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Constance Alexander: Remembering ‘Kristallnacht’ and the persecutions of Jews throughout history

Imagine. A crisp fall evening at home. The sun has gone down; you’ve just had dinner. Suddenly, the sounds of a crowd in the distance, moving closer. The growing din brings you to the window. Peeking out from behind the curtains, you see a mob coming down the street. Armed with bricks, pipes and other weapons, they clearly have mayhem in mind.

Their flickering torches are beacons of intolerance. Homes, shops and places of worship that have endured for generations are set ablaze. What is most sacred to the hunted is profaned with the greatest relish by the hunters. By tomorrow neighborhoods be in ashes, and new laws will be in place, condoning the rioters.

At least 96 innocent people die, and hundreds more are injured. More than 1000 places of worship are torched, and almost 7500 businesses destroyed. Cemeteries and schools are vandalized and 30,000 people are arrested and sent to labor camps.

Since 1933, Germany had been taking legal action against Jews, including a 1-day boycott against Jewish shops, and a law against kosher butchering. In the early 1930s, restrictions against Jewish children in public schools escalated, and things got worse from there.

In 1935, Jews were deprived of German citizenship. By 1936, they were prohibited from participating in parliamentary elections and signs proclaiming, “Jews Not Welcome” appeared in many German cities. (Though in late summer of that year, such signs were removed in preparation for the upcoming 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.)

On October 28, 1938, 17,000 Jews of Polish citizenship were arrested and relocated across the Polish border and ultimately interned in “relocation camps” on the Polish frontier.

Which brings us to November 9 and 10, 1938. History calls it “Kristallnacht,” the night of the breaking glass. Some historians believe the word was coined to mock Jews and minimize the crimes committed against them. The image of a “crystal night” transforms the reality of murder, manslaughter, arson, robbery, plunder and massive property damage into something else.

“Kristallnacht” is a word that shimmers and glistens, perhaps hinting at the clarity of a chilly autumn night, the sky studded with brilliant stars.

We cannot deny that a whole country, and an entire world, turned away from what was happening to Jews and other persecuted groups for years under the Nazi regime. We must admit that governments, churches and individuals stood by while innocent people were stripped of religious freedom, economic rights, and entitlement to personal safety under the law.

Perpetrators called it fake news, while some media outlets reported on the carnage. The Hartford Courant wrote, “The people outside Germany who still value tolerance, understanding and humanity can no more keep silent in the face of what has just taken place then they could in the face of any other barbarity.”

The New York Times declared that the pogroms created “scenes which no man can look upon without shame for the degradation of his species.”

The New York Daily News took another line of reasoning and theorized that the Germans’ fury was caused by economic insecurity and the stiff reparations they were forced to pay for World War I. “Let’s not fly off the handle,” the article advised.

Father Charles Coughlin, an influential Catholic priest whose weekly radio broadcast reached tens of millions of listeners, blamed the violence on Jewish people themselves. He told listeners that Jews had not done enough to rid Germany of Communism, thus forcing Germans to retaliate against them.

Could such tragedy happen again? Probably. After all, it is often easier to become part of a mob than to stand up for what is right.

Two websites that provide additional information about Kristallnacht include newspapers.ushmm.org and www.history.com

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Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray. She can be reached at calexander9@murraystate.edu. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

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