I remember how a dozen years ago, a rash of arsons burned more than 30 Black churches, mostly in the Southern tier of the United States. In response, the Anti-Defamation League urged investigations by the Justice Department and published full-page ads in many of America's major newspapers deploring these acts, asking for letters of support that we passed on to the victimized congregations. We also established a Rebuild the Churches Fund. The response across America was heartening.
As Jews, we felt a special kinship with the victims of these arsons, because we lived with the memory of Kristallnacht - the Night of Broken Glass -- when ordinary Germans committed a so-called "spontaneous" pogrom against synagogues, Jewish shops, homes, hospitals, cemeteries, and against their fellow Jewish citizens. In response, the world was essentially silent.
Now, as we commemorate the 70th anniversary of that horrible and tragic event, some will regard it as ancient history. For some of you who lived through it, saw it, survived it, it was only just yesterday.
I was born after the event, so I must rely on the historians. The numbers may vary some, but no one doubts the overall picture, which is well documented. Throughout Germany and the recently annexed Austria, over 90 Jews were killed, others beaten and humiliated, some 30,000 male Jews were arrested and sent to concentration camps, over 1,000 synagogues were torched along with their Torah scrolls, Bibles, and prayer books, and some 7,000 Jewish shops and business were looted and destroyed. There are accounts of Jews being thrown out of windows. A wave of Jewish suicides followed the trauma of the event which shattered not only property, but for many Jews, their increasingly shaky sense of security.
The Nazis used the assassination of a minor German diplomat as a pretext to allow the venting of "popular anger" at the nation's Jews. Just before midnight on November 9, 1938, Gestapo Chief Heinrich Müller informed police by telegram that "in shortest order, actions against Jews and especially their synagogues will take place in all Germany. They are not to be interfered with." Exactly. The only time the fire brigades intervened was when nearby Aryan properties were under threat and police preferred arresting Jewish victims instead of halting the orgy of lawlessness.
There was now no doubt that the Nazis were no longer content to simply strip Jews of their legal rights, and in the immediate aftermath, German and Austrian Jews, and watchful Jews everywhere, would learn that while many newspapers and government officials around the world would decry the violence and barbarity of Kristallnacht, few governments were prepared to act.
The Nazis made quick work of the world's paralysis. They issued a decree to remove all Jews from the Germany economy, society, and culture. On November 12th, Hermann Göring initiated talks with German officials that led to the German-Jewish community being fined one-billion marks in order to pay for the damages of Kristallnacht and the Nazis seized money German insurance companies paid to the Jews for property damages.
On November 15th, all Jewish students were expelled from German schools and by December 3, the Reich decreed that all Jewish industries, shops, and businesses had to be "Aryanized."
It would, of course, be some time more before the Final Solution was enacted throughout Eastern Europe and all of the Reich. But already on November 9th Hitler told Göring that if war broke out, Germany "will first of all make sure of settling accounts with the Jews."
The Evian Conference that the Roosevelt administration had organized four months before, bringing together delegates from 32 countries to discuss the exploding Jewish refugee crisis, gave Hitler ample evidence that the world's democracies would not act to quell his thuggish actions against the Jews, for the delegates at Evian merely confirmed that none would liberalize their immigration quotas.
As in the infamous phrase used by the Swiss when they turned back fleeing Jews at their borders, the free world essentially said the boat is full. There was no room for Jewish refugees. Kristallnacht barely changed that attitude. There was a brief outcry, and then there was silence.
Let us remember and learn the lesson from that terrible silence.