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Lessons from Kristallnacht

The 76th anniversary of "Kristallnacht," or "Night of Broken Glass," causes me to pause to remember and reflect.

Kristall story image
The “Kristallnacht” room at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center.

The 76th anniversary of "Kristallnacht," or "Night of Broken Glass," causes me to pause to remember and reflect. What is different, and what is the same? What have we learned from the extreme violence of those 48 hours that were a prelude to the increasing atrocities of the Holocaust?

On Nov. 9, 1938, a wave of violence and fury was unleashed against Jews. Some 1,400 synagogues were attacked and devoured by fire in the Jewish communities of Germany, Austria, and Sudetenland. Storefront windows were smashed and businesses destroyed. At least 90 Jews were murdered, and approximately 30,000 Jewish men were taken from their homes and communities and sent to concentration camps-all while local firefighters and civilians stood idly by.

The magnitude of the assault on synagogues, homes, businesses, and people was unprecedented. The attackers were often neighbors and former friends; the violence was open, direct and virulent. Sometimes referred to as "the beginning of the end," Kristallnacht marked a pivotal point in the history of the Holocaust. The Jewish community learned that their way of life had come to an end; that they needed to flee Germany, and that times were, indeed desperate.

What did the Nazi regime learn? They saw that the international community stood in silence. While panic-stricken Jews anxiously searched for countries of refuge, the world turned away, and borders were closed. Indifference and inaction fanned the flames of injustice and emboldened the Nazis. In the aftermath of Kristallnacht, Nazi Germany moved forward to exclude Jews from schools and professions, to complete the "Aryanization" of businesses, to expand the labyrinth of concentration camps, and ultimately to murder more than six million Jews.

What do visitors to the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center learn?  They see Jews who were once fully integrated into German society systematically stripped of their rights and humanity-and the quiet from the rest of the world. As visitors walk on a "shattered glass floor" in the "Kristallnacht" gallery, they feel the cost of indifference. As they round a bend and see blaring headlines from leading newspapers in the U.S. and around the world recounting the horror, they experience the frustration of "no response." And they question: what would have happened if more people and politicians in the U.S. and beyond had objected? How many could have been saved?

I felt in every fiber of my being the terrible result of hatred, prejudice, and indifference while on a recent "Learning Journey" in Poland led by Illinois Holocaust Museum. We travelled from Warsaw to Krakow and to many smaller towns in between, learning about both the beautiful culture and rhythm of Jewish life through the centuries and the wrenching devastation during the Holocaust. We saw that where once there had been 10,000 Jews in a town of 13,000, now there are none; where once 6,000 Jews were a vital part of a village of 10,000, now there are none. We felt viscerally both the legacy of absence and the absence of legacy. And we questioned: how could the course of history have been altered if neighbors and nations spoke up and prevented these crimes against humanity?

In the almost 70 years since the end of World War II and the liberation of concentration camps, anti-Semitism has simmered and bubbled. Now, however, there is a brazenness and pervasiveness that should gravely concern us all. We see four people murdered at the Jewish Museum of Belgium and a synagogue firebombed in Brussels, a Jewish tourist attacked in Berlin during Rosh Hashanah holiday, and here in the United States, vandalism of Philadelphia's Holocaust memorial and swastikas painted on a Jewish fraternity at Emory University. These are just a few of the troubling signs of a world filled with prejudice and hatred. Beyond the Jewish community, churches and mosques are being destroyed in Syria and Iraq, and children, like Nobel Prize recipient Malala Yousafzi, risk their lives to advocate for girls' education in Pakistan. 

We must question whether we are doing enough to raise our voices and take action against the increasing violence fueled by hatred around the world. These lessons are taught in the Museum's Karkomi Permanent Exhibition: that if we are silent or indifferent to prejudice, discrimination, and hatred, we allow an environment in which violence flourishes. They are also the lessons taught in our Make a Difference! The Harvey L. Miller Family Youth Exhibition (for third graders and beyond): to be an "upstander" as opposed to a bystander and to speak out on the issues that are important to you.

The Museum exists to teach these critically important lessons to current and future generations through our exhibitions and programs. We remember the past in order to transform the future. It is needed today as much as ever. 

Susan Abrams is chief executive officer of the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, located in Skokie.

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