Exactly seventy-nine years ago, on the evening of November 9, 1938, an orgy of hate-fueled violence broke out across what had been a progressive cultured country: Germany. The two-day pogrom was a spree of vandalizing, looting, beating, and killing. It would come to be known as Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass.
Kristallnacht was not a random violent event. It was carefully orchestrated by the Nazi regime, whose goal was to humiliate and intimidate the German Jewish population throughout the country. Hundreds of disparate gangs, lead by SA stormtroopers and goaded by Nazi leadership, particularly propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, launched simultaneous attacks all over Germany.
The country had elected Adolf Hitler to power five years earlier. Prior to Hitler’s Nazi Party, the German Weimar Republic was a liberal country, where freethinking, science, music and literature flourished. But an economic downturn opened the door for a megalomaniac to seize control. And the maniac had a sadistic agenda: he blamed Germany’s Jews, a tiny minority, for every trouble, and he was determined to create a culture of hate, and to get rid of them.
When the violence was over, dozens lay dead among the shards. The Night of Broken Glass saw seven thousand Jewish businesses targeted, their broken windows littering the streets, two hundred and fifty synagogues burned, and Jewish hospitals, schools, and homes invaded and looted. The following morning, thirty thousand Jewish men were arrested and sent to concentration camps.
In the ensuing days the Nazi regime swiftly stepped up the persecution. Jews were forbidden from attending school, from owning businesses, and were subject to curfews. The Reich even confiscated the insurance monies owed to Jewish business owners whose stores had been vandalized during the pogrom.
Kristallnacht marked a turning point for the more than half million German Jews. The Nazis had been making life miserable for years, but the Night of Broken Glass was the beginning of real terror.
My grandmother’s family, who lived in the city of Chemnitz in eastern Germany, had fled the Nazi state several years before Kristallnacht. My grandmother was only eleven when her father had a prescient dream that the Nazis were coming for him. He woke up one morning in March 1933, packed a small satchel, and fled the country, leaving his wife, three young children, and a prosperous business behind.
When the SA stormtroopers arrived, which, shockingly, they did, the following day, he was already gone. The rest of the family was placed under house arrest. Even as a Nazi stormtrooper guarded their front door, my great-grandmother shepherded her young children out the back door. They walked to the train station, each child alone, and boarded a train for Holland, escaping Nazi Germany, never to return. A prescient dream and the astonishing courage to leave Germany in a heartbeat saved my family from almost certain death.
After Kristallnacht, the plight of Jewish people went from bad to critical. And my family was not in the clear. They were still in Europe. From Holland they eventually relocated to Belgium, trying to stay one step ahead of disaster. But in May 1940 Hitler occupied Belgium as well, and at that point there was nowhere to go, no country whose borders were open to Jewish refugees.
In my new book, Among the Reeds: The true story of how a family survived the Holocaust, I recount the way my grandparents made it through WWII in Europe, even saving their young children, including my father who was a newborn when the war came to Belgium. If not for my grandparents’ courage, determination, and willingness to make unbelievably difficult decisions, I would not be here to tell the story.
As we mark the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, let us pause and remember what happened when a country known for its culture and freethinking slipped into a period of hate and xenophobia, when it allowed a madman to take the reigns. Let us consider the terrifying parallels of the current American administration. A divided country. A narcissistic leader who encourages more division, who points fingers at certain groups, blaming them for the country’s problems. Let us contemplate the shock of seeing hate groups marching in American streets.
On November 9, the anniversary of an infamous night of terror, let us vow, never again.