Thoughts about Kristallnacht — 80 years later
Just a few weeks ago, I, and all of us, were reminded of two incredible observances. As Jews, we were reminded that Kristallnacht, the night of the Broken Glass, occurred only 80 years ago. It was the beginning of the Holocaust, the night that Hitler and his henchmen destroyed every Temple in Germany and Austria the very same night, Nov. 9, 1938. It is not coincidence that we also observe Veterans Day, formerly called Armistice Day, on Nov. 11th. For in the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, World War I ended, the war which was supposed to end all wars.
Tragically, the world hasn’t learned very much since Nov. 11, 1918 — and it perhaps was Germany’s defeat in that war, and its subsequent humiliation at the negotiations in Versailles, that sprouted the seeds of hatred that grew into the Holocaust 20 years later.
In 24 hours of street violence and the days that followed, 91 Jews were killed and more than 30,000 were sent to concentration camps. Before most of them were released two to three months later, a thousand had been murdered, 244 of them in Buchenwald. Another 8,000 were evicted from Berlin: children from orphanages, patients from hospitals, elderly from old peoples’ homes. There were many suicides, 10 at least in Nuremberg; but it was forbidden to publish notices in the press.
During that time, bonfires were lit in every neighborhood where Jews lived. Prayer books, Torah scrolls, and countless volumes of philosophy, history, and poetry were torched. In hundreds of streets throughout Germany and Austria, Jews were chased, humiliated, reviled and beaten.
Not only because of the killings, however, nor because of the arrests or the suicides is Kristallnacht to be remembered. During that night, as well as breaking into tens of thousands of shops and homes, the storm troopers set fire to 191 synagogues in an attempt to eradicate all forms of Jewish life and learning. If it was thought that fire might endanger nearby buildings, the Nazi animals smashed the synagogues as thoroughly as possible with hammers and axes. The destruction of the synagogues led the Nazis to call that night the Kristallnacht, or “night of broken glass.” These words were chosen deliberately to mock and belittle the crime.
From Leipzig, the U.S. Consul David Buffum reported that the three main synagogues, which were set on fire simultaneously, “were irreparably gutted by flames.” At the Jewish cemetery, the Nazis uprooted tombstones and violated graves. Buffum also reported on the fate of the Jews who had been taken prisoner: “Having demolished dwellings and hurling most of the effects to the streets, the insatiably sadistic perpetrators threw many of the trembling inmates into a small stream that flows through the Zoological Park.”
While being marched to the synagogue in Leipzig, several Jews fell, only to be beaten until they couldn’t pick themselves up. Once inside the synagogue, the Jews were confronted by exuberant Nazi officers and SS men. After terrible scenes of humiliation, the Jews were led away. Within an hour, the synagogue was in flames.
No place where Jews still lived was immune to destruction. The Jews who had been seized during the Kristallnacht pogrom and sent to concentration camps experienced a foretaste of what the horror to come would be.
We remember Kristallnacht. The appalling resurgence of global anti-Semitism must invite a strong call for vigilance and unity to expose and defeat the monstrous force of this hate. Today, under the banner of “political correctness” and prejudice against Israel, the infectious virus of this worldwide hatred spreads.
We must ensure that there will never be another Kristallnacht. Only a strong united front around the ideals of democracy, freedom and a just peace, illuminated by the example of the small but brave State of Israel, will ensure that another Kristallnacht will never occur again, ever.
And let us remember our young American men and women who are giving their life’s blood throughout the Middle East and the entire world to defend our values of peace, democracy, freedom and tolerance, as they did a hundred years ago and throughout history.
Rabbi Jon Haddon is a resident of Danbury.