The Lessons of Kristallnacht

75 years after the Night of Broken Glass, Rollins reflects on the events of that night and what they mean for the future.

The Essenweinstrasse Synagogue in Nuremberg, Germany. (Photo courtesy of Yad Vashem) The Essenweinstrasse Synagogue in Nuremberg, Germany. (Photo courtesy of Yad Vashem) Sonja Marchesano remembers most vividly the boots—brown boots below brown pants and brown shirts—kicking in the door of her cousin’s apartment, roughing them up, demanding to know where her uncle was, throwing furniture out the window, and trashing the place. She remembers the fear, uncertainty, and anxiety; as a small child, she didn’t understand why these men were terrorizing them.

This was Kristallnacht, the beginning of the Holocaust, a violent pogrom the Nazi government unleashed on the Jews of Germany, Austria, and the Sudetenland on November 9 and 10, 1938. Marchesano was in kindergarten. Her uncle had taken her to school that morning because her mother was in the hospital giving birth. When he picked up young Marchesano that afternoon, the world as she’d known it had ended. He rushed her back to her cousin’s apartment and disappeared; the Nazis were looking for him. Marchesano’s father was captured and taken to a concentration camp, where he was held for 10 weeks. Her mother escaped the Nazis by jumping out of a hospital window, leaving her newborn behind.

Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass, was so named because of the shards of broken glass littering the streets from the shattered windows of synagogues and Jewish-owned businesses and homes—at least 267 synagogues in Germany, Austria, and the Sudetenland were destroyed, and some 7,500 businesses were vandalized. In all, at least 91 Jews throughout the Reich died during the pogroms; 30,000 Jewish males were, like Marchesano’s father, arrested and shipped off to prisons and concentration camps, where over the ensuing months, hundreds more would perish. There were untold numbers of rapes and assaults, and many suicides in the pogrom’s aftermath.

The ostensible cause of Kristallnacht was the assassination of a German diplomat at the hands of a Polish Jew in Paris, but that was merely pretext. At the highest levels of the regime, violence directed toward Jews was sanctioned. The National Socialist Party would not direct the violence, Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels said, but neither would it hinder it. After the mayhem, the Nazis laid the blame on the Jews themselves, fining them the modern equivalent of $400 million and confiscating their property damage insurance payments. The Nazis then forbade any Jewish businesses from reopening unless they were managed by non-Jews, banned Jewish children from attending school, and issued a decree forbidding Jews from selling goods or services anywhere in the Reich.

This marked the first time the Nazis violently targeted Jews simply for being Jews, and Kristallnacht became a symbol of the Nazis’ brutality and hatred. But more than that, it became a symbol of the world’s indifference. For even though the tales of “blackguardly assaults on defenseless and innocent people,” as one newspaper wrote at the time; and “insatiably sadistic perpetrators” committed all manner of vile acts, as a U.S. official told the State Department; and even though Kristallnacht aroused the anger of Americans and Western Europeans—as President Roosevelt said, “I myself could scarcely believe that such things could occur in a 20th-century civilization”—it produced nothing in the way of action.

“What started as hate speech, violence, and destruction culminated in the gas chambers, a systematic and ‘efficient’ method for exterminating millions of human beings,” says Yudit Kornberg Greenberg, George D. and Harriet W. Cornell professor of religion and director of the Jewish studies program at Rollins.

The world shrugged. The Holocaust ensued. It would take millions upon millions of deaths, both in the death camps and on the battlefields, for the evil of fascism to be defeated. And as the world remembers the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, it is incumbent on us not just to remember the human depravity, but also the inaction that enabled it.

One of the reasons Kristallnacht is such a seminal event in world history, says the Rev. Bryan Fulwider, a former fellow at the Winter Park Institute at Rollins and president of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida, is that it reminds us of the importance of standing with “communities who have traditionally been vulnerable, ostracized, or targeted by hate groups. This is an ongoing calling that we have to be diligent about.”

There are, as Fulwider points out, many places throughout the world where suspicion has escalated into hatred and violence: Darfur, Israel and Palestine, Pakistan and India, and Afghanistan, to name just a few. “Right here in the U.S., there are so many opportunities for us to get off track and begin to suspect our neighbor,” he adds, citing Islamic and gay communities. Even the recent George Zimmerman trial “reminds us there’s a lot of division in our community, and how quickly we can demonize the other. We’re never far from it. Human beings can easily get swept away by this kind of fear.”

Then again, Greenberg adds, while the Holocaust “was one of the darkest periods in human history … we must also remember acts of altruism, compassion, and love performed by courageous folks whose sense of morality remained intact, even in the midst of chaos and reversal of the moral order. Genocides around the world continue to target innocent men, women, and children and are our collective responsibility. Our moral obligation is not only to remember the past but also to respond to present acts of evil and pervasive human suffering.”

After his imprisonment, Marchesano’s father, like many of the surviving Jews, was released on the condition that he leave Germany immediately. And so less than 24 hours later, the family—including a baby tucked away in a wicker basket—was on a train bound for England, where they lived for the remainder of World War II. Later, Marchesano immigrated to Central Florida.

Looking back on those events from such a great distance, the lessons of Kristallnacht, she says, “are that we have to be aware of what’s going on and not have our heads in the sand, not to let it happen again.” And then her voice softens, becoming almost dispirited. “It’s happening all around us. I don’t think we’ve learned a lesson, have we?”