Broken Glass, Shattered Lives

Commemorating the shrill sounds 83 years ago that heralded the destruction of European Jewry

By David E. Kaplan

After this, the future is grim; we have nowhere to go; nobody wants us.”

These were the chilling words expressed over the phone by  Germany’s leading Rabbi of the 1930s, Dr. Leo Baeck,  to New York Times Berlin Bureau correspondent, C. Brooks Peters.

It was 9.30am on November 10th, 1938 when Peters was broadcasting live, having just spent nearly “nine horrendous hours” following Nazi stormtroopers. Looking upon an iconic monumental synagogue ablaze, the correspondent so overcome by what he was witnessing predicted “it probably will turn out to be the worst pogrom in Western history.”

How right he was!

Historians view Kristallnacht (9 & 10 November 1938), as a prelude to the Final Solution and the murder of over six million Jews.

If ever there was any false hope that Jews had a future in Europe, that hope was ‘shattered’ on the night of November 9, 1938 to the sounds of breaking glass shattering the air in cities throughout Germany against a flaming backdrop of synagogues and Jewish institutions going up in smoke.

Street Savagery. Germans pass by the broken shop window of a Jewish-owned business that was destroyed during Kristallnacht. (US Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, College Park)

It was the prelude to the Jews of Europe going ‘up in smoke’!

By the end of the rampage, gangs of Nazi storm troopers  – aided and abetted by civilians only too eager to join in the carnage – had destroyed 7,000 Jewish businesses, set fire to more than 900 synagogues, killed 91 Jews and deported some 30,000 Jewish men to concentration camps. Nazis and their multitude of willing collaborators, transformed a European landscape rich in culture into one devoid of “culture”. How else could one make sense of European or Western culture when reading an eyewitness report of a U.S official in Leipzig to the State Department describing the atrocities:

 “Having demolished dwellings and hurled most of the moveable effects to the streets, the insatiably sadistic perpetrators threw many of the trembling inmates into a small stream that flows through the zoological park, commanding horrified spectators to spit at them, defile them with mud and jeer at their plight.”

In the wake of the death and destruction, Reich Minister of Propaganda  Joseph Goebbels announced:

 “We shed not a tear for them [the Jews.]”

Descent of a Nation. These were not uniformed Nazis but youths attacking Jewish shops on Kristallnacht. The savage Nazi philosophy has gripped the German nation.

He went on to comment on the destruction of synagogues saying, “They stood in the way long enough. We can use the space made free more usefully than as Jewish fortresses.”

Kristallnacht provided the Nazis with an opportunity to advance their War on the Jews already well on the way. The assassination two days earlier of a German diplomat by a 17-year-old German-born Polish Jew was simply a pretext to unleash the pogrom that would culminate in the Shoah. The history of the Jews over the past 2000 years, reveals no shortage of PRETEXT followed by POGROM!

Targeting Jews. A destroyed Jewish shoe store looted and destroyed in Vienna on November 10, 1938 (Foto: Wiener Library/DöW F. Nr. 6392)

Taking its name from the shards of broken glass that littered the streets after the smashed windows of Jewish-owned stores, buildings and synagogues, “Kristallnacht” (literally “Crystal Night”)  triggered a barrage – salvo after salvo of regulations and policies aimed mostly at Jews. On November 15th, only 5 days after Kristallnacht, Jewish children were barred from attending school. Within the week, the Nazis had circulated a letter declaring that Jewish businesses could not be reopened unless they were to be managed by non-Jews and shortly afterwards, the Nazis issued the “Decree on Eliminating the Jews from German Economic Life”, which prohibited Jews from selling goods or services anywhere, from engaging in crafts work, from serving as the managers of any firms, and from being members of cooperatives. In addition, the Nazis determined that the Jews should be liable for the damages caused during Kristallnacht. In other words, Jews were responsible for Kristallnacht and hence must pay for it!

Sweep Away. A young man with a broom prepares to clear up the broken window glass from a Jewish shop in Berlin, the day after the “Kristallnacht” rampage. (AP Photo/File)

Reporting on the events of Kristallnacht, the following account by Otto D. Tolischus also of the New York Times was revealing:

A wave of destruction, looting and incendiaries [fires] unparalleled in Germany since the Thirty Years War …..

Beginning systematically in the early morning hours in almost every town and city in the country, the wrecking, looting and burning continued all day. Huge but mostly silent crowds looked on and the police confined themselves to regulating traffic and making wholesale arrests of Jews “for their own protection.”

All day the main shopping districts as well as the side streets of Berlin and innumerable other places resounded to the shattering of shop windows falling to the pavement, the dull thuds of furniture and burning shops and synagogues. Although shop fires were quickly extinguished, synagogue fires were merely kept from spreading to adjoining buildings.”

Front Page Carnage.  Despite large headlines appearing on the front pages of major newspapers concerning the attacks on Jews in Germany known as Kristallnacht, the world mostly ignored and turned their backs on the plight of the Jews.

And how did the world react?

While there was outrage in newspapers around the world,  this did not translate into action. Diplomats failed to send concrete demands or proposals for action to their home governments. “They were waiting and deceptively hoping that they could somehow come to terms with the Nazi regime,” said Hermann Simon who was the director of the Centrum Judaicum for 27 years up until 2015. Simon collected reports written by diplomats from 20 countries who were stationed in Germany in 1938.

To No Avail. Tapping into deep soulful American history of the “Mayflower”, cartoonist Cecil Jensen in the Chicago Daily News for November 23, 1938, pleads for world leaders, following Kristallnacht, to help Europe’s

Despite the reports describing the events as “Cultural barbarism”,  “the response to the reports,” says Simon, “was relatively low.” Typical of this position was when Britain’s Parliament asked Neville Chamberlain to condemn the pogrom. The Prime Minister simply said that newspaper reports were “substantially correct”, adding “deep and widespread sympathy” for those who were “to suffer so severely” for the “senseless crime committed in Paris”, thus buying into the Nazi pretext rather than their policy.

The world’s lame reaction was hardly a surprise as Kristallnacht followed only by a few months after the Évian Conference convened 6–15 July 1938 at Évian-les-Bains, France, to address the problem of German and Austrian Jewish refugees wishing to flee Nazi persecution. Almost all of the 32 countries represented at the Conference agreed that there was a growing German Jewish refugee problem, and expressed sympathy for those persecuted.

However, few offered to extend their quotas or contribute to a practical solution!

In the end, almost no real action resulted from the conference.

The Evian Conference clarified ‘CRYSTAL” clear for the Nazis that although countries may not have approved of their persecution of the Jews, they would not actively take any steps against them, or go out of their way to help the Jews.

Public Humiliation to Mass Murder. Jewish women in Linz, Austria are exhibited in public with a cardboard sign stating ‘I have been excluded from the national community (Volksgemeinschaft)’, during the anti-Jewish pogrom known as Kristallnacht, November 1938. (Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images)

The message in July was clear – the Nazis had a free hand to do what it wanted with its Jews.

The result in November was inevitable – Kristallnacht.

With global complicity, the pieces were positioning towards the “Final Solution”.

Thankfully today there is a haven for Jews – an  Israel that heeds warnings and responds. In sharp contrast to the sound of broken glass heard over two days in November 1938 heralding the slaughter to follow, the sound of breaking of glass in Israel today, marks instead the culmination of wedding ceremonies when bridegrooms steps on a glass inside a cloth bag to shatter it.

The result – the Jewish population of Israel is souring nearing seven million.

If the shrill sound of breaking glass once signaled the demise of Jewry, today it joyously presages its flourishing life!

While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs (0&EO).

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