A destroyed Jewish clothing store in Magdeburg, Germany, after Kristallnacht, Nov. 11, 1938. (JTA)
A destroyed Jewish clothing store in Magdeburg, Germany, after Kristallnacht, Nov. 11, 1938. (JTA)

The glass is still breaking — remembering Kristallnacht in 2019

For millions of human beings, the shattering of glass continues day and night. Glass is being broken in Kabul, Bagdad, Aleppo, San Salvador, Guatemala City and many other cities and villages around the world. The glass is a vivid reminder of the lives torn asunder by violence and persecution.

It is hard to listen to the sound of glass being smashed. It’s even worse to walk through the shards on the ground. And the real nightmare is facing the reality that human lives are broken to pieces by hatred, bitterness, and man’s inhumanity to other human beings.

Eighty-one years ago, on Nov. 8-9, 1938, the night and day of Kristallnacht took place throughout Germany. The windows of synagogues, businesses and homes were savagely shattered by Nazi-inspired mob violence against Jews. Ninety-one people were killed. 30,000 were rounded up and taken to concentration camps. It was no longer just virulent rhetoric or unethical laws against Jews but actions that made clear that the Nazi regime intended on destroying Jewish life.

The news of Kristallnacht came quickly to the United States, filling newspaper headlines. In an editorial, the New York Times described the pogrom as “scenes which no man can look upon without shame for the degradation of his species.” Although it took President Franklin Roosevelt four days to make the decision to bring home our ambassador to Germany, leaders all around the country spoke out against the atrocity. “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,” wrote the Hartford Courant. “Not to express themselves would be a denial of their deepest instincts as civilized human beings.”

What should the Jewish community do on Kristallnacht? We know that remembering is not enough.

What should the Jewish community do on Kristallnacht? We know that remembering is not enough. We know that retelling the horror of that night of hell on earth only reflected in small part what was to come, and that retelling alone is inadequate. We know that the lives continue to be shattered around the world and that makes the pain of Kristallnacht even greater, as the breaking of lives seems endless. We know that the world did not learn from the lifting of the mask of the beast in 1938, as seen by ongoing events in 1976 in Cambodia, in 1994 in Rwanda, in 2005 in Darfur or in 2019 in Myanmar.

How about a new tradition? I offer one idea with the hope that it will stimulate more creative programs. At our communal gatherings, play the sound of glass being smashed. Not for just thirty seconds, but over and over for a few minutes, until we are profoundly uncomfortable. Then listen to someone whose life has been shattered. Then make a commitment by taking a home a piece of beautiful mosaic glass as a reminder that we will devote more time to preserving the dignity of refugees, to changing laws that degrade people fleeing nightmares, to deepen our resolve to stem the increase of anti-Semitism at home and around the world, and to see in the eyes of desperate millions wandering the earth, our own eyes, our children’s eyes.

Many organizations offer us guidance on how to act, in whatever way we can: HIAS, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the International Rescue Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, to name but just a few. They need our support and we need their wisdom, suggestions and organizational skills.

Sidonia Lax is a survivor of Auschwitz who, at 93, remains active and vigilant in speaking out about persecution against any human being. Lax offers wonderful insight for Kristallnacht 2019: “In order to be able to stop the big fire, you have to watch for the little fire because once it burns out of control, it is too late… Read the news. Be active. When you see problems get involved and stop them right at the beginning.”

We have small fires and we have big ones. We need every one of us to be just a bit more vigilant, involved and passionate. We need to act.

Rabbi Lee Bycel
Rabbi Lee Bycel

Rabbi Lee Bycel is the Sinton Visiting Professor of Holocaust, Genocide and Refugee Studies at the University of San Francisco.