On Nov. 3, 1938, 17-year-old Hershel Grynszpan received a postcard from his 22-year-old sister Berta. In it, she described the terrible ordeals she and their brother and parents suffered from the moment they were ordered to report to Hanover’s City Hall. Ousted from their home by security police, they were among 17,000 Jews of Polish origin who, as per Hitler’s orders, had been expelled from Germany. Six months earlier, the Polish government declared their passports invalid, as they had lived outside Poland for more than five years. Now they were stateless. Deported by train, they were on the last leg of their journey driven through woods and fields until they reached Zbaszyn, just over the German-Polish border. Stranded and destitute, hungry and distressed, Berta begged Herschel’s help.
The next day, in a Yiddish newspaper, Herschel read about the terrible expulsion. He learned about the deplorable conditions in Zbaszyn, where people slept on the stone floor of the Polish border station or in nearby stables or makeshift barracks – a refugee camp set up by a Jewish aid committee. Some had been driven insane. Some committed suicide.
Hershel implored his uncle, with whom he was living in Paris, to please send money to his parents. But to what address? An argument ensued. On the night of Nov. 6, Herschel, with 320 francs in his pocket, checked into a cheap hotel. The next morning, he headed to a weapons store where he purchased a revolver and box of bullets. He took the metro to the Solferino station, and made his way to the German Embassy at 78 rue de Lille. Claiming he had an important document to deliver, he was shown to the office of Ernst vom Rath. At 9:45 a.m., Herschel shot the German Third Secretary. Vom Rath died two days later from wounds to his stomach and spleen.
On Nov. 9, at a gathering of Nazi party members (to commemorate the anniversary of Hitler’s 1923 Beer Hall Putsch), German Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels gave an impassioned speech, calling for attacks on Jewish communities across Germany, Austria and the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia. He dictated what German newspapers were to say: Grynszpan was a pawn in the world Jewish conspiracy; should vom Rath die, the Jews of Germany were to suffer grave consequences. He gave specific wording to be used in public messages (e.g., graffiti): “Revenge for the killing of vom Rath.” Reinhard Heydrich, Major General of the SS, issued detailed directives: Police officers and firefighters were to do nothing. Care was to be taken to ensure that no non-Jewish businesses, homes or people were harmed.
Over the course of the next 48 hours, Hitler’s Brownshirts destroyed more than 2,000 synagogues, burning or desecrating sacred objects and books along the way. They plundered 7,500 Jewish-owned homes, businesses and schools, murdered hundreds of Jews, and maimed hundreds more. They arrested 33,000 Jewish men, most of whom they sent to Sachsenhausen, Dachau, Buchenwald and other concentration camps. Civilians joined in the convulsive violence – taunting Jews and cheering the storm troopers.
Thousands of shattered windows littered the streets. Nazi officials thus called the night of Nov. 9-10 Kristallnacht (“Crystal Night” or “Night of the Broken Glass”). Blaming the victims for the damage, they imposed a fine of 1 billion reichsmarks ($400 million in 1938) on the Jewish community.
Did spontaneous and deadly riots erupt in response to an enraged teenager’s desperate act? Did Grynszpan’s deed spur Germany’s turn from antisemitic rhetoric and legislation to violent, anti-Jewish measures? Not by a long stretch. Nazi leaders had long wanted to rid the country of its Jews. Adolf Eichmann had suggested a brief, brutal, nationwide pogrom before Grynszpan, who had illegally immigrated to France, to an Orthodox enclave in Paris, ever heard about his parents being driven out “like dogs.”
Where else do we see evidence of an easy, direct, narrative serving as an excuse for murderous action on a large scale? I am not about to discuss single homicides that rerouted currents of history. Or manifestations of Jew-hatred through the ages, from the medieval blood libel to the fraudulent Protocols of the Elders of Zion. A look back of only a few months reminds us of the expansive and hateful agenda behind a normally limited (however charged) news story.
Why, from May 10 to May 21, did Hamas’s armed wing and other Palestinian armed groups fire nearly 4,400 rockets and mortars from Gaza towards Israeli population centers?
