NEW YORK (JTA) — Before it was called Kristallnacht, it was known simply as “the pogrom.”
Designated “the night of broken glass,” the 14-hour wave of Nazi violence on Nov. 9-10, 1938 left hundreds of Jewish storefronts and synagogues across Germany and parts of Austria in shards and splinters, and many Jews dead. Tens of thousands of Jews were arrested over the next few days, among them a number of prominent Jewish communal leaders.
It was one of numerous key events in the lead-up to the Holocaust that were closely covered by JTA.
In the early 1930s, JTA reporters in Europe detailed how German Jews were getting their licenses revoked, their jobs eliminated and their property rights taken away.
In reports from November 1938, it’s clear that what set Kristallnacht apart from the anti-Jewish incidents of the preceding years was the violence.
Historians differ over the extent to which the violence was premeditated. At the Adolf Eichmann trial in 1961, Berlin Zionist Organization member Benno Cohn testified that Hitler ordered the main synagogue in Munich destroyed by order of Hitler five months before Kristallnacht.
Regardless, the calamity was immediately precipitated by the fatal shooting of Ernst von Rath, secretary of the Reich Embassy in Paris. Von Rath died on Nov. 9, two days after being shot by Herschel Feivel Grynszpan, a recently deported 17-year-old Polish Jew.
JTA reported on Nov. 7, 1938:
Grynszpan, a mild-looking youth speaking fluent French and German, appeared at the Reich Embassy this morning and asked to see the Ambassador’s secretary to submit a "document of considerable importance," according to the embassy’s official account of the incident to the press. Ushered into Von Rath’s presence, the young man delivered a brief speech on Reich persecution of Polish Jews, then whipped out a 6.35 mm. revolver and fired two bullets into the secretary’s body.
“When news of von Rath’s death reached here tonight,” JTA reported, “official circles refused to comment immediately. There was no attempt, however, to conceal the fact that it will have serious consequences on Jews in the Reich.”
That same JTA dispatch from Berlin reported early disturbances, including spontaneous demonstrations in Berlin and Dessau, the burning of a synagogue in Hersfeld, and the arrest of a pastor collecting funds for Jewish relief. Closed for Armistice Day, JTA did not publish its first report on Kristallnacht itself until Monday, Nov. 13.
The front-page headline of The New York Times on Friday, Nov. 11, 1938 told of destruction in Vienna and Berlin: “Nazis Smash, Loot and Burn Jewish Shops And Temples Until Goebbels Calls Halt.”
On Monday, JTA’s Jewish Daily Bulletin focused largely on the violence in Berlin:
An estimated 25,000 Jews were under arrest today in the wake of the worst outbreak of anti-Jewish violence in modern German history, which left throughout the nation a trail of burned synagogues, smashed homes, wrecked and pillaged shops, and at least four known dead. Police seizures of Jews continued throughout the night and this morning. Three thousand were in custody in Berlin alone.
Without explicitly referencing glass, the destruction by marauders in the German capital was illustrated vividly:
In Berlin, throughout the morning and afternoon, bands of Nazis shouldered their way through gaping holes left in broken shop windows and completed the work of destruction begun by organized bands at four o’clock yesterday morning. They smashed fixtures, hangings and furniture, reducing the interiors of the shops to piles of refuse. Gaping crowds followed their progress while police, who were much in evidence after the noon hour, loitered in the neighborhood ignoring the proceedings. By mid-afternoon, it seemed that every Jewish shop in Berlin was doomed to complete destruction.
Scenes of destruction took place in every quarter of Berlin. Plundering, smashing of furniture and even wrecking of Jewish homes occurred in the northeast quarter of the city, where the poorer Jews live. Late yesterday smoke was still pouring from the great Fasanenstrasse Synagogue, with firemen standing by to prevent the blaze from spreading to nearby buildings. The [missing] synagogue, which was put to the torch a second time after firemen had extinguished the first blaze, was gutted. Both edifices were valued at several million marks. Damaged to a lesser extent were the Oranienburger synagogue, Berlin’s largest, and the Lutzowstrasse Synagogue, where raiders confined their attention to holy objects.
Throughout the city hardly a single Jewish shop or restaurant window was left intact as bands proceeded systematically from street to street, smashing panes with hammers and stoning these beyond reach. In some sections plundering followed swiftly.
More news trickled in over the JTA wire in the days that followed:
At Leipzig, rabbis and Jewish leaders were driven to the river’s edge and forced to stand there most of the day before being taken to jail. From Vienna, there were unauthenticated reports of Jews forced to lie in the streets while S.A. (Nazi storm troopers) men marched over them. At Brandenburg Jews were reliably reported forced to run a gauntlet in the streets.
In hindsight, Kristallnacht was not merely a horrific event; it was a harbinger of horrors to come. The violence accelerated events that already were familiar to Jews living under the Third Reich. Eleven months later, as described in JTA reports, the Nazis began the mass deportation of 100,000 Jews from Vienna to camps in Poland.
The events were enough to spark a protest of thousands of mostly non-Jews in New York City on Nov. 21, 1938, JTA reported.
For decades, there has been debate over the use of the term Kristallnacht. Some say the term was coined by the Nazis and that using it grants them a measure of victory. On the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht, this debate played out in the letters to the editor in The New York Times.
By any name, the significance of the first great pogrom in Germany is clear.