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The International School for Holocaust Studies

Re-Examining the Tipping Point

70 Years Since the Kristallnacht Pogrom

By Yael G. Weinstock


This article, written on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the Kristallnacht pogrom, gives a brief historical account of this watershed event and discusses methods for classroom discussion on the subject. In an effort to assist teachers in engaging their students in the subject of the Holocaust in general, and the Kristallnacht pogrom in particular, this article provides varied sources and ideas meant to help students gain a deeper understanding of the event. Additionally, teachers can use different types of resources to facilitate discussions that focus on larger moral issues, such as bystanders, xenophobia, and the destruction of symbols, both physical and emotional.

What Was the Event Known as the Kristallnacht pogrom?

November 9-10, 2008 marked the 70th anniversary of the Kristallnacht pogrom, literally “night of broken glass” or “night of crystal.” It was on that night and the following day in 1938 that violence was unleashed against Jews in the German Reich (Germany, Austria, and areas of the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia), signifying a pivotal turn in history. By the end of the pogrom [a riot or massacre against Jews], some 1,000 synagogues had been burned, Jewish property had been damaged, Jewish ritual objects and cemeteries desecrated, 30,000 Jewish men had been arrested and sent to concentration camps, and 91 Jews were dead.

Instigated by Nazi Party officials, members of the SA and Hitler Youth, German officials attributed this “spontaneous” public attack to the assassination of Ernst vom Rath, a German embassy official stationed in Paris. Herschel Grynszpan, a 17-year-old Polish Jew whose parents had been expelled from Germany, had shot the diplomat on November 7, 1938. Vom Rath died from his wounds on November 9, which happened to coincide with the anniversary of the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch, an important date on the National Socialist calendar. At a gathering of Nazi Party officials, Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, a chief coordinator of the pogrom, made it known that “the Führer has decided that... demonstrations should not be prepared or organized by the Party, but insofar as they erupt spontaneously, they are not to be hampered.” [1] The violence lasted one day, after which the Jewish community was forced to pay a fine of one billion reichsmarks, and the Germans set up a Central Office for Jewish Emigration to "encourage" Jews to leave the country.

In the aftermath of the Kristallnacht pogrom, the German government enacted antisemitic laws and decrees that deprived Jews of their property, expelled Jewish children from non-Jewish schools, prohibited Jews from holding a driver’s license or owning an automobile, and forbade Jews from entering theaters, cinemas, and concert halls. Despite these decrees, which in many ways led up to the Kristallnacht pogrom, the event came as a shock to the Jewish community, as well as to surrounding countries. In current scholarship, the Kristallnacht pogrom is largely seen as a precursor to the Holocaust and as a foreshadowing of what was to come.

Why Teach About the Kristallnacht Pogrom? Why is this Event Significant?

The events of the Kristallnacht pogrom represent one of the most important turning points in anti-Jewish Nazi policy. Throughout the 19th century, Germany’s Jews underwent a process of accelerated urbanization, found their way into the German middle class, and some even became central figures in German economic life. In 1921, Jacob Wasserman, a German Jew, wrote, “I am both a German and a Jew equally; one must not separate one from the other.” Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in 1933, thereby beginning the Third Reich. Over the course of the following months, the antisemitic Nazi Party took over the government, arrested political enemies, and Hitler became dictator through an Enabling Act, which effectively ended democracy in Germany. However, Jewish life, for the most part, remained stable and continued to thrive. The following is a quotation that highlights German-Jewish life prior to 1935. It is taken from Through Our Eyes, a compilation of testimonies including those from German-Jewish children.

“Winter in Gerresheim was particularly a happy time... I loved to watch the first snow falling: large grey flakes from behind the window-pane, settling soundlessly on branches, fences, and streetlamps. I loved the sense of warmth and safety it engendered...”
– Hannele Zuerndorfer [2]

Recollections of German-Jewish children can be used in the classroom to depict the good standing that Jews felt in Germany prior to Hitler’s rise to power and his enactment of anti-Jewish laws. In addition to the prosperous and equal life that Germany’s Jews lived, they were also free to build large and magnificent synagogues, feeling confident as Jews, with no need to hide their religion in the wider community.

As the Nazi Party became more powerful, it enacted anti-Jewish policies. It was forbidden for Jews to read a newspaper, to listen to the radio, and for three Jewish people to stand together.[3] In September, 1935 the Nuremberg Laws were passed, using a “scientific” basis for racial discrimination against Jews. Aryans were now forbidden to marry Jews, to employ Jews, and to raise the German flag. Violation of any of these laws could result in imprisonment, a fine, or forced labor. Many German Jews began leaving Germany, while many chose to stay, reasoning that it had been their home for generations.

Over the course of the next several years, the position of Jews in Germany deteriorated considerably. The situation became increasingly violent and discriminatory, and the realization that German Jews would not be safe in their homes came in November 1938, following the Kristallnacht pogrom. The Kristallnacht pogrom was the first time there was physical destruction aimed at the Jewish community. The destruction of synagogues and other Jewish institutions and the burning of Jewish books and Torah scrolls signified not only the physical destruction of Jewish life in Germany. It was also indicative of the destruction of the dream that German Jews held and had largely achieved.

For those reasons, the Kristallnacht pogrom came as a shock. Jews witnessed the destruction of their most precious items, and began to understand that they had lost everything.

