On 7 November 1938 Herschel Grynzspan a 17-year-old Polish Jewish student, desperate about the fate of his family who had been deported from Germany, but refused admittance to Poland, walked into the German embassy in Paris and shot the German diplomat Ernst vom Rath.

Two days later on 9 November vom Rath died of his wounds. His murder was denounced by the Nazis as indication of a world-wide Judeo-Masonic “declaration of war” – who says we created the proliferation of “fake news” in the twenty-first century? Vom Rath’s death became the pretext for the Nazis to initiate the pogrom that became known as Kristallnacht on the night of November 9/10.

The “Night of Broken Glass” (Kristallnacht) was a violent free-for-all in which unimaginable savagery was unleashed against the Jews of Germany. This atrocity was secretly initiated and orchestrated by Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels.

More than 400 synagogues were set on fire; 76 were completely destroyed. More than 7,000 Jewish businesses and homes were looted, an estimated 100 Jews were killed, as many as 30,000 were arrested and sent to concentration camps, of whom 1,000 would die within a few weeks.

In the words of the Daily Telegraph correspondent in Berlin,

Racial hatred and hysteria seemed to have taken complete control of otherwise decent people. I saw fashionably dressed women clapping their hands & screaming with glee, while respectable middle-class mothers held up their babies to see the ‘fun’”.
(Gilbert, Martin. Kristallnacht: Prelude to Destruction, p. 47)

A Jewish woman recounts her experience of Kristallnacht saying,

We were at the piano & played a Mozart concerto. Often our eyes went to the window, but we did not stop… We did not want to admit disturbing reality. We wanted to spare our nerves.
(Kaplan, Marion A. Between Dignity and Despair: Jewish Life In Nazi Germany, p. 126)

Kristallnacht was the gateway drug for the horrific reality the world has come to know as the Holocaust, the intentional systematic attempt by the Nazis to wipe out an entire people. Kristallnacht did not spring out of nowhere. The seeds of vicious antisemitism were present throughout Europe and much of the world long before 1938. But, Kristallnacht accelerated and legitimized public and officially sanctioned acts of terror against Jewish people. With little or no backlash within Germany and barely a word of opposition from the international community, the Nazis were emboldened to move ahead with plans to destroy the Jewish people.

Averting our eyes “to spare our nerves” is not a luxury anyone can afford. When we refuse to live in the light of day and to acknowledge the horrors and injustices around us, we sow the seeds of future destruction, unrest, and horror. When we choose to live unconsciously we move towards a dangerous unknown abyss.

Jesus warned his followers to

13Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour. (Matthew 25:13)

What uncomfortable realities do I need to see today in my own life or in the world that I might prefer to avoid? What is the cost of my denial of these realities? What do I need to pay attention to in order to live consciously in the present and to prepare myself to live more fully in the realities I will encounter in the future?

It was no doubt difficult, perhaps almost impossible, for most people to begin to imagine the events that would follow November 9/10, 1938 in Germany. But some of the difficulty in seeing what was coming was certainly due to chosen ignorance and unwilligness to live honestly in the present moment.

The Night of Broken Glass in 1938 needs to be for us today a mirror in the present. It is a challenge to look honestly at our own lives, to face the violence in our own hearts, and to root out any hint of prejudice, hatred, or disrespect for any person no matter how different they may be.


earlier reflections and more stories of Kristallnacht can be read here: