Seventy years ago tonight, hundreds of groups of marauding Germans were tearing through Berlin and other cities in Germany vandalizing, looting, and in many cases burning to the ground Jewish synagogues, businesses, and private homes. Later, this horrible night of terror would be called Kristallnacht, or the “Night of Broken Glass” because of the constant sound of the shattered storefront windows of the Jewish-owned businesses. German Jews had been suffering one indignity after another since the Nazis took power five years earlier, but Kristallnacht was a major turning point in what would soon lead to the expulsion and murder of millions of European Jews. During this well planned event, 30,000 Jews were arrested and sent to concentration camps, hundreds of ancient synagogues were destroyed and burned down, and thousands of Jewish businesses and homes were attacked.
It boggles my mind whenever I hear people say that German citizens and the rest of the world didn’t know what was happening to the Jews until after the war. The events of November 9, 1938, were fully reported in every newspaper on the planet and the Nazi officials in 1938, well before the start of World War II, made no bones about their plans to get rid of the Jews.
Following increased restrictions placed on Jews, the Nazis had been looking for an excuse to ramp up their persecution in a more organized and violent way. On November 7, 1938, a 17-year-old German-Jewish kid named Herschel Grynszpan, distraught over his family’s expulsion from Germany, walked into the German Embassy in Paris, pulled out a gun, and fired at a junior diplomat, Ernst vom Rath. The diplomat died of his wounds two days later which gave Joseph Goebbels just the opportunity he was looking for to set into motion a country-wide attack on Germany’s Jews and their property, all under the pretense of making the Jews pay for vom Rath’s death.
I just spent several hours pouring through the American newspaper accounts of this ugly night. (Hey, it's a beautiful day in Los Angeles, what else should I be doing?) Here are a few observations that came to mind as I read the articles.
Many people spoke up, others were shockingly silent. Goebbels, the Minister of Propaganda, initially got credit in the American press for stopping the mayhem and sending in the police to protect the Jews even while he defended the brutal attacks. “The justified and understandable anger of the German people over the cowardly Jewish murder of a German diplomat in Paris found extensive expression last night,” Goebbels said. “A final answer to the Jewish assassination will be given to Jewry by way of legislation and ordinance.” Reports of the crowds of onlookers included many people laughing and applauding, some seeming quite upset about what was happening and trying to help the Jewish business owners, and others shouting “Kill the Jews! Why not hang the owner of the store in the window!” A young American woman on the streets of Berlin that night said she saw one Jewish man dragged from his shop, chased by a crowd of German boys, and viciously beaten to death. She then saw a second Jew beaten by a single man as the crowd looked on and did nothing. Looting soon began everywhere. In some cases, Nazis gathered up items from the smashed store windows and threw them into the crowd, shouting “Here are some cheap Christmas presents.”
The first notes of protest were sounded by the executive committee of the World Jewish Congress in Geneva, who described the assassination of the German diplomat in Paris as a poor excuse for the Nazi campaign. In the U.S., there was no immediate comment on the incident from President Roosevelt. The first American officials to decry what happened were New York District Attorney Thomas E. Dewey and former Governor Alfred Smith who attacked Germany in a radio broadcast sponsored by the Anti-Nazi League to Champion Human Rights. Dewey said he wished to appeal to world opinion to rebuke a “dictatorship gone mad.”
“We stand appalled,” he said, “by the sight of what has happened in Nazi Germany. If you saw a gang of cowardly ruffians set upon a helpless man in the streets, and proceed to beat him, you would not long remain silent. If you saw a fanatical mob pillage and burn a church or synagogue, you would not long remain silent. If you saw a brutal band drive helpless families from their homes, you would speak out promptly. Multiply these incidents by thousands and you have the sickening spectable of Nazi Germany. No amount of lame explanation by the German Minister of Propaganda can make the picture any different.”
Other people who immediately spoke out included famous feminist Carrie Chapman Catt who sent telegrams to the State Department asking the government to protest the action. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Louis Bromfield wanted to help the fleeing Jews. He suggested that the Mexican peninsula of Baja California could be used as a haven for the persecuted people. Others proposed that up to a million Jews might seek refuge in Northern Rhodesia. The National Negro Congress asked President Roosevelt "to provide in America a free haven for the oppressed Jewish people." John P. Davis, national secretary of the congress, wired Mr. Roosevelt that "Negro people in America, representing a minority in our democracy, are deeply concerned over the inhuman barbarism being practiced on the Jewish minority in Nazi Germany."
“It is still my belief,” he added, “that the German people if they could express themselves would not approve these acts against the Jews. But as they cannot so express themselves it is the duty of men everywhere to express our indignation not alone at the suffering these men are imposing on an innocent people but at the blow they are striking at civilization itself.”
President Roosevelt finally weighed in on November 16th with a slightly guarded statement:
“The news of the past few days from Germany has deeply shocked public opinion in the United States. Such news from any part of the world would inevitably produce a similar profound reaction among American people in every part of the nation. I myself could scarcely believe that such things could occur in a 20th century civilization.”
And yet diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Germany were not severed. People like Dewey and Hoover (both Republicans, by the way) continued to speak out much more forcefully than Roosevelt or anyone in his administration.
