By 1938 Hitler had put Jews on the road to annihilation. Polish Jews who lived in Germany at that time were singled out for a particularly grievous form of Jew-hatred. In October of that year, Germany expelled 17.000 Jews with Polish citizenship living in Germany to Poland. Perversely, Poland refused to accept them and they were moved to “relocation camps” along the Polish border. Among these relocated Polish Jews was the family of Zindel Grynszpan who had lived in Germany and had a business there for over 27 years. Upon hearing about his family’s plight, Zindel’s 17-year old son, Herschel Grynszpan, living in Paris took it upon himself in a fit of rage to avenge the injustice his family suffered by assassinating Ernest Vom Rath, an official in the Paris German embassy.
From this single criminal act by a distraught young Jew, Joseph Goebbels earned his title as Hitler’s Chief of Propaganda by declaring the assassination as an “attack by International Jewry“. This gave the Nazis the spurious grounds for retaliation against Jews that took place on the nights of November 9 and 10. That retaliation, which has come to be known as Kristallnacht, Night of Broken Glass, was swift, brutal and widespread. The destruction to Jewish property included over 1000 synagogues burned and 7500 Jewish businesses destroyed The personal attack against Jews was even more wanton with 96 Jews killed and 30,000 Jews arrested and sent to concentration camps.
Geobbels tried to rationalize these obviously coordinated acts by declaring that they were “spontaneous uprisings”, nothing more than a release of pent-up hatred of Germans toward Jews. Kristllnacht served as yet another example of Nazi deception with Hitler’s comment that “such demonstrations are not to be prepared or organized by the [Nazi] party, but so far as they originate spontaneously, they are not to be discouraged either”.
Three days after Kristallnacht, Hermann Goering, who was in charge of the German economy, called a meeting to assess the damage. His particular concern was the number of claims Jewish businessmen were filing with their insurance companies to cover their losses. Goering was angry that German insurance money would go to Jews. No, he was more than angry, he was furious. As an example of unlimited power in a totalitarian state, Goering perversely turned Jewish claims into Jewish liability by declaring Jews were responsible for all damages incurred during Kristallnacht. Compounding this lie, Goering imposed a fine of one billion marks for the death of Vom Rath and ordered the 6 billion marks paid to Jews by insurance companies to be turned over to the state treasury. The more power the Nazis acquired, the less justice they practiced.
Kristallnacht marked a new, depraved low in how Germans treated Jews. Before Kristallnacht, their rabid anti-Semitism was expressed in laws, rules and regulations that limited how Jews could function in German society. These limitations meant lost of German citizenship, exclusion from education, occupations and restriction of movement; but Jews remained untouched physically. After Kristallnacht, Jews were subject to physical attacks and confiscation of property. If German Jews had any doubt about whether to leave what they thought was their home, that doubt was now gone. But it was too late, the Nazis closed exit routes and started their infamous program of making Europe Judenrein – free of Jews – and that meant death, not escape, for millions of Jews.
Herb Belkin is a historian who writes and lectures on the epic events of modern Jewish history.