherwise, may God forgive me, the heart bleeds when I hear of your tragedy and that of the 12,000 Jews. I must protest so that the whole world hears my protest, and that I will do. Forgive me. Hermann” (Hermann was Grynszpan’s first name in German.) Herschel Grynszpan was still waiting for his trial when Germany invaded France in 1940. After France’s fall, he was transferred to Germany and almost certainly died in a concentration camp.

  Herschel Grynszpan after his arrest (Photo: Bundesarchiv)
 Herschel Grynszpan after his arrest (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

Rath died two days after the shooting, on November 9. Coincidentally, the date was also the most important day in the Nazi calendar, the anniversary of Hitler ill-fated Beer Hall Putsch in 1923. Word of vom Rath’s death reached Hitler in the evening, right at the commemorative dinner for the coup. Hitler’s traditional long speech was canceled and replaced by an intense discussion among Nazi leadership. Hitler then left, but Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels took his place and delivered a speech, in which he said that “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.” This was typical Nazi double talk, and everyone present understood its full meaning. Hitler wanted a pogrom. Grynszpan’s poorly considered act of despair ignited the spark of violence against Germany’s Jews.

Hitler at the Burgerbräukeller beer hall on the commemorative night in 1938 (Photo: Austrian National Library)
Hitler at the Burgerbräukeller beer hall on the commemorative night in 1938 (Photo: Austrian National Library)

Later that night, Reinhard Heydrich sent a secret telegram to the Security Police and the Sturmabteilung (SA) paramilitary force with instructions on the pogrom. Non-Jewish businesses and property were to be protected from the violence, as were all foreigners (even Jews). As long as these targets remained unmolested, the police were not to interfere with the events. Additionally, the police were to collect all documents from synagogues and Jewish community offices before they were destroyed, and were also instructed to detain as many Jews as they could for later transportation to concentration camps, preferably healthy, wealthy men who were “not too old.”

Looted storefront of a Jewish-owned shop in Aachen, Germany, the day after (Photo: University of Southern California)
Looted storefront of a Jewish-owned shop in Aachen, Germany, the day after (Photo: University of Southern California)

Most of the actual violence of the night and the following day was perpetrated by the SA and the Hitlerjugend (“Hitler Youth"). Some 7,500 Jewish-owned stores and businesses had their windows smashed and the goods looted all across the country; the shards of glass covering the streets gave the pogrom its name, Kristallnacht – “Crystal Night,” also called “Night of Broken Glass” in English. Over 1,400 synagogues and prayer rooms were vandalized, 267 synagogues completely destroyed. Many private homes were broken into, wrecked and looted. Gravestones in Jewish cemeteries were uprooted, and many graves violated. Fire departments were instructed to not save burning synagogues and other Jewish buildings, but only prevent the fire from spreading. Following Heydrich’s orders, the police had rounded up over 30,000 Jewish men. Göring later lamented that the violence got too far out of control: most of the valuable property the Nazis were hoping to get their hands on was destroyed instead.

A synagogue on fire in Hanover, Germany, during Kristallnacht (Photo: Public domain)
A synagogue on fire in Hanover, Germany, during Kristallnacht 
(Photo: Public domain)

Though the Nazis did not specifically order violence against the Jews themselves, it is hardly surprising that numerous cases of assault and rape ensued. Official Nazi records put the number of Jews killed at 91 immediately after the pogrom, but the actual number is likely over 600, especially when including victims who died of their injuries days later, and those who committed suicide after the shocking events. 

Nazis during the rampage (Photo: University of Minnesota)
Nazis during the rampage (Photo: University of Minnesota)

The pogrom was over by the end of November 10, but the Nazi state was not done yet. It issued a “Jewish Capital Levy” of one billion Reichmarks (7 billion USD in 2020) as a collective fine for the murder of vom Rath. The money was collected in the form of the state confiscating 20% of all Jewish-owned property in the country. Additionally, the six million Reichmarks of property damage insurance payments that insured Jews were entitled to collect after the destruction was hijacked and kept by the Nazi state as reparations for “damage to the German nation.” 

