On Nov. 7, 1938, German diplomat Ernst vom Rath was fatally shot in Paris by 17-year-old Herschel Grynszpan, a Polish Jew. Grynszpan and his family had been among the estimated 12,000 Polish Jews arrested, stripped of their property and deported from Germany in October 1938. By shooting vom Rath, Grynszpan sought to alert the world to the grave situation in Germany under Adolf Hitler.
Within hours of vom Rath’s death on Nov. 9, Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels used the assassination as a pretext for a wave of public attacks against the Jewish community. Throughout Germany, Austria and the Czech Sudetenland, Storm Troopers and Hitler Youth members took to the streets that night, determined to unleash violence. The ferocity of the attacks was so great that the night became known as Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass.
Jewish homes, hospitals, schools and cemeteries were ransacked and attackers demolished buildings with sledgehammers. At least 267 (although possibly as many as 520) synagogues were set ablaze and completely or partially destroyed. Over 7,000 Jewish businesses were in ruins, even though nearly two-thirds of Jewish businesses in Germany had been Aryanized (transferred to gentile ownership) by April of that year.
In addition to the destruction of property and religious centers, 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and imprisoned in concentration camps, often after being cruelly beaten. To add insult to injury, the Jewish community was subsequently declared liable for the material damage and ordered to pay a fine of 1 billion Reichsmarks to the treasury.
Kristallnacht is widely considered a crucial turning point in the escalation of anti-Semitic persecution in Nazi Germany because it is the first instance in which Nazis violently attacked, rounded up and interned Jews en masse. Since 1933, thousands of Jews had left Germany due to the increasing intolerance they faced, but the unprecedented violence of Kristallnacht prompted another wave of immigration. Legal decrees, such as the Nuremberg Racial Laws (1935) which defined a person as Jewish according to their ancestry rather than their religious beliefs and practices, continued to ensure that those Jews who did not or could not leave Germany were segregated, restricted and demeaned.
Herschel Grynszpan was arrested by French police following the assassination of vom Rath and was later arrested by the Gestapo after the Fall of France in May 1940 and brought to Germany. He was interned for a time in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Oranienberg, but his final whereabouts and ultimate fate remain unknown.
To learn more about Kristallnacht, we recommend some of the following titles from our collection: