Let there be light

The message of Kristallnacht after 82 years

VIRTUAL PLAQUE commemorating Kristallnacht, written by Ruth Zimbler.  (photo credit: MARCH OF THE LIVING)
VIRTUAL PLAQUE commemorating Kristallnacht, written by Ruth Zimbler.
(photo credit: MARCH OF THE LIVING)
November 1938. The Davar newspaper reports: “New Nazi Savagery Spells Doom of Jewish Life in Germany – Reports of Torture and Murder.” Another story, filed from London, reports that Dr. Chaim Weizmann began the opening session of the Zionist Council by saying, “We open this session in the light of synagogue bonfires now burning throughout Germany, and to the groans of the murdered and cries of thousands of Jews in the concentration camps.” Time has shown that the events of the Kristallnacht pogrom – “The Night of Broken Glass” – on November 9-10, 1938, were a significant turning point in the sequence of events and disasters that befell the Jewish people during the 12 years of the National Socialist regime in Germany. Two days before that terrible night, on November 7, Herschel Grynszpan, a German-Jewish student of Polish descent, approached the German Embassy in Paris and shot to death First Secretary Ernst Eduard vom Rath.
Grynszpan explained that his actions were intended to attract the world’s attention to the deportation of his parents along with 17,000 other Jews of Polish descent from Germany. Grynszpan’s actions served as a good excuse for the Nazis. A one-man protest against the silence of the world regarding the fate of German Jewry served as a pretext for the events of Kristallnacht. Two days later, SS and SA units raided Jewish centers throughout Germany.
The so-called spontaneous destruction was, in fact, planned ahead of time by Nazi minister of propaganda Joseph Goebbels, and led to the burning of hundreds of synagogues, businesses and Jewish-owned property throughout Germany and Austria. During Kristallnacht, 91 Jews were murdered, and some 20,000 were arrested and sent to concentration camps throughout the Reich. On November 10, the violent assault, which lasted in many places for several more days, officially ended. In Austria, the pogrom started only on the morning of the 10th. Cruel, physical violence was now added to the suppression of civil rights that had been enacted in a constitutional framework in the Nuremberg Laws of September 1935.
Eighty-two years have passed since that night, and the last witnesses to the events of Kristallnacht are dwindling. Ninety-two-year-old Ruth Zimbler remembers everything. She was born and raised in Vienna, the daughter of Hella, a seamstress, and Markus, a social worker in the Jewish community. She had a brother named Walter, four years her junior. The siblings attended a German public school in the mornings, and in the afternoon, continued their studies in a Jewish school. The family lived in a residential complex next to the city’s largest synagogue, which had a seating capacity of 2,240.
“It was a pleasant and comfortable life,” says Zimbler, longingly remembering her mother lighting the candles every Shabbat eve, and immediately afterward hearing the sound of the coins that jingled as they were dropped into the blue Jewish National Fund charity box. She was only 10 when life turned upside down.
“That morning, our housekeeper came to my parents and told them to leave because there would be problems. We left the house, and when we returned later, we watched the synagogue burn to the ground. We stayed for 10 days in the home of a friend, and when we returned to the apartment, we found everything had been looted. I was present when my father and our housekeeper were detained. He was sent to Dachau and was fortunately released a few days later.
Shmuel Rosenman, Chairman of the International March of the Living (Yossi Zelinger)Shmuel Rosenman, Chairman of the International March of the Living (Yossi Zelinger)
“THE TIME after Kristallnacht was filled with fear and humiliation. I was forbidden to borrow books from the library I loved so much. Children stopped playing with me, and my favorite teacher started wearing a swastika. About a month later, my parents made the most painful decision: to send us on a ‘Kindertransport’ to the Netherlands. Imagine, a 10-year-old girl who was forced to separate from her parents and take care of her six-year-old brother. We were sent to a government-donated manor home in The Hague, and in October 1939, my brother, Walter, and I boarded a ship to the US, and there we reunited with our parents.” Zimbler has a clear message: “We must support each other and ensure that we learn the message of the Holocaust. We must motivate people to apply the lyrics to the song, ‘If there could only be peace on Earth, and peace will begin within me.’ We cannot remain bystanders. We must take a stand. It is important to tell the story, a story of injustice of the worst kind. We cannot let injustices happen, and yet they continue to happen. Everything must be done to ensure that these injustices never lead to another Holocaust. I went through this horror, and my life changed forever. I want people to learn to love and support each other.” Dr. Shmuel Rosenman, chairman of the International March of the Living, says, “The preservation of memory should continue to be a central motto in the life of the nation and the world in general, because those who do not know the past will not know how to build its future. It is easy to say that there are external winds blowing like corona, economic and global crises, and say, ‘Let’s wait, and when conditions are easier, we will return to our activities to preserve the memories.’” Under normal circumstances, the March of the Living is an educational journey that takes place every year in Poland and Israel, in which thousands of teenagers and adults tour the Nazi death camps in Poland, the ghettos and towns emptied of their Jewish communities, and Holocaust commemorative sites in Israel. The highlight of the trip in Poland is the three-kilometer march held at the railway between the Auschwitz and Birkenau camps on Holocaust Remembrance Day, along the very same path that tens of thousands of Jews were forced to march to their deaths by the Nazis and their helpers.