The devastation of this event is significant, and what it symbolized for German Jewry proved to be deep and long lasting. Jews’ friends, colleagues, and neighbors mostly stood by and watched as synagogues were burned and Jewish businesses destroyed. The passivity of German citizens signaled to Nazi authorities that the German public was prepared for more violence and would likely continue to be silent.

Additionally, up until November, 1938, the German government tried to act according to rational, calculated antisemitism. A pogrom is an emotional response, complete with violence and hooliganism. It was also because of this type of shift in behavior that German Jews were shocked by the Kristallnacht pogrom.

What Themes can be Discussed in Connection with the Kristallnacht Pogrom in the Classroom?

1. Remaining Silent in the Face of Violence
While the majority of German citizens were bystanders to the Kristallnacht pogrom and did not try to prevent the vandalism and destruction, there were three German villages (Warmsried, Derching, and Laimering) where parish priests and mayors prevented a pogrom on the night of the Kristallnacht pogrom. As was mentioned above, as of the 1930s, Jews in Germany were highly assimilated and integrated in secular German society. They held jobs as lawyers, doctors, professors, and businessmen. About 10,000 Jewish men volunteered for, and over 100,000 out of a total German-Jewish population of 550,000 served in the German army during World War I. Yet, German citizens, even those who did not actively participate in the riots, watched the destruction of homes, businesses, and synagogues, all of which belonged to their neighbors, friends, and colleagues. In discussing the subject of bystanders in the classroom, the teacher can facilitate discussions on both those who stood up in the face of evil and those who stood silent.

2. Ethnic Prejudice and Xenophobia
As an act of hatred and xenophobia, the Kristallnacht pogrom can be used to teach the effects of isolating and persecuting a minority population. While teaching the history of the event is important, students will more easily relate to this event when paired with an issue that has perhaps touched them personally or which they could imagine happening, such as ethnic discrimination. By emphasizing the point that this violent action organized by the German government targeted a group of people specifically because of their pseudo-scientific racial characteristics, the teacher can facilitate a discussion on tolerance and acceptance.

3. Symbolism
The Kristallnacht pogrom was an event that destroyed traditional Jewish symbols such as Torah scrolls, prayer books, and synagogues. Every individual, ethnic or religious community, group of friends, or even social club, values certain items as important and meaningful. Students can discuss objects such as these that hold tremendous meaning in their lives. Additionally, and arguably more significant, was the symbol that this event in its entirety represented for the future of Jews in Germany and its territories.

Introducing the Kristallnacht Pogrom in the Classroom

The Holocaust is an emotionally difficult subject to teach. There is also an abundance of complex historical information, which often overwhelms both teachers and students. Teaching the Holocaust through individual stories makes this subject more personal. Through video testimonies and quotations from diaries, teachers can help their students learn about specific individuals who lived through this event. In doing so, students can relate personally to the Kristallnacht pogrom by putting a “face to a name” and understanding that this happened to real people like them.

In their video testimonies, featured on the Yad Vashem website, Uri Ben Ari and Zwi Bacharach discuss their memories of the Kristallnacht pogrom. Both Ben Ari and Bacharach witnessed the destruction of their synagogues, the place in which they celebrated their bar mitzvahs and attended prayer services at least once a week. The synagogue was also the center of Jewish communal life, and this event marked a significant shift in the treatment of the Jewish community in Germany. Testimonies or visual history testimonies encourage students to consider how the Kristallnacht pogrom changed the lives of German and Austrian Jews who had felt tolerated “for the time being” in their homes and among their neighbors.

Through Our Eyes, the book mentioned above, can be used in the classroom to help students learn about the event. Presented below are a few personal stories relating to the Kristallnacht pogrom:

  • Fourteen-year-old Ruth Goldfein lived in the city of Danzig, which was in Germany in the 1930s. During the Kristallnacht pogrom she was at the local Jewish youth club playing table tennis. The club was in the room above the synagogue. Warned that Nazi thugs were waiting outside, she and her girlfriend Esther Goldman had the courage on the way out of the building to persuade a policeman standing there that an ambulance must be called for the caretaker of the synagogue, who had been taken ill.[4]
  • A German-Jewish girl named Vera Dahl was seventeen years old in 1938. She was in Aachen that day, taken by her father for an appointment in the hospital. “We went by tram – passed various Jewish shops on the way, partly very badly damaged, all windows broken or smashed, glass everywhere... shops were being looted as we passed. I was petrified... ” [5]

In addition to personal stories in books, there are several Pages of Testimony accessible through the Yad Vashem website that testify to Jews who were murdered by Nazis on November 9-10, 1938. These pages provide photographs and personal information that can be used to gain a better knowledge of individual people rather than a number or a group.

In using personal stories and photographs in the classroom, the teacher can better explain the Kristallnacht pogrom and its significance that allows us to mark the event seventy years later.

[1] Report of the Supreme Party Tribunal of the NSDAP to Goering, February 13, 1939, International Military Tribunal, vol. XXXII, pp. 21 f. (PS 3063).
[2] Itzhak B. Tatelbaum, Through Our Eyes: Children Witness the Holocaust, Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, 2004, p. 18.
[3] Through Our Eyes: Children Witness the Holocaust, 1993, p. 24.
[4] Martin Gilbert, Kristallnacht: Prelude to Destruction, (New York: Harper Collins, 2006), 88.
[5] Ibid., 76.
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