Kristallnacht – November 9-10, 1938

On November 9–10, 1938, Nazi leaders unleashed a series of pogroms against the Jewish population in Germany and recently incorporated territories. This event came to be called Kristallnacht (The Night of Broken Glass) because of the shattered glass that littered the streets after the vandalism and destruction of Jewish-owned businesses, synagogues, and homes.

84 years ago today, the death of a German diplomat by a young Jewish man touched off a trail of destruction that spread across Germany, Austria, and areas of the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia.  Herschel Grynszpan, a Polish Jew who was only 17, shot Ernst vom Rath on November 7. A few days earlier, Grynszpan received news that his parents, residents in Germany since 1911, had been expelled from Germany along with thousands of Jews of Polish citizenship. They were stranded in a refugee camp on the border between Poland and Germany. Grynszpan, seeking revenge for his family’s precarious circumstances, went to the German embassy in Paris, and shot the diplomat, who died on November 9.

As a way to commemorate the tragic events of those days, I am sharing a portion of my forthcoming book, Nothing Really Bad Will Happen. The novel tells the story of my mother’s family whose livelihood was stolen from them when Hitler’s men seized the family business in the spring of 1938.

At this point in the story, the family business, LITAL, had been taken by the Nazis. My grandfather, Paul Lichtenthal had been transferred from the Dachau concentration camp to Buchenwald. My mother, Doris, and my grandmother, Rose had arrived in New York just a month earlier. My great-grandfather, Sigmund, and his wife, Rosa were the only members of the immediate family left in Vienna.

Chapter 12


“March of Sacrifice – March of Victory”

~Frontpage headline of the Wiener Zeitung newspaper, November 10, 1938

Vienna: November 9, 1938

After dinner, Sigmund and Rosa retired to the living room. Rosa made herself comfortable on the sofa as Sigmund tuned the radio to the evening news. The reporter’s voice was devoid of emotion as he delivered the shocking news.

“Following the assassination of the German diplomat Ernst vom Rath, violence has broken out all over Greater Germany. It is expected violence will spread as Jews will be made to atone for the act of one of their own.”

Rosa tightened her grip on the thick arm of the sofa, her voice quivering. “Perhaps it is time to leave, Sigmund. We have no business. We have no family here. We have little left on which to survive.”

They were the last members of their immediate family in Vienna. Their son Paul remained in Buchenwald; his emigration stalled. Their daughter, Valerie, had left for America with her husband, Paul Nebenzahl. Daughter-in-law Rose, and their only grandchild, Doris followed soon after.

“No. We are not leaving,” said Sigmund. Raising his voice, he said, “I will get my business back. Yes, this is bad. But it is simply retribution for the act of a coward. Once they punish the assassin, things will calm down. We have time.”

Sleep evaded Rosa that evening. Nightmarish scenes of homes burning, people being tortured, and Hitler ruling the world commandeered her dreams.

The couple woke the next morning to find Rosa’s nightmares had become reality. Previously unfathomable acts of horror were being enacted throughout the city. Outside the safety of their walls, they heard screaming and shouting. Sigmund opened the heavy damask drapes and looked out the window. A mob of young boys wearing white shirts—the Hitler-Youth—was running through the street. He heard the sounds of destruction; glass breaking, wood splintering. Then the eerie yellowish-orange glow suggesting fire.

Over the next twenty-four hours, violence against all those and all things Jewish escalated.

The frightened couple joined residents from other apartments who gathered to share what information they learned about the harrowing events.

“The city is in chaos. The SS, SA and police have received instructions to arrest all Jewish men aged between 18 and 60.” 

“A friend called me yesterday. They arrested her doctor and took everything in his home. Then they took him.”

“Leopoldstadt Temple has been destroyed. At 6 a.m. this morning, the Gestapo took over the building and set the synagogue’s interior on fire. The fire brigade couldn’t help because people formed a human chain around it, preventing them from extinguishing the blaze.”

“My friend was trying to buy some groceries. Suddenly, a band of boys rushed into the shop, knocked over shelves, took what they wanted, and ran out. More boys came and smashed all the windows. My friend ran home. All the windows of Jewish shops were broken and the sidewalk was covered with pieces of glass.”

Rosa stared at her neighbors. Some were visibly shaking. Others were crying. One woman was holding onto her husband for support. She glanced at Sigmund. No expression. What is he thinking? This is dangerous! We need to get out now!

As they climbed the stairs to their apartment, Rosa gathered her resolve. It is time to go. I must make him understand.

The reign of terror reminded Sigmund of the pogroms suffered by Jews throughout history. So many Jewish communities had disappeared over the centuries. Will these massacres ever end for us?

By the end of the November pogrom, raging mobs destroyed over forty prayer houses in Vienna and thousands of businesses closed. Almost 2000 people lost their apartments and close to 8,000 men were arrested.

A few days later, Rosa approached Sigmund as he sipped his morning orange juice. “Sigmund, we must talk about this. The situation here is getting very dangerous. Will you now consider leaving?”

Sigmund let out a long sigh and pushed himself from the table. Walking to the other end of the long table, he placed a hand on her shoulder. “I know you are afraid. But we are old. And we have nothing. What more can they take? Besides, I may convince Hans Mezera to help me with records for LITAL. We’ve known each other a long time. He is having his own problems trying to get a new business license for the branch at Favoritenstrasse.”

Contrary to her usual manner, Rosa did not yield to her husband’s decision. She handed him the morning paper. “Read what is happening now.”

The headline read, “Jews to Atone for Damages.”

Rosa watched her husband’s face as he continued reading. His eyes widened and his mouth fell open. His hands shook as he placed the newspaper on the dining room table. Sigmund ran his hands through his hair, unsure how to process the newest indignity heaped upon the Jews.

All Jews are required to re-register their assets with the Assets Transfer Agency and pay one-quarter to the state.

This was the final straw for Sigmund. Imagine being taxed to pay for damage done to you by the very same people who caused the damage!

“Well.” He paused, then cleared his throat. “It seems we are all to be punished for the damages done the last few days throughout Germany and Austria.” Austria had been annexed to Germany for months, but Sigmund still could not bring himself refer to Austria as a German land. “We are being required to pay one-quarter of our assets. It is a new tax. An atonement tax.”

“So, we have less, but must pay more? How can this be?” Rosa’s body suddenly felt heavy. She sank heavily into the overstuffed chair. Her stomach fluttered as she asked, “Are we able to pay it?”

“I don’t know.”

“Please, Sigmund. We must leave. People are desperate. I heard some are taking large doses of the sleeping pill, Veronal to commit suicide rather than be part of the suffering here.”

“Perhaps, for old people, it is a rational choice,” replied Sigmund.

“You cannot be serious!” Rosa jumped out of her chair, her eyes welling with tears. Who is this man? How can he suggest such a thing?

Seeing his wife so distraught softened Sigmund. “My dear Rosa, I did not mean to suggest that as a solution for us. Merely an observation that for some, it may be the best choice.”

At 63 years old, the Lichtenthals were forced to eke out an existence in a Vienna that was nothing like the place they had called home for 40 years. Sigmund spent much of his time attempting to get some restitution for his lost business. Each time, administrator Friedrich Kuen-Vechet or some other Nazi official refused his request to inspect the books. It became clear, even to the stubborn Sigmund, it was time to leave.

The family business, pre-1938.
My grandfather,m Paul Lichtenthal is standing with two unidentified women on the right.
Rosa and Simund Lichtenthal – 1950’s – USA

To be notified when my novel is published, please email me: The work is currently in the editing and revising stage, so it may be some time!

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