By Harriet P. Gross
In just two days, we’ll solemnly recall something we wish had never happened.
Sunday will mark the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass. Holocaust Museum Houston, which will remember with an interfaith evening co-sponsored by local Lutheran churches, has provided this capsule history of the horror:
“On Nov. 9–10, 1938, the Nazis staged vicious, state-sanctioned riots against the Jewish community of Germany. The name refers to the untold numbers of broken windows in the 267 synagogues, the community centers, schools, hospitals, cemeteries and the 7500 Jewish homes and Jewish-owned stores, plundered, vandalized, looted and destroyed as police and fire brigades stood aside.
“At least 91 Jews were killed in what became a turning point in history, marking the birth of a policy that would culminate in the systematic, state-sponsored murder of Jews.”
Seventy years ago. But the truth is, Kristallnacht didn’t fully enter into general consciousness for 40 years after that. It was only in 1978 that a TV mini-series called “Holocaust” woke up America — Americans of all faiths, including a lot of Jews.
Before that time, many survivors had not spoken publicly about what they had seen, suffered, experienced, endured — some not even to their own families. But the Golden Globe–winning “Holocaust” opened the floodgates, and the once-closed mouths.
I was working at that time for a major chain of general circulation newspapers in the south suburbs of Chicago. After the series ended, a survivor in the congregation I belonged to (one of the few U.S. survivor-founded congregations, by the way, and one of even fewer to have recreated the minhag of a specific German synagogue) told me she had agreed to stand on our bimah and give her eyewitness account of Kristallnacht. I asked her if she’d let me write about her in advance, for publication, and she agreed to that, also.
The morning that my story — her story! — appeared, the first call I received was from one of her daughters.
“Thank you,” the girl said, “for telling us about our mother for the first time.”
I was privileged to write about some other survivors after that. One was a woman whose parents had been able to get her out of Germany, to family members in the U.S., as a young teenager. When some German cities began offering free return trips to Jews who had been driven out — “welcome home” visits of a sort — she decided to go back to see her native Munich. Her American-born husband tried to talk her out of it; he feared she would be traumatized, especially because she came from the place where Israel’s Olympic athletes had been massacred in 1972. But she went, and I told her tale when she returned. The main point she wanted to make was how frightened she was, even then, every time she saw a uniformed German policeman.
Then there was the man who had been a vocalist in Germany but became a long-distance truck driver in the United States; those solitary hours on the road, he said, gave him needed time to think, and try to come to terms with his life. There was another musician, a woman pianist, who returned to Germany every year to concertize in a different city; “I want to show all the people I can the talent they got rid of,” she told me.
“What they threw away.” And there was the close-mouthed woman with the numbers on her arm who would never talk about them or tell her whole tale, but always kept a big, frightening dog to guard her little suburban home.
“Holocaust,” the mini-series, did its job. Millions of Americans, including Jews, met the fictional Family Weiss and saw what happened to their once-happy, integrated German life: The daughter went mad after being raped by a Nazi, then was destroyed as an “undesirable”; one son married a non-Jew (played by Meryl Streep) but was deported and lost nevertheless; the parents, a once-respected physician and his wife, were first separated, then reunited — in Auschwitz, before their deaths. At the end, only the second son survived to speak of the horrors. And to inspire so many real survivors to begin speaking out as well.
The Lutheran church is a German institution; early Reform Jews emulated its vernacular prayers and soaring hymns, then died at the hands of those once-enlightened neighbors when Nazism became their country’s new “religion.” It seems fitting, somehow, that Houston will bring Jews and Lutherans together on Sunday to remember Kristallnacht.
By Harriet P. Gross