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SIDIC Periodical XXII - 1989/1-2
Fiftieth Anniversary of Kristallnacht (Pages 19 - 22)

Other articles from this issue | Version in English | Version in French

Who is my Neighbour?
John Foster


"The days are distinct: the night has no name". Elias Canetti wrote this aphorism in 1942. The Nazi tide was in full flood across Europe; the work of Auschwitz had begun. This night had no name; it seemed never-ending; it was unfathomable, beyond imagination.

We know what Canetti meant and yet we also know that some nights are distinct; they are not like any other night. The night of Passover, the night of Easter — these we know and name and celebrate because in them light shines out of darkness; they lead from captivity to freedom; they overthrow the nature of night itself. So we believe.

There are still other nights where the darkness is unrelieved, which gives no hint of dawn: and these also have a name. Such a night was the Reichskristallnacht. A magical name, so much more sparkling, more brilliant than its prosaic English equivalent— the night of broken glass. And so much more cynical. Who coined itno one knows. It has passed into our vocabulary — but it is a word devoid of sympathy, an image which presents the events of that night as a diverting spectacle, as if it were a gigantic display of fireworks. It does not name them for what they were: arson, looting, murder. So with good reason some historians suggest that we refrain from using the term Kristallnacht, and refer instead to theblunt reality of the pogrom of November 1938.

They may be right. But there is a sense in which the word Kristaf Maeht, with its paradoxical play of images, can be made to work for us. On all sides round the broken glass and burning synagogues; yet, to borrow Milton's words, "from those flames no light, but rather darkness visible". Kristallnacht made plain what was before shadowy and obscure; it smashed through rules and constraints on which a civilized society depends for its existence; it translated propaganda into the reality of a new Nazi order; it extinguished hope.

It began with the assassination of a German diplomat in Paris. Herschel Grynszpan's act of revenge was personal; it was the price he would make the Nazis pay for deporting his family, and 12,000 other Polish Jews from Germany. Those gun shots in the German Embassy sparked off a chain of events whose perverse logic had the quality of a nightmare.

For the murder of one representative of Hitler's Reich, 350,000 German Jews would be made to atone. The decision was taken by Goebbels— apparently in collaboration with Hitler — at a celebration in Munich, where the Nazi faithful had met to keep the anniversary of their failed Beer Hall putsch in 1923. The date was November 9: a date which once had marked the collapse of Imperial Germany in 1918, and the birthpangs of a liberal republic in which German Jews would finally be full and equal citizens.

From Munich word went out to S.A. troops all over Germany; within hours they attacked the synagogues, rampaging, smashing and setting them in flames. In many places the rabbi was dragged from his bed to witness the spectacle. In Baden-Baden a member of the congregation was made to read from Hitler's Mein Kampf before they fired the synagogue. In one Franconian village a Jewish woman who tried to save the ritual objects from the fire was murdered by children, who then played catch with the prayer books. "But this is the house of God", said one bystander in Berlin, outside the burning synagogue. To which the reply came back: The Jews should be burning also.

The fire brigades were called out. But they did nothing to extinguish the fires. The report of the American Consul in Leipzig tells a typical story.
"One of the largest clothing stores in the heart of the city was destroyed by incendiary bombs, only the charred walls and gutted roof have been left standing. As was the case with the synagogues, the fire brigade made no attempt to extinguish the fire, although there was a certain amount of apprehension for adjacent property, for the walls of a coffee house next door were covered with asbestos and sprayed by the doughty firemen. It is extremely difficult to believe, but the owners of the clothing store were actually charged with setting the fire, and on that basis were dragged from their beds at 6.00 a.m. and clapped into prison".

