Kristallnacht, which took place 80 years ago this month, saw hundreds of synagogues burned, Jewish-owned businesses destroyed, 100 Jews murdered and 30,000 incarcerated. (photo from commons.wikimedia.org)
Kristallnacht, which took place 80 years ago this month, was the “Night of Broken Glass” that saw hundreds of synagogues burned, Jewish-owned businesses destroyed, 100 Jews murdered and 30,000 incarcerated. The state-sanctioned pogrom was staged to look like a spontaneous uprising against the Jews of Germany, annexed Austria and occupied Sudetenland. It is frequently seen as the beginning in earnest of the Holocaust. According to Prof. Chris Friedrichs, who delivered the keynote address at the annual Kristallnacht commemorative evening Nov. 8, global reaction to the attack, which took place on the night of Nov. 9-10, 1938, sent messages to both Nazis and Jews.
“The world was shocked,” said Friedrichs, professor emeritus of history at the University of British Columbia. “Newspapers in the free countries of Europe and all over the Americas reported on these events in detail. Editorials thundered against the Nazi thugs. Protests took place. Demonstrations were held. Opinion was mobilized – for a few days. But soon, Kristallnacht was no longer front-page news. What had happened was now the new normal in Germany, and the world’s attention moved elsewhere. And this is what the Nazis learned: we can do this, and more, and get away with it. Nothing will happen.
“And the Jews of Germany learned something too,” said Friedrichs, himself a son of parents who fled the Nazi regime. “By 1938, many Jews had emigrated from Germany – if they could find a country that would take them. But many others remained. Much had been taken away from them, but two things remained untouched: their houses of worship and their homes. Here, at least, one could be safe, sustained by the fellowship of other Jews and the comforts and consolations of religious faith and family life. But now, in one brutal night, these things, too, had been taken from them. Their synagogues were reduced to rubble, their shops vandalized, their homes desecrated. Nothing was safe or secure. The last lingering hopes of the Jews still living in Germany that, despite all they had suffered at the hands of the Nazis, they might at least be allowed to live quiet private lives of work and worship with family and friends, collapsed in the misery of fire, smashed glass, home invasions, mass arrests and psychological terror on Nov. 9, 1938.”
Friedrichs’ lecture followed a solemn procession of survivors of the Holocaust, who carried candles onto the bimah of Congregation Beth Israel. The evening, presented by the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre (VHEC) and Beth Israel, was funded by the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver annual campaign, with support from the Robert and Marilyn Krell Endowment Fund of the VHEC and the Azrieli Foundation, which provided every attendee with a copy of Dangerous Measures, the memoir of Canadian Joseph Schwartzberg, who witnessed Kristallnacht and fled Germany with his family soon after.
“We are gathered tonight in the sanctuary of a synagogue,” said Friedrichs, who retired in June, after 45 years of teaching and researching at UBC. “A synagogue should indeed be a sanctuary, a quiet place where Jews can gather, chiefly but not only on the Sabbath, for prayer, worship and contemplation. Recent events have reminded us only too bitterly that this is not always the case.
“Our minds are full of mental images of what happened in Pittsburgh less than two weeks ago, but I invite you to call up a different mental image,” he said, taking the audience back to the time of Kristallnacht. “Think of a synagogue. Just a few days earlier, on the Sabbath, Jews had gathered there, as they have gathered in synagogues for 2,000 years, for prayer, worship and fellowship with other Jews. But now, suddenly, in the middle of the night, a firebomb is thrust through a window of the synagogue. As the window glass shatters to the floor, the firebomb ignites a piece of furniture. Within minutes the fire spreads. Soon the entire synagogue is engulfed in flames. It is an inferno. The next morning, the walls of the synagogue are still standing, but the interior is completely gutted. No worship will ever take place there again.”
Friedrichs paused to note that some in the audience would recall a similar attack that destroyed Vancouver’s Reform synagogue, Temple Sholom, on Jan. 25, 1985. He recounted the reaction of police and firefighters, civic leaders and the general public, who rallied around the Vancouver congregation at the time, and compared that with the reactions of non-Jews in Germany and the territories it controlled at the time of Kristallnacht.
“Police and firefighters are on the scene,” Friedrichs said of the situation during Kristallnacht. “But the firefighters are not there to put out the blaze. They are there only to make sure the fire does not spread to any nearby non-Jewish buildings. The police are there only to make sure no members of the congregation try to rescue anything from the building.
“The next morning, crowds of onlookers gape at the burnt-out shell of the synagogue. Some of the furnishings and ritual objects have survived the blaze, so they are dragged out to the street and a bonfire is prepared. But first, the local school principal must arrive with his pupils. Deprived of the opportunity to see the synagogue itself in flames during the night, when they were asleep, the children should at least have the satisfaction of seeing the furnishings and Jewish ritual objects go up in smoke. Most of those objects are added to the bonfire, but not all. Not the Torah scrolls – the Five Books of Moses, every single word of which, in translation, is identical to the words found in the first five books of every Christian Bible. No, the Torah scrolls are not added to the bonfire. They are dragged out to the street to be trampled on by the children, egged on by adult onlookers, while other adults rip apart the Torah covers to be taken home as souvenirs.
