I cannot let this week pass without discussing Kristallnacht or the “Night of the Broken Glass.” This column is for my children and grandchildren, so that they know and will never forget.
Annihilating the Jewish people throughout the world outranked anything else on Adolph Hitler’s agenda. Soon after he was elected Germany’s Chancellor in 1933, he championed extreme German nationalism and vitriolic anti-Semitism. To that end, Hitler and his henchmen began introducing policies that isolated and persecuted Jews, stripping them of rights, and culminating in the Nuremberg Laws. Jews were no longer citizens of Germany.
In November 1938, Herschel Grynszpan, a 17-year old Jew who had been living in France for several years, learned that his parents, who had been living in Germany since 1911 and where Herschel had been born, had been exiled without notice by the Nazis back to Poland together with tens of thousands of Polish-born Jews. Infuriated, Grynszpan shot to death in Paris a German diplomat named Ernst vom Rath on November 7th who succumbed to his wounds two days later.
Joseph Goebbels, Minister of Propaganda for Nazi Germany and Hitler’s close associate, seized this opportunity to rile Hitler’s supporters into an anti-Semitic frenzy. Goebbels’s announcement that mobs and anti-Jewish riots “would not be hampered” unleashed plans against the Jews that had long been in place. The infamous Kristallnacht ensued.
As a result, on November 9-10, Nazi mobs destroyed and torched hundreds of synagogues throughout Germany, annexed Austria and the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia, along with thousands of Jewish homes, schools, businesses, hospitals and cemeteries. Members of the SS and Hitler Youth beat and murdered Jews, broke into and wrecked Jewish homes, and brutalized Jewish women and children. Nazi officials ordered German police officers and firemen to do nothing as the riots raged and buildings burned. However, firefighters were allowed to extinguish blazes that threatened surrounding properties.
The streets of Jewish communities were littered with glass which gave rise to the name Night of the Broken Glass. Unbelievably, the crazed Nazis held the German Jewish community responsible for the damage and, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, imposed a collective fine of $400 million (in 1938 rates). Further, more than 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and sent to the Dachau, Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen concentration camps in Germany–camps that were specifically constructed to hold Jews, political prisoners and other perceived enemies of the Nazi state.
The reaction of the world outside Germany to Kristallnacht? There was shock and outrage and a storm of negative publicity in newspapers and among radio commentators.
U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt only took a position five days after hearing from Rabbi Stephen S. Wise that the pogrom was “far worse than you could know.” President Roosevelt’s condemnation was a mere four sentences: He said that “the news of the past few days from Germany” had “shocked public opinion,” and he “could scarcely believe that such things could occur in a 20th century civilization.” Note that he neglected to mention Hitler and the Nazi regime and the Jewish victims. Under pressure from Assistant Secretary of State George Messersmith who suggested that Roosevelt call the U.S. Ambassador back to Berlin for a report or America would “fall behind in public opinion,” Roosevelt called the ambassador home “for consultation.” However, there was no suspension or severance of U.S. relations with Nazi Germany.
Kristallnacht became a game changer. Whereas prior to November 1938, Nazi policies had been primarily nonviolent, afterwards, conditions for German Jews and all European Jews worsened exponentially. The culmination: The Holocaust or Shoah in which 6 million of our brethren were murdered, as well as millions of others.
Why is this year’s anniversary of Kristallnacht affecting me more than any previous one?
The hatred unleashed in today’s world knows no boundaries. Further, the “Holocaust Generation” who witnessed and gave voice to these horrors, are passing away, most recently and notably, Elie Wiesel and Rebbitzen Esther Jungreis. Their collective absence is creating a void being filled with anti-Semitism. With the death of each Holocaust witness and victim, the void grows. Interestingly, history has shown that Jews need not be present for anti-Semitism to flourish.
Our antidote to the growing hatred should be multi-pronged. First, our children and other generations must know about the Holocaust. They need to be equipped with facts about our destruction but also about our resistance and attempts at rescue. And they should know Jewish history. Civilizations have come and gone yet we are here.
Three years ago, Shimon Felder and his wife Miriam accompanied my wife and me on a trip to South Africa to visit my mother A”H. Long-time friends hosted us for Shabbes in Johannesburg. Their children and grandchildren were spellbound as Shimon, a former mayor of Lawrence and gifted storyteller, told them about his being a child in Bergen Belsen during the Holocaust. These educated and sophisticated people had little exposure to Holocaust survivors because the British had closed the doors to Jewish immigration to South Africa during World War II. Our friends and their family felt enriched by learning firsthand from a survivor.
Further, we need to be involved in society and our communities. Voting is a right and a privilege which we should exercise by participating in all elections (not just presidential ones) and becoming knowledgeable about issues. We should be involved in the political process. A prophylactic approach is best. This means concerning ourselves with issues and helping to shape responses so that we don’t wait for a crisis to brew and then we galvanize. It also means respecting those who may be different from us and working with them.
In addition, we should walk as knowledgeable Jews. We have contributed to society and world knowledge disproportionate to our numbers. Mi KeAmcha Yisrael. We have Baruch HaShem the Torah, the source of all life. Cleave onto it and hold on for dear life.
Most important, we should be proud to be Jewish.
The legal case of a friend and professional colleague who was sued by a disgruntled patient for alleged medical malpractice was just tried in a Manhattan courtroom. While preparing for trial, his nonreligious Jewish attorney suggested that he not wear his yarmulke during the trial. My friend responded that wearing a yarmulke is who he is. He then discussed this with his Rav who encouraged him to wear his yarmulke. The jury decided in his favor.
We must learn from history because we are not immune from it happening again.