There was a lot that happened on that night that was difficult to believe. In many places the police were conspicuously absent; but where they were present, it was Jews who were arrested. In the days after the pogrom about 30,000 male Jews, mostly well-off, were rounded up and brought to concentration camps at Sachsenhausen, Dachau and Buchenwald. The last train stop before Buchenwald was Weimar – the city of Geothe and Schiller, as many of the prisoners involuntarily recalled. And from there they were taken in trucks to the camp –in Buchenwald, a place whose name evokes one of the great beauties of a German landscape – a beech forest–transformed here into a torture chamber and killing ground. The Jews, it was decreed, should be forced to emigrate, and release from the camps depended on consenting to this demand. Small wonder then that the American Consul reported on 21 November that his consulate had been "a bedlam of humanity for the past ten days, most of the visitors being desperate women, as their husbands andsons had been taken to concentration camps". They needed visas.

Meanwhile, for the government authorities there was the problem of repairing the extensive damage to shops and residences. The plate glass used in shop windows was manufactured in Belgium, and the amount needed – to be paid for in precious foreign currency – was equal to half the annual production of the entire Belgian glass industry. The Jews, it was decided, should pay, and so a massive fine was imposed on the Jewish community.

In the larger context of Nazi oppression, Kristallnacht remains distinct, because it was in that moment that the German Jews knew they had no future in Germany. What place could there be for them under a regime where the crime of one man must be atoned by so many, when sacrilege was sanctioned as an act of state, where firemen did not put out fires and where policemen did not protect, where a great cultural landmark became a staging post on the way to a concentration camp, and where language itself was made opaque tinder the weight of new meanings it was forced to express, or to conceal. Until1938 there had still been time. Some still hoped to live out a diminished existence in Germany; others prepared to leave when they were ready. Now there was no time. The darkness was visible.

In the hundreds of eye-witness accounts of what happened that night, the burning of the synagogues is mostly described as a prelude to the horrors of the concentration camps. Details of the days and weeks in those camps are clearly remembered; for the individual prisoners the experience was indelible. But for us who commemorate these events fifty years later, who have read and heard so much of the theory and practice of hell, it is difficult to respond to the brutality of the camps with the sharp and urgent attention they demand. Our images of the camp world blur; the particularity of suffering disappears beneath the sheer weight of numbers; one atrocity seems no more credible than the next. And so, when we think of Kristallnacht, our imagination seeks a more definite focus. It fastens on those innumerable photographs of the synagogues, with the flames leaping from the cupolas, smoke billowing from the arches of the shattered windows and the crowds of gaping bystanders.

Why are these photographs so livening? Even from this distance we are drawn to the spectacle, and astonished by its audacity. Even without the S.A. and S.S. men who appear in the background, we sense that we are confronting here the essential face of Nazism. For it was with fire that the Nazis eliminated their victims. The Weimar Republic was dissolved in fire when the Reichstag burned in 1933. In May of that year books were consigned to the flames. Now the synagogues. And in due course, the people themselves who had built and worshipped and married and mourned in those buildings.

It is worth dwelling for a moment on the synagogues. They were symbols of the Jewish presence in Germany. They were also, more precisely, signs of that extraordinary German-Jewish symbiosis which –for all the reservations of Gershon Scholem – had contributed so much brilliance and energy to German culture. In the middle years of the nineteenth century, in the first flush of optimism which accompanied their emancipation, Jewish communities adopted a Moorish architectural style for the new synagogue. These exotic buildings, crowned with semi-oriental domes and sometimes lavishly decorated, like the great synagogue in the Oranienburgerstrasse in Berlin were intended were confident statements, both of the distinctiveness of the Jewish religion, and of Jewish aspirations to equality as citizens. During the 1880's the architectural style began to change. In response to a disturbing revival of anti-semitic sentiment, architects sought a less flamboyant style, which they found in a massive interpretation of the Romanesque – solid, determined and appropriately religious, yet without the essentially ecclesiastical mood that Gothic suggested. By the 1920's, the decade of the Bauhaus and of Walter Gropius, German synagogue architecture made a break-through to a modem idiom. One of the last synagogues to be built, the new Hamburg Temple, was completed in 1931. It was uncompromisingly modem, cubist in inspiration, with clean, solid walls and a flatroof-line– a deliberate statement of the progressive ideals of the Hamburg reform community. The architecture was at once German, Jewish and international, and not surprisingly it earned the immediate animosity of right-wing architects and neo-Germanic ideologies who associated modernity with what theycalled "the corrupting Jewish intellect".

