Kristallnacht: From Broken Glass to a Brighter Future

By: Jacob Leichter  |  November 19, 2020

By Jacob Leichter, Staff Writer

This month, on November 9 and 10, marks the 82nd anniversary of Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass. As history continues its slow crawl forward, it is important to remember the tragic events of Jewish history and to recognize their irreversible effects on the Jewish world of yore. However, it is also essential to appreciate that newfound beauty and growth can and has emerged from the ruin, as is evident in the State of Israel and in the vibrant Jewish communities across the globe.

While the Jews of Germany had been suffering under Hitler’s antisemitism since 1933, and later, the Jews of Austria in March 1938 and the Sudetenland in October 1938, much of these hardships were nonviolent and relegated to the legislative world. Such policies grossly limited Jewish educational, vocational, and social opportunities but never brought physical harm to the minority group in these locales.

By late October 1938, the Gestapo, the Nazi secret police, had begun deporting Polish-born Jews from German lands back to their native Poland. Among the 17,000 deportees were the parents of young Herschel Grynszpan, a 17 year old living in Paris, who were stuck on the German-Polish border after Poland denied them and others entry. Grynszpan, desperate to free his parents from their plight, requested a meeting with Ernst vom Rath, the German ambassador to France, at the German embassy on November 7, 1938. At their appointment, the teen shot von Rath who succumbed to his wounds on November 9.

At a meeting in Munich that same day, Joseph Goebbels, the infamous head of Nazi propaganda, addressed his fellow “Old Guard” members, instructing them that no demonstrations should be explicitly organized but that any retaliation against the Jews for the death of vom Rath should not be stopped either. Those officials sent word to local leaders throughout the Reich, calling for attacks on Jewish communities. Violence broke out on the evening of November 9 and continued into the early morning of November 10. Countless Jewish homes were broken into, an estimated 7,500 Jewish stores were looted, and anywhere from 1,000 to 2,000 synagogues were vandalized and burnt to the ground — not to mention the other religious institutions and cemeteries that were targeted in the night of rioting. It was from here, the shards of broken glass that littered the streets of the Reich, that Kristallnacht got its name. In addition to the destruction of property, German officials reported 96 fatalities on the night of November 9, though some believe that number to be in the hundreds as those injured died from their wounds in the days following. As the Nazis pinned the blame on the victims, an estimated 30,000 Jews were arrested and sent to concentration camps in the aftermath.

 Kristallnacht, which ushered in another wave of antisemitic legislation, marked a turning point in how the Nazi regime treated its Jewish subjects. The government was no longer content with passing laws that stripped Jews of their rights and hampered their freedoms in German society. Ridding the Reich of this “despised” people became a real possibility and ultimately resulted in a newfound focus for the Nazi machine as it worked to realize this goal.

Now, more than eight decades later, as those who were alive to witness the horrors of the Holocaust are passing on, it is critical that this history be remembered, due to both its importance in Jewish history and to prevent such atrocities from happening again. However, such tragedies cannot be allowed to darken the future of the Jewish people.

There exists in Japan an art form known as kintsugi, in which broken pottery or glass is repaired with the addition of gold or silver. The Japanese believe the mended item to be more precious than the original, seemingly perfect vessel. So too should the Jewish people be regarded. Yes, Kristallnacht and the Holocaust were horrible tragedies that saw the irreplaceable loss of life, Judaica, and tradition. And yet, from the ashes of that destruction, vibrant communities have emerged, from the bustling metropolis of Manhattan to the pristine beaches of Tahiti. It is this diversity and renewal, the gold and silver, that have connected the shards from the Night of Broken Glass to form the beautiful Jewish world that can be seen today. As we mourn the loss of that original vessel, the mended product that has been constructed through painstaking efforts in the decades since must, at the same time, be appreciated.

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