Kristallnacht, 75 Years Later


Seventy-five years ago this weekend the world failed a test.

Throughout Germany and parts of Austria the Nazis carried out an extensive pogrom. There were attacks on Jewish individuals and sites on Nov. 9-10,1938, leaving at least 91 Jews dead, some 30,000 arrested and interned in concentration camps, and more than 1,000 synagogues and 7,000 Jewish-owned businesses destroyed.

Orchestrated by the Nazi Party’s SA paramilitary, ostensibly in retribution for the assassination of a German diplomat in Paris, Kristallnacht — the Night of Broken Glass, for the shards that littered countless German streets in the attacks’ aftermath — marked a turning point in the Third Reich’s persecution of its disenfranchised Jewish citizens. Historians have called it the end of the beginning and the beginning of the end.

The highly publicized attacks were a test of international conscience, seeing whether, and to what extent, governments would take action over the increasingly violent treatment of Germany’s Jewish minority.

The U.S. recalled its ambassador but did not cut off ties; words of protest were issued, but economic ties between most of the world and the land led by Adolf Hitler continued. Americans widely condemned the Nazi pogrom but did not ease restriction on immigration, which would have saved Jewish lives.

The Fuhrer had his answer. The relatively tepid international response gave Nazi Germany a green light to intensify what grew into the death camps and torture of the Final Solution.

Kristallnacht has come to be a symbol of the Holocaust or pre-Holocaust era, spoken of with the same reverence as Auschwitz or Anne Frank.

If only the world had taken on the Nazis in November 1938.

In this anniversary year, memorial events abound. Kristallnacht, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in an interview posted last week on her website, was “one of the darkest moments in Germany’s history.”

The needs of Holocaust survivors go on and intensify. As we report in this issue, Selfhelp Community Services, the largest provider of comprehensive services to Holocaust survivors in North America, recently issued a study finding that while the number of survivors is steadily decreasing, the financial needs for the care of those who remain is increasing. UJA-Federation of New York recently reported that of the 73,000 Holocaust survivors in New York, more than half live at or below the poverty line and “will continue to need compassionate care to enjoy their remaining years with independence and dignity.”

This weekend is an appropriate time to remember the historical lesson and contemporary meaning of the dark night that led to nightmare for the Jews of Europe.