Friday, November 09, 2007

Remembering Kristallnacht, the "Night of Broken Glass"

November 9-10, 1938:
Sixty-nine years ago today, the world got a fresh taste of an old poison. The result was Kristallnacht, the "Night of Broken Glass," and it was a harbinger of what was about to happen to millions of Europe's Jews at the hands of the Nazis.

On that night, thousands of synagogues and Jewish businesses in Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia were smashed, looted and sometimes burned by the Nazis, and the piles of broken glass in the streets led to the name of the event. At least 90 Jews were killed, and Germany portrayed the event as a spontaneous uprising triggered by the murder of a German diplomat in Paris two days earlier by a Jewish teenager.

In fact, it was far more organized than that. More than 1,000 synagogues were destroyed, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and 30,000 Jews were arrested and sent to concentration camps. The Nazis blamed Jews for the violence, fined them 2 billion reichsmarks (about $400 million in 1938 dollars), and the violence was followed by dozens of new anti-Jewish laws. Thus, in the eyes of many historians, did the spiral quicken that triggered the Holocaust.

One of the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust was my grandmother: Martha Kattenburg, nee Goldstein. She died on April 9, 1943, in Sobibor, at the age of 55.

Although Hitler lost the war, he succeeded in the way that meant the most to him: He exterminated European Jewry. The crime is his crime, and his regime's crime, alone. But the same anti-Semitism that made it possible for the Nazis even to conceive a plan to bring about the extinction of the entire Jewish population of Europe, also made it possible for the Western Allies to allow the Nazis to carry out that plan, unimpeded, despite the fact that by 1942 the U.S. and British governments knew exactly what was being done to the Jews, and even though thousands of Jews could have been saved from that fate with truly minimal effort and without compromising or endangering our ability to win the war. Merely by allowing the full legal quota of Jewish refugees to enter the United States, hundreds if not thousands of Jews could have been saved. But the U.S. State Department did not let that happen. In fact, at no time did the number of Jews allowed to enter this country exceed 10 percent of the number allowed by law. At a time when Jews were being murdered at the rate of up to 60,000 per day, U.S. immigration quotas remained 90 percent unfilled.

To be clear, it was not just the United States that refused to help European Jews escape from the ovens when reasonable and viable opportunities to do so presented themselves. Many other European countries were just as callous in their abandonment of the Jews -- France, Britain, Spain, and others failed to act when they easily could have done so.

The Allies did not murder six million Jews -- the Nazis did. But it has been averred -- and with justification -- that the Allies were complicit in that mass murder. Even when opportunities to save significant numbers of Jews fell into their laps, as when Romania, trying to curry favor with what was by then clearly the winning side, offered to release 70,000 Jews to the Allies, U.S. and British authorities dragged their feet, put up absurd bureaucratic hurdles, and the Jews remained in Romania. The very idea of having to figure out what to do with 70,000 Jews in their countries was, in the words of the British Foreign Office, "a frightful prospect." So rather than having to deal with the stress of having so many Jews in their countries, British and American officials allowed the opportunity to pass by -- and shortly thereafter all the Romanian Jews were deported. Those British and American authorities would never have forced thousands of Jews into the gas chambers themselves. But they were willing to let those Jews be deported to the gas chambers, knowing that's where they were going, when they could have saved them from that fate.

There is much more to learn about this shameful chapter in American, and Western, history. The two definitive sources I know of are While Six Million Died: A Chronicle of American Apathy, by Arthur Morse; and The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust, 1941-1945, by David S. Wyman.

May the memory of Martha Goldstein Kattenburg, and the memory of all the victims of Nazi terror, be for a blessing.


Chief said...

Thanks. I knew that the Allies could easily have targeted and bombed rail lines that carried human cargo to the camps AND DID NOT.

I was not aware of the Romanian Jews the Allies could not find space for.

Question: When your Grandmother died, the Nazi had an iron grip on all of Europe and part of Russia. how can you be certain of the exact date?

Kathy said...

When your Grandmother died, the Nazi had an iron grip on all of Europe and part of Russia. how can you be certain of the exact date?

Did you read that whole site? There is a central Shoah database (Shoah is the Hebrew word that refers to the Holocaust) maintained by volunteers who interview survivors and research available documentation. The names that are in that database are just a small fraction of the victims, but those that *are* there have had those details verified and that's why they're listed there. If you look at the site again, you'll see, on the page with all the documentation, it says that Martha Kattenburg was entered into the database in 2002. Before that, her information was unknown. I wouldn't have been able to find her name there before 2002. Amazing, huh?