Response to hatred then, now
Four score years ago, there were 525,000 Jews in Germany and 2,200 synagogues. Many had been built in the center of town. Their neighbors were Catholic and Protestant churches. Synagogues were part of the public presence of Jews in a pluralistic, multi-religious society.
Under the Nazis, synagogues came to play a unique role. On Monday, a synagogue became a theater because Jewish actors could not perform on the German stage. On Tuesday, it was a symphony hall because Jewish musicians were dismissed from German orchestras. It served as a school for children expelled from German schools. It became a welfare office and training ground for new language skills and professions that would be useful in exile.
In October 1938 a wave of pogroms began. Then, on Nov. 9 and 10, 1,000 synagogues were burned, 7,000 Jewish businesses were ransacked and 30,000 men were sent to concentration camps. The catastrophic night was given the name: Kristallnacht — Crystal Night. Jews lost their homes and freedom. The Buchenwald, Dachau and Sachsenhausen concentration camps overflowed with new Jewish inmates. Jewish life in Germany was no longer possible. Some families sent their children to England, 10,000 of them, on what came to be called the Kindertransport.
In 1938, America embodied the freedom of religion. Catholics and Protestants condemned the attacks on synagogues. President Franklin Roosevelt called his ambassador home.
But he didn’t sever diplomatic relations, public opinion on immigration did not move by more than 3 percent, and an effort to bring 20,000 children to the United States led by Sen. Robert Wagner of New York and Rep. Edith Rogers of Massachusetts, failed. Congress feared that children would grow up and take American jobs.
Why was the attack on the synagogue in Pittsburgh, horrific as it was, so very different? The answer is society came together. The mayor denounced the hate crime, the police risked their lives to save Jews, sports teams wore the star of David. The Muslim community, often victims of enmity in our society contributed mightily to the Jewish community. How we respond to hatred — either coming together or pulling apart — makes all the difference in the world.
Michael Berenbaum is a writer whose books include “Not Your Father’s Antisemitism, A Promise to Remember: The Holocaust in the Words and Voices of its Survivors.”
A Kristallnacht Interfaith Commemoration on Wednesday at the University at Albany’s Page Hall will feature Holocaust survivors and members of many faiths in the Capital Region and the film “Above the Drowning Sea,” about the escape of thousands of Jews from Austria to Shanghai, where they found safe harbor thanks to the Chinese consul in Vienna. The program, at 135 Western Ave., is free.