Retelling Kristallnacht


I didn’t know how it would feel – if it would feel like anything at all – to mark the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht today. After all, we already commemorate the Shoah every year with song and ceremony. But it began to occur to me that while Yom Hashoah tells of destruction, which is one kind of story, Kristallnacht warns of danger – a different kind of story whose ending is uncertain. And perhaps this is a very good week to tell it.

On the night of November 9, 1938, Nazi storm troopers and German civilians rose up in a wave of violence against the Jews of Germany. This was not the beginning of the Shoah; it was not the beginning of Nazi rule in Germany. Hitler had come to power in 1933 on a Jew-hating platform, and immediately dug into the public work of further vilifying Jews and, by means of 1935’s Nuremberg laws, stripping them and Romani people of their citizenship, their right to marry Germans, and their right to hold jobs in public institutions. These years were terrifying for Jews, and hundreds of thousands fled, or tried to.

Then on November 9, 1938, a Jewish teenager, Hershel Grinshpan, killed a 29-year old German diplomat, Ernst vom Rath, in the Germany embassy in Paris. Vom Rath died at 5:30 pm, and the national night of terror against Jews in Germany launched within hours. It was able to launch so quickly because, history has shown, the nationwide riot had been planned well in advance – months earlier – and the Nazis were only waiting for a suitable public provocation. In that night, hundreds of synagogues were destroyed, thousands of Jewish business looted, an uncertain number of Jews killed, and 30,000 Jews arrested and placed in concentration camps.

The night came to be called Kristallnacht, “the night of [broken] glass,” although Germans today call it – less poetically and more honestly – Pogromnacht. It was an old-fashioned pogrom, but with the modern ability to coordinate nationally this public-private partnership between the Nazi militia and German civilians.

I first became aware of Kristallnacht 40 years ago, when I was charged by the Hillel rabbi at Urbana, Illinois (or wait, was this a guerilla action another student drafted me into?) with doing something to remind people of the significance of the day. I created a small poster of the words “Remember Kristallnacht” over a graphic I’d created to look like shards of glass. This other student and I spent the night walking the campus and campus-town taping the poster on the glass windows of businesses and campus buildings. We’d wanted to bring Kristallnacht into people’s consciousness. I was 18 and naïve. Because where there should have been small print on the poster saying, “No more hate,” or some slogan indicating the action’s point of view, I had left it bare and stark. When the sun came up, the Jews at University of Illinois didn’t know whether the posters had been placed on their behalf or with them as targets.

These were the Carter years, a brief respite between Nixon and Reagan, between Vietnam and AIDS. But it wasn’t equally quiet on all fronts. November, 1978 was just a couple months after the controversy of a Nazi group trying to stage a march in Skokie, Illinois and ultimately winning a court case allowing them to do so. Skokie, the next town over from where I grew up, was (and is) a heavily Jewish suburb of Chicago and was home to thousands of Holocaust survivors. The march ultimately did not happen, but outrage and fear were in the air. My own poster project was meant to remind the non-Jewish world of the events of 1938. In retrospect, I served it up to the already-anxious Jews as well. It was ineffective storytelling, and I have been haunted by this error for four decades.

I wonder now why I hadn’t known about Kristallnacht earlier. At the time of my bar mitzvah, which I now realize fell on Kristallnacht’s 35th anniversary, I had never heard of it. Maybe Kristallnacht got lost in the immensity of the story of the Holocaust, and how to tell the Holocaust was, in my childhood, still a new project. But it wasn’t just a story – it was part of the real-life experience of all the adults in my life. I find myself wondering what it felt like for my mother, weeks shy of her tenth birthday, or for my father, already thirteen, on November 11, 1938, when the Chicago Tribune’s headline, in oversized type, read, “Hitler Seizes 20,000 Jews.” Did their parents cry? Were they in shock? What did their parents’ friends say to each other or to their children? What did my parents hear from their friends at school? And how could this not have been a moment emblazoned in their memory, to be told to their children years later?

In the wake of Kristallnacht there was quick and widespread condemnation from other nations, including the United States. But there was no additional opening of doors for German Jewish refugees, including by the United States. The world watched and clicked their tongues. Even American Jewish organizations discouraged protest for fear of arousing more anti-Semitism at home. The inaction of the moment reassured Hitler that the world would let him do what he wanted. This tepid response is part of the story, a part as important as the violence itself.

So what do we do with this memory? We – not historians – are its keepers. When does the time come to call this memory into play? As the president continues to stir up fear and hatred of immigrants, as he speaks of revoking citizenships and accelerating deportations, as he maneuvers around the Constitution to make himself more powerful and unaccountable, isn’t now the time for us to breathe this story back into our cultural memory? I think we’re cautious, because we know that Hitler comparisons are conversation stoppers; that they draw resistance for many reasons, including the implication that all of Trump’s followers are Nazis. But still, even without naming names in that way, this memory of how the beginning of authoritarianism looks, how the beginning of fascism looks – this memory needs to be honored and its story shared.

We Jews have an obligation here. Not an obligation to keep this from happening to Jews again, but an obligation to keep it from happening to anyone. The events of the 1930s and 1940s will not replay like a television rerun. They will look different and have a different cast of characters. So it is our obligation to see the connections, the parallels, the signs, and speak our story. When the framers of the memory of the Shoah said to us, “Never forget,” it was for this reason. So that we can tell it when we see it coming.

This is now the shlichut – the holy mission – of the Jews in this moment, at least in my opinion. To tell this story. To remind our country, our world, that things are looking awfully familiar. And now is our chance to steer a course for a different outcome.

It is our task to tell this story lovingly, enchantingly; Scheherazade beguiling the sultan or, in that story’s Jewish counterpart, Esther, full of charm, speaking truth to power. Scheherazade and Esther don’t win. They don’t defeat the king. They recruit the king. It is our task to tell this story in a way that recruits all of America, not just our friends.

So let us tell this story – not the lament of destruction but the announcement of danger – again and again if we have to, in words and music and art and tweets, until we get it right. Until this time the world gets it right.