Kristallnacht Lessons for the Present

Seventy-eight years ago, on November 9–10, 1938, a wave of Nazi-orchestrated, pre-planned deadly riots took place against Jews throughout Germany and Austria. Seventy-eight years have now passed since hundreds of shuls were set ablaze, sifrei Torah and many other sefarim went up in flames, and tens of thousands of Jews were arrested and brutally beaten in the infamous night known to history as “Kristallnacht.

The “Night of Broken Glass” was the terrifying culmination of five years of dread and uncertainty among German Jewry. Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 was followed by a rash of anti-Semitic decrees, including the prohibition of shechitah and banning Jews from civil service positions. The following year, 1934, was one of relative calm, and many Jews who had left Germany returned, believing that matters were improving or, at the very least, were not going to get worse. Yet a year later — in 1935 — their hopes were dashed with the implementation of the vicious Nuremberg laws, which turned the lives of German Jews into a nightmare. Nineteen-thirty-six was once again a year of relative calm, due to the fact that the Olympic Games were being staged in Berlin. By 1937, the situation worsened. Emigration became ever more difficult, as foreign countries closed their doors to Jews increasingly desperate to leave.

Firefighters stood by on Kristallnacht — but only to ensure that the flames did not 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, 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…”

What took place over five years in Germany, happened in a matter of months in Austria. The unthinkable had occurred. Formerly friendly neighbors and courteous business partners revealed themselves as ferocious anti-Semites. Nazis and their sympathizers were everywhere. A city which had been a relatively safe shelter for Jews had turned into a lion’s den. Two decades after they had been forced to flee their cities and towns during the “Great War,” many of the Galician Jews who had settled in Vienna found themselves homeless again when the Nazis drove them out of their homes and into the streets.

While foreign countries blared fiery denunciations — and the United States even recalled its ambassador to Germany — they mostly stopped with words alone. Even after Kristallnacht, then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt would not 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 were not even filled, because American officials used layers of red tape and countless excuses to deny and indefinitely postpone visas to Jews fleeing the Nazis.

This year, the American presidential elections took place on the anniversary of Kristallnacht. We are extremely grateful to live in a country that allows us to serve our Creator in peace and tranquility. But as those terrible events of 78 years ago remind us, we dare not take anything for granted.

This is an era of political upheaval and great uncertainty for all Americans. Though we are fortunate to live in a malchus shel chessed, the Jewish community is facing challenges in areas of religious freedom that would have been unimaginable only a few years ago.

It is time for all of us to open our eyes and recognize that only the Ribbono shel Olam knows what the next day will bring. As our history has repeatedly and so painfully taught us, what may seem unthinkable one day, may become grim reality on the morrow. The only thing we know for certain is that, ultimately, our fates are dependent on the infinite mercy of the Shomer Yisrael.