Next week we mark the solemn anniversary of Kristallnacht, the anti-Semitic whirlwind of murder, torture and destruction that struck hundreds of cities, towns and hamlets across Germany, Austria and the occupied Sudetenland on November 9-10, 1938.
Though “Kristallnacht” means simply “Crystal Night” in English, German historians eschew the name, which minimizes the terrorists’ pervasive butchery, an added crime one historian called “murder by euphemism.”
But semantics cannot disguise the devastation wrought with the murder of hundreds of Jewish people, brutalization of hundreds of thousands more, torching of Torah scrolls and synagogues, shattering of windows of Jewish-owned stores, and sacking of businesses, cemeteries, schools, old-age homes and orphanages.
This anniversary of the violence that led into the Holocaust also recalls an entire society complicit in the most horrific “ethnic cleansing” the world has ever known.
I have researched and documented hundreds of stories concerning heroism and survival in the face of the most depraved and evil campaign in human history. My work has focused primarily upon children wrenched from their parents so young they would not have survived had it not been for the righteous gentiles who harbored them.
But my initial search for heroes of Kristallnacht came up empty. Surely there must have been upright Germans who shielded their Jewish friends and neighbors from the angry mobs seeking them out. I felt compelled to find the “Schindlers” of Kristallnacht.
Sadly, my detailed research yielded only a pitiful, nameless few.
This sends an ominous message today, as Americans feel an increasing sense of division and enmity toward those with differing political views. Stress fissures are widening even between friends and coworkers, as name-calling and bigotry slides by, and tolerance recedes.
While the evil extremes of Nazi Germany go way beyond our current climate, its history shows how a civilized society can retreat toward uncivilized behavior. Far too many incredulous German Jews ignored or denied the warning signs evident in 1933 when the Nazis came to power. By Kristallnacht, it was too late for the 30,000 Jews, including the elderly, women and children, who were tortured, deported to concentration camps and often murdered. Factually, it was too late for any Jew that was left.
Tens of millions of Germans were presumably appalled by what they witnessed on November 9th and 10th. The pogrom was out in the open, and lasted through broad daylight in hundreds of communities with even the smallest number of Jewish residents. In the words of a Hitler Youth member, “After Kristallnacht, no German old enough to walk could ever plead ignorance of the persecution of the Jews, and no Jews could harbor any delusion that Hitler wanted Germany anything but Judenrein, clean of Jews.”
And yet I found one rescuer with a name, Father Bernhard Lichtenberg, who met his fate awaiting deportation to the Dachau concentration camp.
The rest leave only a wisp of identities, or none: A maid in Munich named Anna who arranged a taxi for her employer’s escape, and an architect in Würzberg named Gourdon who did not close his door when a Jewish friend snuck over seeking shelter. The greatest Kristallnacht deliverer I came across was a nameless Berlin businessman who quartered 11 Jewish men.
The dearth of known defenders occurs despite a desperate desire by Jews to honor their protectors. We know that Leopold Pfefferberg badgered every writer who entered his Los Angeles leather-goods store to write the story of his rescuer, Oskar Schindler. He finally persuaded Australian novelist Thomas Keneally (who had innocently entered the shop to buy a briefcase) to write the book that became known as Schindler’s List. Subsequently, Pfefferberg (Americanized to “Page”) pestered Steven Spielberg to turn the book into a movie. When the filmmaker was working on “Jurassic Park,” Page admonished, “Stop playing around with dinosaurs. I promise you, you’ll get an Oscar for Oskar.” (The film won seven Oscars, including Best Picture.)
In 1962 the Israeli Parliament enacted a law to recognize the “Righteous Among the Nations,” non-Jews who took great risks to save Jews during the Holocaust. Ever since, hundreds of employees and far more volunteers at Yad Vashem work assiduously to discover and recognize worthy individuals.
And yet, I never found the Schindler of Kristallnacht I was looking for. One scholar I consulted attributed my failure to a post-war reluctance to highlight acts of courage under Nazi dominion, so as not to incite passive collaborators who claimed nothing could be done.
Yet in the German population of the time, one would expect to find more resistance to evil than the far less than one-out-of-ten-million citizens who were identified. The answer cannot be that there were no upright people in Germany. Schindler was a dishonest businessman, a womanizer, a boozer and an opportunist. But when he saw the chance to conduct himself humanely, he did so.
Eighty-plus years later, as American political foes accuse opponents of lies and hurl epithets with little restraint, we should remember to stand up to incivility, and practice charity of spirit. The ultimate victims of denigration include not only its targets but we who abet and observe it.