There is a shrillness about the sound of splintering glass that sometimes defies the quieting of it, even with the passage of time. Seldom, if ever, was the sound more prevalent than throughout Nazi Germany and Austria the night of Nov. 9-10, 1938. It was die Kristallnacht, Crystal Night, the Night of Broken Glass. Six decades have not stilled the clatter in the memory of those who were there.
It is a sure bet that in any commemoration of the event, the speakers will call it the prelude to the Holocaust. But, at the time, many wouldn't have believed that such terror was on the horizon. Barely six weeks had passed since the Munich Agreement, which, though it killed off the democratic country of Czechoslovakia, was supposed to preserve the peace. And two years before, much of the world was charmed by the benign facade that the Nazis propped up at the Berlin Olympics.
Crystal Night was triggered, literally, on Nov. 7, by a 17-year-old Polish Jew named Herschel Grynszpan. He was living in Paris when he learned that the Nazis expelled his parents and thousands of other Polish Jews from Germany. With their native Poland refusing admittance, they were languishing without hope in a no-man's land.
Grynszpan bought a small-caliber gun and entered the German Embassy. Pretending that he had a document to deliver, he was directed to the office of the embassy's third secretary, Ernst vom Rath. He fired five times. Two bullets struck vom Rath, who died two days later. The young assailant's fate remains a mystery. Most likely, having been turned over to the Germans after their conquest of France, he died in a Nazi camp.
The Nazis gave vom Rath a state funeral, attended by Hitler. This was not without macabre irony, because the diplomat had not been known as an avid Nazi.
The assassination provided the Nazis a pretext to launch one of the most terrifying pogroms of the century. While the Reich's press and radio hailed the "spontaneous reaction of an outraged people" against the supposedly murderous Jews, the pogrom, as captured German documents after the war proved, was masterfully orchestrated by propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels and Reinhard Heydrich, the leader of the Nazi special police force, the Schutzstaffel, or SS.
Without warning, thousands of Brownshirts, black-uniformed SS and howling civilian mobs roamed the streets in every corner of the Third Reich in a bloody hunt for Jews. Doors were bashed in, glass panes shattered, synagogues set on fire, homes and stores ransacked.
By the Nazis' estimate, 91 men, women and children were killed. More than 200 synagogues were badly damaged. Jewish community centers and cemeteries were devastated. A total of 171 private homes and 7,500 shops and warehouses were destroyed. There were 800 instances of looting.
At least 35,000 people were arrested. In Vienna, 6,547 were hauled off to prisons; of them, 3,700 were immediately sent to the Dachau concentration camp.
In addition, the Nazi government imposed a fine of 1 billion marks on the Jews. The damage caused by the Nazi riots had to be paid for - by the Jews.
At the time of the "broken glass," I was living in Moedling, a small, woodsy town just south of Vienna. When Crystal Night descended, I was afraid. But I don't recall being surprised. When it came to maltreating Jews, the Austrian Nazis needed no prodding.
Right after the Anschluss - Hitler's incorporation of Austria into the German Reich - the local Nazis began hounding and humiliating their Jewish neighbors with whom, days before, they had been on friendly terms. Jewish and "half-Jewish" children were kicked out of school. Bands of Brownshirts forced shopkeepers to carry buckets of paint and smear "Jewish shop" on their store windows. Loudspeaker trucks blared anti-Semitic slogans.
Adolph Aaron Epstein owned a clothing store near my home. Months before the Anschluss, some young thugs had broken into his store and thrown stink bombs. Epstein, a spirited war veteran who was built like a bull, charged around the neighborhood, challenging the thugs to fight him. Nobody took him up on it. After Crystal Night, the Nazis sent him to Dachau. They freed him after a couple of months. We invited him to supper. He looked like a ghost, shrunk almost to a skeleton. We did not ask him what Dachau was like. We knew he was forbidden to talk about it. All he said was, "I was well treated. I I even had to sign a form to that effect, you understand."
Old Frau Eisler was put inside her store window. A laughing mob mocked and spat at her. I can't forget the frightened, uncomprehending look in her heavy-lidded eyes.
I sometimes joined my father, who was Jewish and had been very popular in the town, on a short walk along the cobblestone streets, and former friends looked the other way. Not all, though. Berthold Toegel, who ran a candy store and had been part of the Nazi underground before Hitler took over Austria, did not hate Jews. He invited us to ride around the town in his old red car, with him in the full regalia of the Nazi storm troopers, the Sturmabteilung, or SA. "I don't go along with these hoodlums," he said. "Maybe I can protect you."
When I met him 20 years after the war, Herr Toegel had a silver plate in his head. The SS, having a long memory, had cracked his skull.
On Crystal Night, I watched as the Nazis finished burning down the beautiful synagogue on Enzerdorfer Strasse. The firemen were out in force. They made sure that the adjoining houses didn't catch fire.
The outside world, shocked that the Nazis would do such things, protested in word but not deeds.
The Jews of Moedling and elsewhere in Germany and Austria took the Night of Broken Glass as a signal to speed up their exodus to better lands.
Most of them could not escape. For them, the roads to Buchenwald and Minsk and Auschwitz were paved with the glittering shards of Kristallnacht.
Hans Knight, a former reporter for the Philadelphia Bulletin and editorial writer for the Harrisburg Patriot News, was a translator at the Nuremberg trials for the U.S. War Department.
Pub Date: 11/08/98