On November 7, I represented the State Department at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum for its “Kristallnacht: 75 Years Later” program. The Kristallnacht, or “the Night of Broken Glass,” occurred in Germany and Austria November 9-10, 1938, when Nazi party officials, Storm Troopers, the SS, and Hitler youth, joined by some civilians, carried out a wave of anti-Jewish violence throughout these countries. The term Kristallnacht refers to the untold number of broken windows in synagogues, stores, community centers, and homes plundered and destroyed during the violence.
At the Holocaust Museum's commemorative event, three Holocaust survivors shared their memories of that terrible night and its aftermath.
Commemorating such anniversaries is important for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, it honors the victims and survivors of that senseless violence. Secondly, it reminds us of the lessons we should learn from the passive acceptance, and at a times cheerful consent, that marked the reactions of the local population. Countless citizens stood by and did nothing.
Kristallnacht was a turning point for National Socialism. It empowered Nazis and terrorized the Jewish community. The lack of outrage or action from ordinary people in defense of Jewish friends and neighbors signaled to the emerging Nazi regime it could get away with extreme measures.
Although the atrocities perpetrated during the Kristallnacht did arouse outrage in Western Europe and the U.S., little concrete action was taken to help the Jews of Germany. At a November 15, 1938 press conference, President Roosevelt stated: “The news of the past few days from Germany has deeply shocked public opinion in the United States...I myself could scarcely believe that such things could occur in a 20th century civilization." He instructed that the 12,000-15,000 refugees already in the United States on temporary visitor visas could remain in the country indefinitely.
However, the events of the Kristallnacht foreshadowed the historic tragedy of the Holocaust. Seventy-five years later, we need to heed the lessons of that day by speaking up and taking action against hate, by identifying and addressing atrocity threats, and by ensuring that mass murder, such as that which occurred during the Holocaust, is never repeated. We all have the power to be agents of positive change.
About the Author: Ira Forman serves as Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism.