Remembering Kristallnacht



This is the third article in a series leading up to the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht.

As Nov. 9 approaches and I continue to have an opportunity to write about the 80th year since Kristallnacht, I have become more and more identified with what has happened in one of the most advanced countries on Earth to its own Jewish citizens, as assimilated into their society as many of us are in these United States.  

In my novel, “Eavesdropping in Oberammergau,” a young child learns of the “Night of Broken Glass” from her mother. It was not a first-person account, but was told to her after her mother saw a documentary about it. Her mother’s dramatic telling became part of this girl’s being, which the child would carry through her whole life, something that she felt compelled to retell. 

By telling a “story,” we use memory to bear witness, and to recall, in this case, some of the worst events of humanity.  Rabbi Eli A. Bohnen of Temple Emanu-El, who was an Army chaplain, wrote detailed letters to his wife about his part in the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp. His daughter Judy (Bohnen) Levitt is quoted: “There are so few survivors left at this point, who is going to be telling this story? If people don’t remember, it could happen again.” I hope Judy continues to tell the story. 

In the Simon Wiesenthal Museum publication, “Eyewitness Accounts and Reminiscences,” there is a firefighter who wrote about Kristallnacht. “I was not allowed to go into the firehouse … one of my friends, who lived next to the Synagogue, whispered to me, ‘Be quiet – the Synagogue is burning; I was beaten up already when I wanted to put out the fire…. As I was watching the destroyed Synagogue and the frail old Jews, I wondered whose turn would be next... When would it be our turn? Will the same thing happen to our Protestant and Catholic Churches?” 

There is Michael Bruce, a non-Jewish Englishman who bears witness to a mob attacking a Jewish children’s hospital. “In minutes the windows had been smashed and the doors forced. The swine were driving the wee mites out over the broken glass, bare-footed and wearing nothing but their nightshirts.” 

Marianne Hirsch, who coined the term, “postmemory,” tells what can happen to children of survivors and to those of us who identify so closely with people who have experienced the hatred, enslavement, torture and murder of people. I believe these stories must continue to be told and retold and how the power of our family and loved ones lives on through us in “postmemory.”    

Now is the time not to be afraid to speak out, not to hide from such memories, but rather to tell them so that others will hear, retain and repeat them to those who come after us.  For soon, all direct life experiences of Kristallnacht will be gone. My hope is that these stories will remain and remind us not to remain silent. 

Let me end here by sharing some words from the 40th anniversary of Kristallnacht. They are from West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt: “Dear Jews, Christians and Free-Thinkers in Germany… the German night, whose observance after the passage of 40 years has brought us together today, remains a cause of bitterness and shame. In those places where the houses of God stood in flames, where a signal from those in power set off a train of destruction and robbery, of humiliation, abduction and incarceration – there was an end to peace, to justice, to humanity. The night of 9 November 1938 marked one of the stages along the path leading down to hell....” Forty years later – 80 years later – we remember.  

HILARY SALK is the author of “Eavesdropping in Oberammergau.”

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