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A Kristallnacht lesson

Hitler read the world's silence after the 1936 atrocity as a green light to carry out his murderous plans
Woman and child passing smashed shop windows after Kristallnacht in Magdeburg, Germany, November 1938. (Bundesarchiv/Friedrich, H./CC-BY-SA 3.0)
Woman and child passing smashed shop windows after Kristallnacht in Magdeburg, Germany, November 1938. (Bundesarchiv/Friedrich, H./CC-BY-SA 3.0)

As we commemorate the 80th anniversary of the carnage known historically as Kristallnacht, orchestrated by the Nazi regime, we are faced with another horrendous attack on innocent Jews, this time by a lone psychotic anti-Semite targeting Jews at prayer in a Pittsburgh synagogue.

Let us reflect on the significance of this large, government-staged pogrom on November 9-10, 1938 targeting the Jewish population across Germany, including the annexed regions of Austria and the Czech Sudetenland. Jewish homes and businesses were vandalized, 270 synagogues destroyed, close to 100 persons killed, and 30,000 Jewish men carted off to concentration camps. In the context of the atrocities committed during the height of the Holocaust, these figures may be appalling, but, perhaps not shocking. Taking a step back, it is important to acknowledge that this did not take place with the backdrop of the Holocaust, but rather in the midst of civilized and still at peace Europe. If anyone, up to then, had doubts as to how far the Nazi regime would go to force all Jews out of the country by the use of acts of terror, the violent physical attacks of Kristallnacht left no one further in doubt about the intentions of Hitler and his henchmen. It also left no doubts about the anemic pushback from the international community.

Kristallnacht can be seen not just as a horrid day in history that foreshadowed the attitudes and events of the Holocaust, but also as a testing of limits to observe both if and how the international community would take action. Sadly, the response of the Western democratic nations to this flagrant challenge to the very foundations of humanity was not forthcoming. The Evian Conference, held July 1938 convening 32 nations, was unable to form a unified response to accommodate Jewish refugees fleeing persecution, and signaled to the Nazis that the world’s countries were sympathetic, but not prepared to open their own doors to Jews.

Months after Kristallnacht, several events only heightened this conviction in the mind of Hitler. In May 1939, the St. Louis boat with a cargo of more than 900 Jews confirmed for emigration to the United States was denied landing off the coast of Florida. The boat was forced to return its human cargo to the shores of Europe; many of these passengers were later engulfed in the Holocaust. That same year, following the Kindertransport example of England, Senator Robert F. Wagner of New York and Representative Edith Rogers of Massachusetts failed to have Congress approve a bill to allow 20,000 Jewish children from Germany access to the United States. Even with the assurance that the Jewish community would be solely responsible for bearing the cost of hosting and caring for the children, the US government refused to intervene. That same year, US Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes, proposed allowing Jewish refugees into Alaska to help develop the natural resources of that territory, adding that it would not impinge US immigration laws, since these laws would not apply to the non-State Alaska. It would be both a humanitarian gesture as well as a boost to the economy of Alaska. It was rejected by the President.

All these aforementioned steps of refusal to save even a limited number of Jews were signals interpreted by the Nazi regime that, in spite of words of protest, the nations of the world were not invested in the welfare of Jews. For the Nazis it meant only one thing: that they could escalate their anti-Jewish measures beyond the large-scale pogrom of Kristallnacht to mass murder as publicly proclaimed by Hitler in January 1939 that indeed began in June 1941 when Germany invaded Russia.

In the words of the 18th century British political philosopher Edmund Burke, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” It is not intention nor discussion that brings strong enough repudiation for evil, but action. Kristallnacht was not just the start of organized violence against Jews in Germany—in fact, with a different international reaction, it could have been the end of it. Instead, it was the hall pass for such violence and hatred.

While it is easy to dismiss Kristallnacht as a different time, place, and political climate, we know all too well that anti-Semitism remains a dangerous force in our world and in our free nation. Let the anniversary of Kristallnacht be a reminder to the civilized world and younger generations to act against evil regimes who flout the elementary rules of civilized conduct before they cause untold damage, and hurt millions of innocent people.

About the Author
Dr. Mordecai Paldiel is the former director of the Department of the Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem from 1982 to 2007. He now teaches at Stern College for Women. Dr. Paldiel is a Holocaust survivor and the author of several books, including The Path of the Righteous: Gentile Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust published in 1993 by the KTAV Publishing House.
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