The synagogues were symbols of a Jewish presence in Germany; they were signs and products of a German-Jewish cultural symbiosis; but they were also understood as pledges for the future. This was a common theme in the speeches which were invariably made at the dedication and opening of synagogues. In Regensburg, for example, the original synagogue, which had been demolished when the Jews were expelled during the turmoil of the Reformation in 1525, was finally replaced in 1912. At the ceremonial opening the events of that ancient pogrom were recalled, and the rabbi, the mayor and the bishop all committed themselves –"in these happier times", as they said – to a future of civic and religious harmony. Only twenty-six years later, on Kristallnacht, the building was gutted. It was the same all over Germany.

Where then were the mayors and the bishops? Since 1933 the mayors, of course, were Nazis. But the bishops? One of the most shameful facts associated with the Kristallnacht is the silence of the churches. There were a few courageous protests to be heard, like the sermon of a Protestant pastor in a small village in Wurttemberg. "Who would have thought", he asked his congregation, "that one single crime in Paris would have resulted in so many crimes being committed here in Germany? Churches, houses of God holy to others, have been burned down with the perpetrators going unpunished. Men who served our country faithfully and fulfilled their duty conscientiously, have been thrown into concentration camps simply because they belong to another race". At the heart of the Reich itself, in Berlin's St Hedwig's Cathedral, Canon Lichtenberg began his public protest of prayer for the Jewish people. which led in due course to hisdeath at Auschwitz. In a small village near Ochsenfurt on the Main, Catholics demonstratively undertook a pilgrimage to a destroyed synagogue on the Sunday only four days after the pogrom. But the bishops and church authorities said nothing.

The gravity of their silence is all the more profound when we recall that the pogrom was, in fact, unpopular with the mass of the German people. Some were moved by sympathy for the victims; many more were unsettled by the violence, the disorder and the wasteful destruction of property. if ever there was a time when the Church could have spoken effectively, this was it. And yet the moment passed.

The leaders of the churches were trained to be prudent rather than prophetic. They were also frightened men, but they were willing to fight the regime on their own ground and for principles they held dear. Immediately after the Kristallnacht, and in a typical example of the radicalizing effect, the National Socialist Teachers' Association called on its members to refrain from teaching religion in schools because they could no longer tolerate "the glorification of the criminal Jewish people in German schools". This referred, of course, to the teaching of the Christian religion, which they found objectionable because of its Jewish saviour, its Jewish apostles, and its use of the Jewish scriptures. On 16th November, only a week after the pogrom, Cardince Bertram, as Chairman of the German Bishops' Conference, protested vigorously to the Minister of Education. "Everywhere", he wrote, "it is being argued that teachers should not give religious instruction because they do not wish to glorify the representative figures of apeople which is filled with hate forGermany, orbecause Judaism is glorified by Christianity. Anyone who knows what the Catholic faith means will know that this is false; it is the opposite of the truth. Instruction in the Catholic religion does not deal with the history of the Jewish people, but with the history of the divine revelation. Its sole theme is God and God's plan of salvation, in which the fate of the Jewish people is also fulfiller.

Bertram's defence of religious teaching was honourable but his arguments were shabby. What, one wonders, did he understand by that phrase "the fate of the Jewish people"? Had he not heard that the Catholic faith also meant resisting injustice, standing with the persecuted, succouring the needy? Did he not know that there is a need for salvation in this world as well as the next? How was it that a simple village congregation, with its silent pilgrimage to a burned-out synagogue, could know these things which were hidden from the Cardinal?

