The morning after. A shop front destroyed in the violence of Kristallnacht, November 9, 1938. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

A bar mitzvah gift that survived the Holocaust provides a chance to reflect on the "Night of Broken Glass" — November 9, 1938.

The night of November 9, 1938, Nazi mobs in Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia ransacked some 7,000 Jewish-owned businesses, burned a thousand synagogues, and murdered a hundred innocent Jews. Around 30,000 Jewish men were sent to concentration camps. The racism of the Nazi ideology had been explicit since its inception — almost 20 years prior, Adolf Hitler's 25-Point Plan had labeled all Jews enemies of the German people — but this was the first time the regime had acted with such brazen and widespread violence. Before, it may have been possible to hope that the Nazi's racial agenda would not be as vile in practice as it was on paper. But beginning with Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass, so named for the crystalline shards of glass littering the streets in front of vandalized Jewish storefronts, anti-Semitism became more than an ideology. Until the end of World War II, seven years later, genocide of the Jews was the official policy of the German government.

Historians are more or less in agreement that Hitler's regime had been waiting for a political expedient to begin exterminating the Jews in greater Germany. The opportunity arrived on November 7, when a 17-year-old Jewish boy shot and killed a German diplomat. Herschel Grynszpan was born in Germany to a family of Polish Jews, but he was not a German citizen, nor could he become one. A law passed in 1913 barred anyone not of “German blood” from citizenship in the Reich. This statelessness was a precarious condition for Grynszpan and his family, and it suddenly worsened that October, when the Gestapo arrested and robbed thousands of Jews with Polish ancestry, then loaded them into trains bound for Poland.

Beginning with Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass, so named for the crystalline shards of glass littering the streets in front of vandalized Jewish storefronts, German anti-Semitism became more than an ideology

At the time, according to the account of Grynszpan's life related by Jonathan Kirsch in The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan, Grynszpan was abroad, living with relatives in Paris. He'd attempted to escape Germany by emigrating to Palestine, but because of his youth, his application was denied. So he left Germany with no money — it was illegal for Jews to take money out of the country — and for two years tried to obtain legal residency in France. He ultimately failed and was ordered to leave the country, but in the interim, all of his travel documents had expired or been revoked. He had no papers and no money. He could not leave France. His relationship with his aunt and uncle grew strained. When he heard about his family's expulsion from Germany, Grynszpan despaired at the lack of international intervention and, with nothing to lose, decided to bring attention to the plight of Jews.

With a small-caliber revolver concealed in his pocket, Grynszpan entered the German embassy in Paris and asked to see the ambassador. He was in possession of an important document, he told a clerk, which he needed to deliver by hand. The clerk showed him into the office of a junior ambassador, Ernst vom Rath. Where is the document? vom Rath asked him. Here it is! Gryznspan cried and pulled out the revolver. He shot vom Rath five times, declaring as he did so that he acted on behalf of the persecuted Jews of Europe. Vom Rath died of his wounds.

When word of vom Rath's death reached Nazi command, propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels made the most of the opportunity. In a grim coincidence, vom Rath had died on the 15th anniversary of the Beer Hall Putsch, in which Hitler had tried, and failed, to seize control of the German government. To the Nazi leadership gathered to commemorate the occasion, Goebbels said that Hitler had decided not to organize any formal demonstrations against Grynszpan. “But,” he continued, “insofar as they erupt spontaneously, they are not to be hampered.”

The rank-and-file took the hint. The head of the SS's Security Police sent instructions to local police stations and Hitler Youth chapters throughout Germany to attack, harass, and arrest as many Jews as they could. To an outsider, the violence of Kristallnacht may have appeared to be a spontaneous demonstration, a popular outpouring of violence, anger and hate. Indeed, that impression was actively cultivated; many of the rioters eschewed their police uniforms and wore civilian clothes. The violence continued all night. Jews were beaten to death in the streets. “We shed not a tear for [the Jews],” Goebbels said the next day. “They stood in the way long enough.”

Their bloodlust excited by the spectacle, Nazi command moved to accelerate the violence. On November 12, two days later, Hermann Göring assembled Nazi leadership and told them that the time they had been waiting for had arrived. “I should not want to leave any doubt, gentlemen, as to the aim of today's meeting,” he said. “We have not come together merely to talk again, but to make decisions, and I implore competent agencies to take all measures for the elimination of the Jew from the German economy, and to submit them to me.”

The formal formulation of the Final Solution would not occur for another four years, but after Kristallnacht it was inevitable. Indeed, Kristallnacht was in essence a trial run for the genocide to come in that it contained, on a small scale, all the features that would characterize the Holocaust. A wave of destruction was about to sweep across Germany and Europe, extinguishing the lives of 6 million Jews. Not even their belongings would withstand the Nazi war machine. Their art and other valuables were confiscated wholesale; anything containing metal was ground into weaponry, ammunition, and materiel. It is a small miracle that this exquisite silver menorah survived.


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Author Ben Phelan
Ben Phelan is a freelance writer in Louisville, Kentucky. He has been a contributor to ANTIQUES ROADSHOW Online since 2007.