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The End of the Beginning and the Beginning of the End Remembering the November 1938 Pogroms Known as Kristallnacht

The End of the Beginning and the Beginning of the End Remembering the November 1938 Pogroms Known as Kristallnacht

 By Michael Berenbaum

Eighty years ago this week, a series of pogroms took place in Nazi Germany, which by then included Austria. More than 1,000 synagogues were burned, sacred Torah scrolls set aflame. More than 7,000 Jewish businesses were ransacked and 30,000 men age 16-60 were sent off to newly expanded German concentration camps. These pogroms were given a fancy name Kristallnacht.

Over the past 30 years the Germans continue to use the Kristallnacht but call it the Reich Pogroms of November 1938. Crystal is beautiful, the Reich’s pogroms were murderous state sanctioned violence against the Jews.

A word about the synagogues in Germany: There were 2,200 synagogues in Germany for 525,000 Jews. Those synagogues became part of the public presence of Jews in German society.  Often built in triangulation with the Cathedral and the Protestant Churches, they indicated that Germany was a pluralistic, multi religious community.

The Nazis were showing the most physical, the most public way imaginable how far they were willing to go, what price they were willing to pay, to tear the Jewish community out of the fabric of Germany,

Synagogues took on a unique function in Nazi Germany. On Monday synagogues became a theatre because Jewish actors could not perform on the German stage.  On Tuesday it became a symphony hall as Jewish musicians were dismissed from German orchestras. On Wednesday it became an opera house, because Opera Singers needed a place to earn a living. During the day, the synagogue served as a school, for Jewish children expelled from German schools. Their teachers were often professors, writers and artists struggling to survive in a new world. The art teacher might be a world class artist; the music instructor, a concert pianist. The Jewish school was the safest place for a Jewish child; yet the most dangerous part of the students’ day was walking to and from school. Harassment was routine, bullying was accepted.

Synagogues were a training center for a generation en route to exile, a welfare office and language center, a place where mobile professions could be learned. The problem was not that Jews did not want to leave. Their problem was that there was nowhere to go, at least not in numbers sufficient to absorb so large a population.

The synagogue was also a place where you taught Jews what it really was to be Jewish. Prayer took on new meaning, new urgency; rabbi’s sermons became a means to talk to fellow Jews in cryptic language to confuse the Gestapo censor.

In the aftermath of Kristallnacht, the Jews in Germany were left without their synagogues. Many had lost their businesses, their homes and freedom. The concentration camps of Buchenwald, Dachau and Sachsenhausen were overflowing with new Jewish inmates.

As the fury subsided, the pogrom was given a fancy name: “Kristallnacht” — Crystal Night.

Most Jews were without illusions. Jewish life in the Reich was no longer possible. They could not stay. They had nowhere to go!   

Germans too had learned important lessons. Because of the bourgeois sensibilities of the urbanized Germans, many opposed the events of Kristallnacht. The sloppiness of the pogroms and the explosive violence of the SA, were soon replaced by the cold, calculated, disciplined and controlled violence of the SS. They would dispose of the Jews out of the view of most Germans.

The American response to the 1938 pogroms was fascinating.  By 1938, America understood and had embodied the value of freedom of religion. No other event garnered such universal condemnation. From the extreme right to the extreme left, Catholics and Protestants alike  condemned the attacks on synagogues. The President called his ambassador home, the most powerful response of any of the leaders, but he didn’t sever diplomatic relations. But public opinion on the issue of immigration did not move by more than 3%.

Some Jews were so certain that events were only going to get worse that they sent their children to England, into the arms of strangers, on what became known as the Kindertransport. Ten thousand Jewish children were sent to England, many never saw their parents again. They wanted them to survive.

An effort to bring 20,000 children to the United States led by Senator Robert Wagner and Congresswoman Edith Rogers failed. The Congress feared that children would grow up and take American jobs.

By attacking the synagogue, the Nazis were attacking not only the heart and soul of the Jewish community, they were also attacking the institution that had responded to the catastrophe. The Nazis deprived Jews of anything roughly resembling a public life or a communal life and soon thereafter of life itself.

Dr. Michael Berenbaum is the was project director overseeing the creation of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the first director of its Research Institute .  Author/editor  of more than 20 books . American scholar, professor, rabbi, writer, and filmmaker, who specializes in the study of the Holocaust. He is director of the Sigi Ziering Institute: Exploring the Ethical and Religious Implications of the Holocaust at the American Jewish University (formerly the University of Judaism) where he is also a Professor of Jewish Studies.





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