The Jerusalem story Hamas glommed on to includes the Jewish owners of properties in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem who sought to recover possession of their homes from tenants who haven’t paid rent for decades and who hold no proof of ownership. After a fraught, decades-long legal battle in which both the tenants and property owners received representation and due process, 28 Palestinian families appealed their pending evictions. (Jerusalem’s Magistrate Court determined they would have to leave; Jerusalem’s District Court upheld the decision, which was awaiting a final ruling by Israel’s Supreme Court.)
Both Jews and Palestinian Arabs have known the pain of having had to leave their homes – in territories that hold historical significance, places where their families have made their lives for generations. Israel’s liberal court abides by laws according Jews and Palestinian Arabs the same rights; anyone can request the return of sequestered property and make the case for its authorized release. Thousands of claims for compensation or land swaps have been successfully settled in Israel’s courts.
This time, Sheikh Jarrah, which for 2,000 years before 1949 was known as “Shimon HaTzadik” (“Simon the Righteous”), named for a famous rabbinical sage who was buried there, became a flashpoint. Between 1936 and 1938 and then again in 1948, the British assisted Arabs in expelling Jews from their homes in this neighborhood and that of Kfar Hashiloach in Jerusalem’s Silwan area. Never mind that Jewish organizations purchased land and built homes in these and other areas of Jerusalem during the Ottoman Empire and, subsequently, when the British controlled the region. Never mind that in 1949, the Arab League invaded these areas and captured the Old City of Jerusalem, vowing to “push the Jews into the sea.” And that after the Six-Day War in 1967, Israel, having gained back control of Jerusalem from Jordan, passed a law allowing Jews who could prove ownership of homes their families had been forced to leave to regain control of the property.
Now, a groundswell of support for the Palestinians being threatened with eviction escalated into tense riots on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. Violent clashes between Israeli police and Palestinian protesters centered around the Al Aqsa mosque compound, resulting in hundreds of injuries and a May 10 ultimatum issued by the leadership of a joint command of Palestinian armed movements: Arrested rioters must be released and Israel must withdraw its security forces from the Temple Mount compound and Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood by 6 p.m. Or, there will be a heavy price to pay.
Did a real estate dispute lead to Hamas’s efforts to kill as many Israelis as possible? To try to overwhelm Israel’s defense – Iron Dome batteries – by utilizing multiple rocket-launcher systems, by firing salvoes of up to 50 rockets at a time at more targets than could be simultaneously engaged?
Launching the weapons at a low trajectory, Hamas hoped to dodge Israel’s Iron Dome system, which nevertheless intercepted 1,500 rockets – some of limited range with small warheads; some large, made with the help of Iranians and able to strike cities 30 to 40 miles from Gaza. Ninety percent of the most threatening ones were taken down. Twelve civilians, including two children, were killed and dozens of others were injured. Not all of the 4,360 rockets and mortars made it to Israeli air space. Roughly one-third fell short, landing inside the Gaza Strip, killing and injuring an undetermined number of Palestinians.
As justification for the attack, Palestinian armed groups said, “We put Tel Aviv, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Beersheva and all the occupied cities, the usurped places and sites under fire, in response to the barbaric aggression against our people.” The alleged “aggressor” has not once started a war. All Israel has ever yearned for is peace. And for what purpose were those who do not recognize the legitimacy of the State of Israel stockpiling rockets?
Grynszpan shot a junior German diplomat. Owners of property in Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood sought to exercise their rights. These unrelated narratives both served as pretexts for murderous action on a large scale. The perpetrators in both cases were motivated by the desire to inflict as much harm as possible on the Jewish people, hoping that they would disappear from the region, if not from the face of the earth. Both the Nazis and Palestinian aggressors had ready plans; they waited for the right moment and an excuse for unleashing their respective forms of terror.
Both Kristallnacht and the bombarding of Israel with rockets belong on the eons-long timeline of vicious antisemitic actions. The world must realize not only the schemes of evil regimes, but also the connection between Kristallnacht, along with the pogroms before it and the horrors that came after, and the critical importance of Israel’s Iron Dome.
Bernice Lerner, author of “All the Horrors of War: A Jewish Girl, a British Doctor, and the Liberation of Bergen-Belsen,” is the former dean of adult learning at Hebrew College and a senior scholar at Boston University’s Center for Character and Social Responsibility.