“And now consider this: events like this did not happen in just one town,” Friedrichs said. “The same things took place in hundreds upon hundreds of cities and towns throughout Germany and Austria, all on the very same evening and into the next morning. There were minor variations from town to town, but the basic events were exactly the same, for it was a nationwide pogrom, carefully planned in advance.”
Friedrichs, who devoted 25 years to serving on the organizing committee of the Kristallnacht commemorative committee, including eight as president, reflected on the history of Holocaust remembrance in Vancouver, including the decision to single out this date as one of the primary commemorative events of the calendar.
“Why should we commemorate the Shoah at this particular time in November?” he asked. “Consider this: 91 Jewish men died on Nov. 9th and 10th, 1938. Yet, on a single day in the busy summer of 1944, up to 5,000 Jewish men, women and children might be murdered in the gas chambers of Auschwitz on one day. Why not select some random date in August 1944 and make that the occasion to recall the victims of the Shoah? Why choose Kristallnacht?”
The earliest Holocaust commemorations in the city, he said, citing the work of local scholar Barbara Schober, was an event in 1948 marking the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
People who had founded the Peretz School in Vancouver, in 1945, hoped to preserve the memories and values of the East European Jewish culture, which had been almost totally wiped from the map, he said. “Yet, rather than focus on the six million deaths, their intention was to honour those Jews who had actually risen up to fight the Nazi menace – the hopeless but inspiring efforts exemplified above all by the heroic resistance of the Warsaw Ghetto fighters who used the pathetically meagre supply of weapons they could find to resist the final liquidation of the ghetto by the Nazis in the spring of 1943,” said Friedrichs. “That effort failed, but it was not forgotten.”
This event continued, with the support of Canadian Jewish Congress, into the 1970s, he explained.
“There was an emerging concern that Jews should not just recall and pay tribute to the victims of the Shoah,” said Friedrichs. “The increasing visibility of the Holocaust denial movement made it apparent that Jews should also make their contribution to educating society as a whole – and especially young people – about the true history of what had happened. Prof. Robert Krell and Dr. Graham Forst undertook to establish an annual symposium at UBC at which hundreds of high school students would learn about the Holocaust from experts and, even more importantly, from hearing the first-person accounts of survivors themselves. It was in those years, too, that the Vancouver Holocaust Education Society was established to coordinate these efforts. The survivor outreach program, through which dozens of survivors of the Shoah in our community spoke and continue to speak to students about what they experienced, became the cornerstone of these educational efforts. Their talks are always different, for no two survivors ever experienced the Shoah the same way, but the ultimate object is always the same – not just to teach students what happened to the Jews of Europe between 1939 and 1945, but to reflect on the danger that racist thinking of any kind can all too easily lead to.”
But this was education, he noted, not commemoration.
“With the decline of the Warsaw Ghetto event in Vancouver, the need to commemorate the Shoah came to be filled in other ways. One of those ways was the emergence of the Vancouver Kristallnacht commemoration. The origins of this form of commemoration lie right here in the Beth Israel congregation. In the late 1970s, members of the Gottfried family who had emigrated from Austria in the Nazi era, now members of Beth Israel, proposed that their synagogue host a commemoration of Kristallnacht.”
Friedrichs spoke of the burden carried by each of the survivors who carried candles onto the bimah moments earlier.
“You might think that a candle is not very hard to carry, but, for each one of these men and women, the flame of the candle has reignited painful memories stretching back 70 or 80 years, to a dimly remembered way of life before their world collapsed,” he said. “These men and women survived, and sometimes a few of their relatives did as well, but all of them, without exception, you’ve heard this before, had family members – whether parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, siblings, or cousins – who were murdered. One could not reproach these men and women if they had chosen to stay home on a night like this. But, instead, they are here.
“Many of these men and women have done more, even more, as well,” he continued. “For many of them have done something for years and continue to do so even now: to speak of their experiences to students in the schools of our province. To stand in front of two or three or four or five hundred students of every race and every heritage and describe life in the ghetto or the camp or on the death march or the anxiety of living in hiding and being pushed into a basement or a closet every time some unwanted visitor arrived – this is not easy. But there is a purpose. The young people of our province are barraged with images and messages and texts telling them that people of certain religions or races or heritages are inferior and unwanted members of our society. They must be told just what that kind of thinking can lead to. No textbook, no video, no lecture can do the job as powerfully as hearing a survivor describe exactly what he or she experienced during the Shoah.”
Corinne Zimmerman, vice-president of the VHEC, welcomed guests and introduced the candlelighting procession. Cantor Yaacov Orzech chanted El Moleh Rachamim, the memorial prayer for the martyrs. UBC Prof. Richard Menkis delivered opening remarks and Helen Pinsky, president of Beth Israel, introduced Sarah Kirby-Yung, a Vancouver city councilor who read a proclamation from the mayor. Nina Krieger, executive director of the VHEC, introduced Friedrichs. Beth Israel’s Rabbi Jonathan Infeld provided closing remarks, and Jody Wilson-Raybould, minister of justice and member of Parliament for Vancouver Granville, sent greetings on behalf of the Government of Canada.