Kristallnacht, the anniversary of which we marked just a few weeks ago, was, as Sir Martin Gilbert labeled it, the prelude to the Holocaust. Though “Kristallnacht” translates to “crystal night” in English, German historians eschew the name, which minimizes the terrorists’ pervasive butchery, resulting in yet an additional crime which one historian labeled “murder by euphemism.”
But semantics cannot disguise the devastation wrought by 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, pillaging of homes, and sacking of businesses, cemeteries, schools, old-age homes, and orphanages.
My personal Holocaust research has focused primarily upon children who would not have survived had it not been for the righteous gentiles who harbored them. Where were the righteous gentiles – the “Schindlers,” if you will – of Kristallnacht? My quest to answer this question revealed information I had not anticipated.
I briefly digress to highlight the relevance of this query in contemporary America where we feel increasing enmity toward those with differing political views. Stress fissures are widening, as name-calling and bigotry increase and tolerance recedes. Members of Congress feel no compunction in making overtly anti-Semitic statements, no different than MPs in the U.K. While the evil extremes of Nazi Germany go way beyond our current climate, history has taught us how a civilized society can descend toward uncivilized behavior.
By the night of November 9, 1938, it was already too late for the 30,000 Jews, including the elderly, women, and children, who were tortured, deported to concentration camps, and in many cases, murdered. Tens of millions of Germans were presumably appalled by what they witnessed on Kristallnacht. The pogrom was out in the open, and lasted through broad daylight in hundreds of communities, even those with the smallest number of Jewish residents. In the words of a Hitler Youth member, “[a]fter 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.”
Yet my search for the “Schindlers” of Kristallnacht yielded only a pitiful, nameless few. I found but one dissenter with a full 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 savior I encountered was a nameless Berlin businessman who quartered 11 Jewish men.
It is unlikely that the dearth of known defenders is a consequence of historical ignorance. Jews have a fierce desire 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. While 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 have worked assiduously to discover and recognize worthy individuals.
And yet, I never found the Schindler of Kristallnacht that I sought. One scholar I consulted attributed my failure to a post-war reluctance among Germans to highlight acts of courage under Nazi dominion, so as not to incite passive collaborators who claimed nothing could be done. The merits of this theory are beyond my wherewithal to evaluate, but the resultant statistics raise questions that are beyond man’s ken to comprehend.
Could there be no more resistance to evil than the far less than one-out-of-ten-million citizens 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.
So 81 years later, here is a universal lesson that will always be pertinent. 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. Among the victims of denigration include not only the intended targets, but we who observe and abet it with indifference.