Image Credits: Wikipedia.

Words by Lucy Dover.

On the night of 9th November 1938, cries of angry mobs, broken glass and grief-stricken Jewish families could be heard across the cities of Germany and parts of Austria. Fires rampaged through hundreds of Synagogues, Jewish religious artefacts were burned, and desecrated, and violent gangs of Nazi stormtroopers destroyed Jewish businesses and schools. On what became known as Kristallnacht, or the night of broken glass, 91 German Jews lost their lives, and some 30,000 Jewish men were sent to Concentration Camps.

Nazi Officials depicted these riots as justified reactions to an event that has occurred just two days prior. On November 7th, Ernst vom Rath, the Third Secretary of the German Embassy, was shot by 17-year-old student, Hershel Grynszpan. Grynszpan’s parents had been deported to Poland, from Hanover, Germany, despite the fact that they had lived there since 1914. When arrested by French police, he pleaded and tried to raise awareness of the mistreatment that Jews were facing in Europe: “Being a Jew is not a crime I am not a dog. I have a right to live and the Jewish people have a right to exist on this earth. Wherever I have been I have been chased like an animal.” His pleas went overlooked. Over the next couple of days, violent mobs, spurred on by Nazi encouragement, destroyed Synagogues, businesses, orphanages, homes and schools. Firefighters were told not to interfere, unless adjacent “Aryan” property was in jeopardy, police were told only to arrest Jews and witnesses recall seeing families fleeing from the scenes.

Ruth Winkelmann was only ten years old when Kristallnacht occurred, but in an interview with the BBC, she recounts it vividly. She saw “broken shop windows and shards of glass lying in the streets” and “a shop where someone had painted the word ‘Jew’, and smeared on a star of David”. After arriving at school, she learnt the horrifying truth that several of her classmates’ fathers had been either deported or sent to concentration camps. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when the Holocaust began, but this horrific event is usually viewed as the turning point in the Third Reich’s history. It marked the poignant shift from antisemitic legislation, to violence and destruction. The letter J was stamped on Jews’ Nazi-Era ID cards, marking them a target. Ruth Winkelmann still has hers. “In retrospect, I became a grown- up on that day,” Kristallnacht is burned into her memory. “The pogrom night took away my childhood,” Following the riots, the Nazi government fined the Jewish community one billion reichsmarks (about $400 million at 1938 rates), for the damage caused and Jews were banned from schools on 15th November. By December 1938, just a month after the riots occurred, Jews were banned from most public places in Germany. Nazi politician Joseph Goebbels commented on the violence saying, “We shed not a tear for them [the Jews.]” and that the Synagogues “stood in the way long enough.” Ruth still remembers her father’s words on the 10th November. He took her and her little sister into his arms and said: “this is the beginning of a very difficult time, and we’ll try to live through it”. In 1943, Ruth’s father was sent to Auschwitz. He was killed in January 1944. Just before the end of the war, Ruth’s younger sister, Eddi, died of diphtheria.

But the road to Auschwitz did not begin and end with train tracks and gas chambers, or with mass murder graves, nor did it take a single night of riots. There were warnings, beginning with Hitler’s rise to power. In April 1933, the Nazis organised a boycott of Jewish- owned businesses. Jews were excluded from civil service jobs, and in October of that year, ‘non-Aryans” were banned from working in Journalism. In September 1935, the Nuremburg Race Laws were passed. This forbid marriage between Jews and Germans. Looking back, there were clear signs of rising antisemitism, but no one helped, no one came to their aid. Today, there is a disturbing parallel between events that occurred during the holocaust and events today. Amid the tensions between Israel and Palestine, antisemitism is on the rise. In May 2021, three men were arrested in Bonn, Germany, for burning an Israeli flag, and throwing rocks at a synagogue’s window. On the same night, a fire was lit on top of a stone memorial, which is on the grounds of a synagogue, destroyed during Kristallnacht. In September of the same year, German police arrested four others over an Islamist terrorist plot to attack a Hagen synagogue on the Jewish festival of Yom Kippur. Jews in Germany have seen a 13% spike in antiSemitic crimes in 2020, and more than 2000 incidents were registered. But it is not just Germany who are seeing a rise. In the first six months of 2021, there was a record spike in antiSemitism, in the UK. CST (Community Security Trust) recorded 628 antisemitic hate incidents from 8 May to 7 June 2021 in Britain, the highest number CST has ever recorded in any month-long period, and roughly four times the number of antisemitic incidents that would normally be expected during this period. Kristallnacht is an incredibly important moment in history that has often been overlooked. It can teach us so much about the consequences of not taking the warning signs of antisemitism seriously.

Although the situation facing Jews today is nowhere near comparable to the horrific crimes they faced in Germany, according to the BBC, many Jewish people are questioning their safety in today’s society. Holocaust denial persists, neo-Nazism is on the rise, and there are increasing incidents of violence against Jewish people. These warning signs should not be ignored. According to data from Campaign Against Antisemitism, 1 out of 5 British Jews feel the authorities aren’t doing enough to project them. According to a 2016 survey by the charity Campaign Against Antisemitism, half of British Jews avoid showing “visible signs of Judaism (such as Star of David jewellery or Kippah) in public”. The night of 9th November 1938 changed the course of history, but it did not take just one day for this incident to occur. It did not take just one day for the concentration camps to be built, or the mass graves to be dug. It took many days of people not paying attention, or people too afraid to stand up for their neighbour. It took many days of people ignoring the pleas of others, before it was too late. Poet Martin Niemöller wrote in his incredibly infamous prose: First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out, Because I was not a socialist… Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out, Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.” In today’s climate, this poem is more relevant than ever before, because one day, we might look back on this, in retrospect, and wonder “why didn’t we listen?” as we do looking back on the events leading up to Kristallnacht.

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