World governments played right into Hitler’s hands, just as he predicted. In retrospect, Hitler and the Nazis seemed to be testing the waters in November 1938, and as they got away with one atrocity after another, their attacks on the Jewish population increased exponentially. In 1938, Hitler still claimed all of the Jews were free to leave and he encouraged the nations of the world to take them in if they cared about them so much. In the days following Kristallnacht, the Nazis continued to heap miseries on the remaining Jews of Germany. In addition to a boatload of new restrictions that affected all aspects of their lives, they fined them $400,000,000 for the vom Rath assassination and said the Jews had to pay for the repair all of their businesses and homes but that they were no longer allowed to own them. Oh, and any insurance settlements that were received as a result of the damages would go straight into Nazi coffers. Every day the Nazi government got bolder in stating exactly what they would do to the remaining Jews in Germany and German-controlled Austria. Jews across the country were desperate to get out, including the thousands of families whose homes were destroyed on November 9th and whose husbands and fathers were arrested. Daily, the refugees reached the borders of Germany and were systematically turned away by French, Belgian, Dutch, and Czech officials. American Jewish groups begged the U.S. government to let the Jews come to this country but American officials said that under no circumstances could they go beyond the current quota for German immigrants to this country. That quota was 30,000 people a year and by November 1938 it had already been reached.
Many people worked desperately to find a solution. In addition to negotiations to buy Baja California from Mexico for $10 million as a haven for the Jews, plans were drawn up for saving the imperiled people by shipping them to Alaska, Madagascar, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Australia, and several different countries in Africa. A wealthy woman in San Francisco actually offered 1500 acres of land she owned in Oregon for the refugees. Of course, none of these rescue plans ever got off the ground and despite some well-known exceptions here and there, the world basically turned its back on the Jews of Europe. Hitler rightfully blasted the United States and the other world powers for their hypocrisy.
Even Joseph P. Kennedy, the future President's father who was then the U.S. Ambassador to Britain and was not known for his love of Jewish people, tried to get the British government to help the Jews in the days following Kristallnacht. His pleas fell on deaf ears. The most he got out of them was a promise that the government would gladly give temporary shelter to German Jewish refugees providing the United States and other countries would provide permanent homes for them at a later date (which the U.S. refused to do and Kennedy didn’t push). Meanwhile, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was still trying to avoid war through appeasement with Nazi Germany and maintaining a cordial relationship with Adolf Hitler.
On November 14, a bunch of Jews ousted from their homes during Kristallnacht, reached the border of Holland and actually begged on their knees to be allowed into the country. They were turned away. Similar scenes occurred at the French and Belgian borders. The Czech government let a group of refugees in and then shipped them back to the Reich two days later. Throughout this crisis, Jewish leaders appealed to Britain to relax their restrictions for allowing Jews to enter Palestine. Again, the doors were shut. Hitler must have laughed himself silly.
Anti-Semitism was alive and well in the United States...and still is. In the midst of the public outcries following Kristallnacht, there were reports of increased anti-Semitic incidents right here in the U.S. At a huge meeting at Madison Square Garden in New York, thousands of members of the German-American Bund defended the activities of the German government and railed against world Jewry. American citizen Fritz Kuhn spoke to the crowd, calling FDR “Frank D. Rosenfeld” and proclaiming that “if the United States is to avoid communism, the Jews in this country must be driven from their high posts in government, finance, and education, as they have been in certain European countries.” In Los Angeles, famed evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson ignored protests from the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League and invited anti-Semitic Gerald B. Winrod to act as preacher at her Angelus Temple on the Sunday following Kristallnacht. Winrod was the leader of a group called the Defenders of the Christian Faith and in his sermon he condemned the “coterie of international Jewish bankers who ruled the Gentile world by the power of gold.” Winrod believed that Hitler would save the world from Communism and that Franklin Roosevelt was a devil linked to the Jewish-Communist conspiracy.
Winrod died in 1957 but his son and grandchildren are still going strong in their attempts to spread virulent anti-Semitism at their churches in Gainesville, Missouri, and southeast Alaska. To quote from a recent publication, if I can stomach it: “Every Jew is a pervert by religion…Reports in Jew dailies about child molesters are stories about Jews; for Jews are the child molesters. Without these sexual perversions, Judaism would perish! Jews entice Gentiles to sin by attacks of immorality. Then by ill-use of God’s Law, Jews turn these poor Gentiles, through guilt and despair, to hatred for God. Jews learn to hate God, and want to slay him. They murdered Him once, but not again; so they lust to kill and destroy His Christians, and all humanity, and all His creation. Judaism is the devil’s religion based on hatred for God, and perpetuated by the dark secret Talmudic doctrine of incest and sodomy of infants.” It goes on from there. Sigh.
I could continue but it’s too depressing. "We must not be silent about condemning anti-Semitism," German chancellor Angela Merkel declared today during 70th anniversary commemorations in Berlin. Merkel said that understanding the lessons of the nation's past were crucial in confronting the current increase in xenophobia and racism. Charlotte Knobloch, head of German's Central Council of Jews, told a gathering at Berlin's restored Rykestrasse Synagogue tonight that Germans must fight against far-right extremism in all its forms.
While many people in this country and abroad worked feverishly to help the Jews following Kristallnacht, they were unable to move their governments to act when there was still time. We eventually defeated the Nazis, of course, and liberated the death camps, but I truly believe the United States and other countries could have saved millions of lives if they had acted more forcefully. So let’s mark this seventieth anniversary by recognizing that there are still plenty of people, groups, and governments who would persecute and scapegoat certain segments of society. Let’s be careful to not to repeat what we did in 1938: express revulsion and then close our eyes super tight.