Kristallnacht: Nazisms opening salvo

Imagine you are 9 years old, sleeping soundly in your warm bed.

Before going to sleep, you went through the normal bedtime ritual of brushing your teeth and washing your hands and face. Your mother came in to read a story. When you wake up, you’ll eat breakfast and then go to school, just like you do every day.

Suddenly, you’re awakened by a loud banging on the front door.

You’re not fully awake yet, but you hear the door crash to the ground as people run inside. As you bolt upright, your mother rushes in and grabs you by the hand. She leads you downstairs to the living room, where you see your father shouting at a group of men who are all dressed in brown shirts and carrying axes and knives and broom handles.

One of the men hits your father across the forehead with the end of a knife. He begins to bleed. “Daddy!” you shout, and rush to his side.

The other men begin to smash the tables and chairs and rip the upholstery of the couch. The hoodlums break the windows facing the street and begin to pull the family’s books from the shelves and throw them out the window. You hear the sound of dishes breaking in the kitchen as another intruder pulls everything from the cabinets and throws it all on the ground.

The man who hit your father says to him, “You’re under arrest. Come with me!”

“Why are you taking him? He hasn’t done anything wrong,” you cry as you cling to his leg.

Now the man comes toward you and grabs you by the arm and roughly throws you to the ground. Before you can move, you see your father being pulled out the door and pushed down the stairs so he trips and rolls to the bottom. The other men follow, pausing only to throw a glass lamp onto the floor so that it shatters.

Your mother rushes out the door and down the steps, shouting after the men dragging away your father, “Where are you taking him?”

You reach her side in time to hear the response, “Check with the Gestapo.”

Your mother begins to cry and she bends down to hug you. Over her shoulder you can see smoke rising from the synagogue burning down the street. The store windows of the Jewish businesses nearby are all broken and people are walking out of the stores with clothes, jewelry and groceries. People are shouting and laughing amid the sound of glass shattering.

Seventy years ago, Jews all over Germany and Austria had experiences like the one I’ve just described. On Nov. 9, 1938, Adolf Hitler’s propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels, orchestrated pogroms in cities large and small across the Third Reich.

It is a night you would never forget.

By the end, at least 96 Jews were dead, 1,300 synagogues and 7,500 businesses were destroyed and countless Jewish cemeteries and schools were vandalized. The broken glass strewn in the streets from the havoc perpetrated by Nazi storm troopers gave the night its name, “Kristallnacht” — “Night of Broken Glass.”

While the Holocaust is typically dated from the time World War II began or the Nazi decision to instigate the Final Solution, I would argue it began on this night, when, in addition to the murder and mayhem, 30,000 Jews were rounded up and sent to concentration camps.

Many Jews became homeless and penniless overnight. The Nazis even fined the Jews for the cost of cleaning up the mess and then proceeded to impose additional draconian measures on the population aimed at further isolating them, such as forbidding them from sitting on park benches, using public transportation or frequenting restaurants and theaters.

Kristallnacht was the beginning of the end for German Jewry, and it telegraphed the fate of all Jews who would come under Nazi control. On the 40th anniversary of Kristallnacht, then-German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt acknowledged its significance:

“In those places where the houses of God stood in flames, where a signal from those in power set off a train of destruction and robbery, of humiliation, abduction and incarceration — there was an end to peace, to justice, to humanity,” Schmidt said. “The night of 9 November 1938 marked one of the stages along the path leading down to hell.”

Never again.

Mitchell Bard is the author of “48 Hours of Kristallnacht: Night of Destruction/Dawn of the Holocaust — An Oral History” and director of the Jewish Virtual Library.