On the night of November 9, 1938, the persecution of Jewish people in Nazi Germany gathered unfettered momentum. An organized wave of violence spread throughout Germany, Austria and areas of Czechoslovakia.
The dark hours of that night echoed with the sound of shattering glass as an estimated 7,500 Jewish-owned businesses were vandalized and looted. Kristallnacht means “crystal night,” and has come to be known as “Night of Broken Glass.”
Nazi soldiers and members of the Hitler youth organization marauded Jewish homes, intimidating and assaulting Jewish families while throngs of citizens and local police stood by and watched. They burned or destroyed 267 synagogues and vandalized countless Jewish residences, killing 91 Jewish people in the process. As the pogrom spread, tens of thousands of Jewish men were arrested, and most were transferred to concentration camps.
Kristallnacht proved to be a key turning point in Nazi persecution of Jewish people. Hitler was gauging resistance to his plan to eliminate the Jews from Europe, and he saw that non-Jewish citizens would stand by and observe these actions without objection.
Those who survived Kristallnacht 79 years ago and remain to share their stories were children on that terrible night. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington shares several video testimonies of Kristallnacht survivors. Here are some of their stories.
Children of Kristallnacht
Susan Strauss walked to school and saw her synagogue burning. There would be no school that day. Back at home, she heard radio warnings to stay inside and that most of the synagogues in town were on fire. A few hours later, a throng of people made their way to her family’s door and broke it down. They rampaged through the home and smashed dishes, cut pillows, tore books apart and threw plants over.
Months later, the family dentist became a high-ranking Nazi, and he wanted their property for himself. Men came and took Susan’s mother outside and beat her. She had no choice but to abandon the home.
Johanna Gerechter saw a large crowd of people in front of her synagogue throwing stones at the beautiful stained glass windows. They had already ransacked the interior and thrown Torah scrolls into the street.
“The Torah scrolls,” Johanna said, “this is the basis of our belief, the basis of our observance, the basis of our lives. This was thrown into the street, torn up, desecrated by hordes of people who had absolutely lost all respect [for] any other people’s religion.”- Johanna Gerechter
Johanna’s family gathered at her grandmother’s home. “My father was a very courageous man,” she explained, “and you weren’t going to tell him that he cannot walk on the streets of Germany. He went downtown. I remember him coming back quite shaken up.”
Back at their own home in the evening, the family didn’t turn on any lights in the apartment, and they went to bed immediately. In the middle of the night, soldiers pounded on the door. That sound and the fear it instilled in Johanna is something she can never forget.
But the family remained silent in the apartment, and eventually a neighbor woman opened her door and shouted at the troops, “What are you doing? People are trying to sleep!”
“We want these Jews,” the men said.
“They’re not home,” she told them.
To this day, Johanna doesn’t know if the woman really believed the family was away or if she was protecting them. “But, certainly,” Johanna said, “her remark saved us.”