Nazis carrying Jewish books, most likely intended for burning, during the Kristallnacht (Photo: Yad Vashem)
Nazis carrying Jewish books, most likely intended for burning, during the Kristallnacht (Photo: Yad Vashem)

The 30,000 Jews arrested by the police were sent to concentration camps, though most of them only temporarily. The Nazis’ goal was not to destroy them, but to fleece them of their property and to instill them, and through them the entire Jewish community, with a sense of terror and helplessness. Several hundred victims died of pneumonia, lack of medicine, starvation or the pointless strenuous physical exercises they were forced to perform. The vast majority, however, were released by the end of the year. One way to get out early was to transfer ownership of a valuable home to a German, or to sell a car at a ridiculously low price, thus moving wealth from Jewish to German ownership. Others were released because they already had plans in motion to leave Germany, anyway. 

Mass arrest of Jews in Baden-Baden after Kristallnacht (Photo: Bundesarchiv)
Mass arrest of Jews in Baden-Baden after Kristallnacht (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

The Kristallnacht laid bare the abhorrent nature of Nazism for all to see; and yet, popular support for the violence was much lower than the Nazis anticipated. Though crowds observed the acts of destruction, most witnesses watched in silence rather than join in. Some Germans cried behind closed curtains. Others sheltered Jews at no small risk to themselves. Wilhelm II, the former Emperor of Germany who abdicated after World War I and who himself held antisemitic views, declared "for the first time, I am ashamed to be German." Even several Gauleiters and their deputies refused to enact the pogrom in their areas, and many SA and Hitler Youth leaders also refused to follow orders. A German psychologist interviewed 41 randomly selected longtime members of the Nazi Party shortly after the event: only 5% of the people asked approved of racial persecution, while 63% expressed indignancy about it.

Jews being humiliated during the pogrom (Photo: Yad Vashem)
Jews being humiliated during the pogrom (Photo: Yad Vashem)

The lack of popular support for the Kristallnacht was not lost on Nazi leadership. The production of antisemitic propaganda films was kicked into higher gear to make the public more receptive to future violence. The Nazi regime might not have radicalized Germany’s population as much as they were hoping to, but the genie was nevertheless out of the bottle. Organized mass violence against Jews had become a very real fact of life, and would foreshadow the full horror of concentration camps and the Final Solution. The Holocaust had begun.

Christmas offer: 
Get 15% off until December 26

Soldiers of the 463rd Combat Engineers near the German border observe Christmas in 1944; note K-ration cans as ornaments (Photo: U.S. Army Signal Corps)

Surprise your loved ones with an unforgettable trip to historic places where American soldiers fought for our freedom. Get a 15% discount on our select tours by paying only the registration fee by December 26, 2022 and transferring the rest of the list price until January 31, 2023. Note that this offer applies only in case of new bookings, and it cannot be combined with other special promotions. The offer excludes those three tours in 2024 which include the 80th anniversary D-Day commemorations in Normandy.
 

Book now
Facebook Facebook
Instagram Instagram
Website Website
YouTube YouTube
Copyright © *|CURRENT_YEAR|* *|LIST:COMPANY|*, All rights reserved.
*|IFNOT:ARCHIVE_PAGE|* *|LIST:DESCRIPTION|*

Our mailing address is:
*|HTML:LIST_ADDRESS_HTML|* *|END:IF|*

Want to change how you receive these emails?
You can update your preferences or unsubscribe from this list.

*|IF:REWARDS|* *|HTML:REWARDS|* *|END:IF|*
Plan
yourtour
Beaches of Normandy Tours review
"This tour was so moving, I was brought to tears"Band of Brothers Tour, 2022
Review score: 10/10
Beaches of Normandy Tours review
"I would recommend this tour to anyone without hesitation"Band of Brothers Tour, 2022
Review score: 10/10
Beaches of Normandy Tours review
"I would definitely recommend this tour to everybody who enjoys history."Band of Brothers Tour, 2022
Review score: 10/10
Total:
4.9 - 53 reviews