Seventy-five years have now passed since the infamous night known as “Kristallnacht,” when a wave of Nazi-orchestrated, pre-planned, deadly riots took place against Jews throughout Germany and Austria. On November 9–10, 1938, hundreds of shuls were set ablaze, and sifrei Torah and many other sefarim went up in flames.
Firefighters stood by — but only to ensure that the flames didn’t damage properties owned by Aryans. Homes were invaded and the Jewish owners were forced to wrap up and hand over their valuables. Jewish-owned businesses were ransacked, their windows shattered, and their contents looted.
Jewish hospitals, orphanages and old-age homes were attacked and their occupants forced out. SS thugs assaulted thousands of Jews and the Gestapo arrested 20,000–30,000 Jews, and sent them to concentration camps, marking the first such mass deportation.
According to the classic textbook Witness to History: “Kristallnacht was far more than a night of broken glass. It transformed Germany’s persecution of Jews from medieval-style legal oppression to willful and systematic violence. It inaugurated legalized public brutality as well as intensified discrimination and tragic defilement of Jewish sanctuaries and properties…”
While foreign countries blared fiery denunciations — and the United States even recalled its ambassador — they mostly stopped with words alone. A recent event sponsored and organized by Project Witness, titled “Am I My Brothers’s Keeper? Where Were We? America and the Holocaust,” recounted details of the indifference and apathy exhibited toward the plight of the Jews at the time.
Even after Kristallnacht, then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt wouldn’t consider changing the quota system that was preventing so many Jews from receiving visas to the United States, documents that could have saved their lives. For the most part, the quotas weren’t even filled, because American officials used layers of red tape and countless excuses to deny and indefinitely postpone visas to Jews fleeing the Nazis.
Within the Jewish community there were numerous heroic individuals who applied themselves with great devotion, even mesirus nefesh, to the hatzalah efforts. Tragically, many others failed to rise to the call of the hour. Caught up in their own lives, they looked the other way as millions of their brethren were killed.
As the world commemorates Kristallnacht, we must rededicate ourselves to the obligation of zachor, remembrance, as well as to our responsibility of arvus, and the fact that, indeed, we are our brothers’ keeper.