The reaction of the churches in Germany was, in essence, no different from reactions everywhere in the western world. After Kristallnacht, emigration was a matter of supreme urgency: but where would 350,000 German and Austrian Jews find refuge? The Evian conference in July 1938 had achieved nothing in the way of a solution to the problem of the refugees, and now the situation was more desperate. Country after country refused to relax its restrictions on immigration. There were always good reasons — the high rate of unemployment, the risk of increased anti-semitism in the host country, the alleged difficulty of assimilating impoverished German Jews. These are arguments which have a familiar ring, except that today mooted restriction to our immigration policy are couched in sociological language and presented as an issue of "social cohesion.. In 1939, in comparative international terms the Australian quote of 15,000refugees over three years was relatively liberal. In terms of the need, it was negligible, Much more could have been done, if only by easing the property and occupational qualifications on which the immigration authorities insisted.

Between the November days and the outbreak of war, 115,000 German Jews were able to flee. Before the Nazis finally halted emigration in October 1941 another 25,000 escaped. For the 164,000 who remained there was little hope. Many were elderly or infirm, deprived now of the assistance of their families, and cut off from escape, except into death. There were some who resisted the deportation orders and whom the sheer will to live drove into an underground existence in a desperate and dangerous bid to survive. For this kind of existence they needed support, and assistance of people willing to put their own lives at risk. There were such people, especially in Berlin—relatives, old friends, former servants or work colleagues. There were also spies, even a handful of Jewish spies, and the ever increasing surveillance of the Gestapo. It is estimated that in 1943 some 5,000 German Jews were still surviving in the underground. At the end of the war, 1,402 emerged into the daylight.

I chose for the tide of this reflection 'Who is my neighbour?". It is a question which was put to Jesus of Nazareth. He responded with the famous parable of the Good Samaritan. "A man was going down to Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among thieves who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. Likewise a Levite... But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him he had compassion... and took care of him."

Some commentators have suggested that this story, as Luke presents it in his gospel, has an anti-Jewish animus, because of the contrast between the good Samaritan and the legalistic priest and Levite. If this was the intention of Luke I do not know; it certainly cannot have been the intention of Jesus in the original telling of the story. Rather, it is usually understood as an exhortation to neighbourliness, to mercy without qualification, simply in response to need. It asks us to identify with the Samaritan, and to go and do likewise.

This is a moral obligation we all recognise. But if we turn the story round and identify with the victim, we find ourselves in more disturbing territory. For the man who was robbed and beaten, there was no necessary expectation of rescue at all. It was only by chance that the priest and the Levite came by, and by chance that the Samaritan came as well. For the victim on the road the answer to the question "Who is my neighbour?" might well have been, "I do not know", or still worse, "I have no neighbour".

This was the terrible prospect which faced the Jews of Germany after Kristallnacht. Some did indeed have neighbours — welfare organizations, relief agencies, chance business acquaintances, relatives abroad who could open the way to emigration. But for those who remained, trapped, there was no neighbour. This meant they would die. Is it for them that the lights will burn through the night in the synagogues and churches of Melbourne on November 91h? Is it for the millions who perished in the whirlwind for which Kristallnacht prepared the way? Or is it for ourselves, and for the day when we might have to ask: Who is my neighbour?

* John Foster, Ph.D. MA. teaches modern German history at the University of Melbourne. His particular research interest is the history of the Jews in Germany. He has worked at Jewish and other archives in Germany, Poland, Israel and America. Locally, he has contributed to community projects such as the Holocaust Exhibition of
1980 and some exhibitions in the Jewish Museum. Two recently completed books deal with German Jewish refugees in Melbourne and a history of the Jewish community in Regensburg. He is a member of the Anglican Synod and a Churchwarden of the Anglican parish of North Melbourne.
This address was given an the fiftieth anniversary of Kristallnachtin Melbourne, Australia.


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