For the first time in 32 years, the March of the Living in Poland did not take place this year due to the spread of COVID-19. Instead, as part of a virtual commemoration project, the March of the Living organization launched an international digital venture that made it possible to recreate one of the most moving moments of the March: placing individual memorial plaques on the Birkenau railway tracks.
“On Yom HaShoah 2020, we were unable to walk along the railroad tracks,” explains Rosenman. “But I can humbly say we have succeeded in inscribing the memory of the Holocaust among hundreds of thousands of adults and young people and the duty to pass on the torch of memory to future generations. Until now, survivors who told their personal story participated in the march. They are dwindling, and we are forced to move to digital systems to convey the message of Holocaust remembrance and the understanding that the world cannot repeat what was in the past.
DR. RACHEL HEUBERGER, former director of the Department of Jewish Studies at the University of Frankfurt library and a Frankfurt Community Council member. (Jens Ihnken)DR. RACHEL HEUBERGER, former director of the Department of Jewish Studies at the University of Frankfurt library and a Frankfurt Community Council member. (Jens Ihnken)
“WE ARE working together with the Holocaust Museum in Los Angeles. We interviewed Holocaust survivors who accompany the participants via hologram, even if they are no longer with us physically. Kristallnacht is one of the main symbols of the beginning of the Holocaust, and this year we decided to launch a major campaign with the community in Germany to illuminate houses of worship – synagogues, mosques and churches – to convey the message that the burning and destruction of synagogues and Jewish institutions is not only a Jewish issue.
“Eighty-two years have passed, and synagogues are still burning, windows are being smashed, and antisemitism is making a name for itself. The goal is to raise a warning flag and say, ‘Gentlemen, we need to stop what is happening. Kristallnacht is not a page we turned and has now ended. Today, we see throughout the world, hatred of the ‘other’ and hatred of the Jew.” In Germany, November 9 has become the official marking the memorial for the Kristallnacht pogrom. Historian Dr. Rachel Heuberger, former director of the Department of Jewish Studies in the Library of the University of Frankfurt and a member of the Frankfurt Community Council, says that senior political figures, such as the president of the State and Chancellor Merkel, as well representatives of churches and organizations, cities and local authorities, mark the anniversary of Kristallnacht with speeches and ceremonies and with the understanding that this day also symbolizes the memory of Holocaust victims.
“Though January 27 has been designated as the International Day of Holocaust Remembrance,” Heuberger says, “the day of remembrance for the November 1938 pogrom did not lose its significance and is observed throughout Germany. Of course, the Jews mark this day, from the Central Council of German Jews to the many communities across the country.
“The Jewish community in Frankfurt is participating in the historic world initiative, marking Kristallnacht as a memorial day against antisemitism, racism and incitement. Symbolically, places of worship of all religions will be illuminated around the world, including the main synagogue of Frankfurt, which was one of the few synagogues that were not destroyed in the events of November 1938. The prime minister of the German state of Hesse, the mayor of Frankfurt and the chairman of the Jewish community will participate in the ceremony, together with the chairman of the March of the Living.” Dr. Heuberger was asked what the difference is between the antisemitism of November 1938 and today.
She responded, “During Nazi rule in Germany, antisemitism was part of the official ideology and policy. From 1933, the Jews were systematically persecuted and lost their rights. The November 9, 1938, pogrom marked the transition to overt violence led and backed by the regime. In Germany today, and throughout the world, we have witnessed an increase in antisemitism. In recent years, it has not only been expressed in incitement and hate speech, especially on social media, but also in a sharp rise in cases of violence and vulnerability among Jews and their institutions.
“We must remember the attack at the synagogue in Halle on Yom Kippur that occurred just one year ago. The primary difference is that today, according to law, antisemitic attacks are criminal offenses, the perpetrators of which are prosecuted. Although antisemitic views have become accepted in German society, in the eyes of the vast majority of German politicians, antisemitism is seen as an attack on a democratic society.
“The Federal government, like regional governments and local organizations, denounces antisemitism. The government has appointed officials in the struggle against antisemitism, and many are investing a great deal of effort, for example, in curricula and activities to increase awareness among the general public.”

Translated by Alan Rosenbaum.