‘I went once more to the Westend-Synagogue to take my leave of the House of God which, almost a generation earlier, I had helped to consecrate. From the outside, no sign of destruction could be seen. But inside there presented itself a picture of terrifying devastation. The great chandelier lay on the floor in a thousand fragments. The pews, the prayer desk and the pulpit at which I had so often stood…were burnt. The Holy Ark was broken and the Torah Scrolls stolen’…
Thus wrote my grandfather in a deposition after the war about life in Germany under Nazi rule. It was a sight which haunted him until, eleven years later, he was invited to return to the Synagogue and offer the address at its rededication.
Kristallnacht, the night of 9th November 1938, seventy-five years ago tomorrow, was decisive in the lives of German and Austrian Jews, and for others branded as political enemies or as genetically undesirable according to the Nazi myth of the superiority of the Aryan race. After Kristallnacht the violence was out. It had always been there, but half-masked by lies and pretences at legality. It had been kept in check by the top Nazi leadership until the German economy was on a sufficiently strong a war footing that the Jewish contribution no longer mattered, and until it was scarcely relevant any more what foreign governments might think. Anyway, hadn’t they all recently said at the conference convened that summer in Evian by President Roosevelt that they didn’t want any more Jews either?
From now on one could no longer entertain the weak hope that maybe things would get better, that perhaps it would all pass. It was evident that there were only two options, escape or the tightening noose which would deprive its victims of breath in ways even the regime had probably not at this point imagined. But where could one go? Earlier that year Jews had been required to hand in their passports. Travel documents would only be issued to those about to emigrate. The queues of desperate people at foreign embassies and consulates grew longer. They were composed mainly of women, courageous wives, daughters and mothers; the men in their thousands were now in Dachau, Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen.
Kristallnacht engendered great evil. Hitler and Goebbels removed the bounds of law that prevent so many of us, perhaps even virtually everybody, from committing evil, and then incited and intimidated them into doing the worst of which they were capable. Alas for the land ungoverned by law, or where law-making is in the hands of the wicked.
Kristallnacht also inspired great courage. Pastor Karl Immer in Wuppertal read out the Ten Commandments in Hebrew and invited his congregants to help him offer help. The British Consul in Frankfurt, Robert Smallbones, persuaded his Government to issue temporary visas and cajoled the Gestapo into accepting them. Letters of promise of such visas could obtain release from the concentration camps. He and his staff worked night and day to prepare them. There were small, but courageous, acts of kindness and defiance by Christians and Jews, Germans and peoples of many nationalities, about which we shall never know. Britain offered homes to indefinite numbers of refugee children, and parents across Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia sent their children alone across the seas to safety and went back home to their thin hopes and their heartbreak.
But the seventy-fifth anniversary of Kristallnacht is not just about memory. It is also about now. How can we be aware of and care for those for whom these and similar events were formative not just of their youth, but of their yesterday and today?
What other such days is humanity even now brewing for its minorities, its victims, in our great capacity both for good and also for evil?