A Fateful Date November 9 Marks Highs and Lows in German History

Broken windows of a Jewish shop on the morning after a Nazi pogrom on Nov 9, 1938.
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Broken windows of a Jewish shop on the morning after a Nazi pogrom on Nov 9, 1938.

By Christopher Lawton

Part 4: The Night of the Broken Glass -- 1938


The event has gone down in history as "The Night of the Broken Glass," or Kristallnacht in German -- a name that is shorthand for one of Germany's darkest, most horrifying nights. On Nov. 9, 1938, Nazi henchmen perpetrated a far-reaching pogrom, an orgy of violence directed against the country's Jewish population that resulted in tens of thousands of arrests, over 1,300 deaths, dozens of synagogues destroyed and hundreds of Jewish shops demolished, the shattered shop windows giving the event its name.

The pogrom grew out of Third Reich policies aimed at compelling Jews to leave Germany and at limiting their role in German society. Three years prior to the Night of the Broken Glass, the Nazis announced the so-called Nuremberg Laws, a list of edicts that essentially stripped German's 500,000 Jews of citizenship rights. Boycotts of Jewish shops, organized by Hitler's paramilitary force, the SA, had likewise become commonplace in the mid-1930s.

On October 28, 1938, Hitler expelled over 12,000 Polish-born Jews from Germany, as part of a new policy requiring all foreigners to renew their residence permits. Those affected had just one night to pack up and board trains to the Polish border. Polish border guards, though, refused to grant them entry into Poland and sent them back to Germany. For days, the group was stuck between borders, left without food, water or shelter.

A Box of Bullets

But it was a shooting in Paris that provided the most immediate trigger for the Night of the Broken Glass. On Nov. 7, 1938, Herschhel Grynszpan, a German-born Polish Jew, walked into the German embassy and shot diplomat Ernst vom Rath three times. The diplomat died two days later.

The Grynszpan family were among the Polish Jews stuck between the German-Polish border. The family had settled in Hanover after it immigrated to Germany in 1911. Berta Grynszpan, the daughter of Sendel and Rivka Grynszpan, sent a postcard on November 3 to her brother Herschel, who was living in Paris with an uncle, asking for help. "No one told us what was going on, but we realized this was going to be the end.... We haven't a penny. Could you send us something?" the postcard read.

Herschel Grynszpan received the letter on November 7th. That same Monday, he purchased a revolver and a box of bullets.

The Führer received word of Vom Rath's death on the evening of Nov. 9 in Munich, where he was celebrating the anniversary of the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch, the Nazis' first attempt to take over power in Germany. Immediately, he gave orders interpreted to mean that the SA should organize countrywide "demonstrations." Anti-Semitic violence, of course, was the desired outcome.

Throughout the night, the SA, Nazi party members and members of the Hitler Youth destroyed Jewish property and businesses using sledgehammers and axes. The rioters also destroyed Jewish homes and dozens were killed. In total, the storefronts of approximately 7,500 Jewish stores and businesses were destroyed. More than 200 synagogues went up in flames. Some 30,000 Jews were arrested that night and taken to concentration camps at Dachau, Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen with 2,000 losing their lives in the camps before they were released three months later.

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