Kristallnacht — literally, “Night of Crystal,” is often referred to as the “Night of Broken Glass.” The name refers to the wave of violent anti-Jewish pogroms which took place on November 9 and 10, 1938 throughout Germany, annexed Austria, and in areas of the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia recently occupied by German troops. Instigated primarily by Nazi Party officials and members of the SA (Sturmabteilungen: literally Assault Detachments, but commonly known as Storm Troopers) and Hitler Youth, Kristallnacht owes its name to the shards of shattered glass that lined German streets in the wake of the pogrom-broken glass from the windows of synagogues, homes, and Jewish-owned businesses plundered and destroyed during the violence.
Each of my father’s parents had left Germany by November 1938, but they’d each left alone (they met and married here in New York). When I think of the Kristallnacht, I don’t think first of the encyclopedia definitions. I think instead of my grandmother’s stories, which she likely heard in full only after the war—a realization that somehow came to me only after my grandmother had passed away and I couldn’t ask her anything else. These were stories about her parents, who remained back in Germany in their apartment that night, and about her favorite uncle, Michael, who was taken to Dachau during Kristallnacht. He died there.
When I look at my writing, it’s a bit surprising even to me how many times Kristallnacht appears. For starters, it’s mentioned in at least two of my published poems to date: “Pünktlichkeit” and “Mannheim.”
In my forthcoming story collection, Quiet Americans, Kristallnacht also appears more than once, starting with its presence in the first story, “For Services Rendered,” where it is referenced but not specifically named: “But after November 9th—after nine of Berlin’s twelve synagogues were torched and children from the Jewish orphanages made homeless and more than one thousand Jewish men sent away from the city—well, so much had changed.” (It’s also alluded to in a remembered conversation between two of the main characters, but for those of you who haven’t yet read the story, I won’t reprint the passage here.)
Such references stem from what others have recorded, from researching/rechecking historical facts. But in another of the book’s stories—”Homecomings”—the depiction of Kristallnacht emerges from the more personal knowledge of what happened to my great-grandparents and their brother-in-law.
And for that, you’ll have to wait. Just a little longer.