80 years later, an ominous echo
Richmond area’s Jewish community ref lects on past, recent attack in Pittsburgh
Eighty years ago, Lucie Baer was lying in a bed in a Jewish hospital in Berlin surrounded by the sounds of terror. Her 3-month-old son wasn’t with her as she recovered from a breast infection. Her husband was in the United States, where he was trying to find a way for his young family to leave Germany in the face of intensifying Nazi harassment of the country’s Jews.
“She heard the sound of shattering glass from her hospital,” recalled her son, Tommy Baer, a longtime immigration attorney in the Richmond area and former president of B’nai B’rith International, which calls itself “the global voice of the Jewish community.” Outside the hospital, brown-shirted Nazi storm troopers and their public allies were unleashing a
surprise pogrom — an organized persecution and massacre of a religious or ethnic minority — against the country’s Jews that lasted through the next day.
German police and military stood by under orders from Adolf Hitler’s government while Nazi gangs killed at least 90 Jewish Germans, sacked and burned nearly 300 synagogues, and destroyed or damaged more than 7,000 Jewish-owned businesses, homes and schools.
It became known as Kristallnacht, or “Night of the Broken Glass,” because of the shattered store windows made of expensive Belgian glass.
But Kristallnacht also marked the moment Hitler’s regime crossed the line from harassing and marginalizing the country’s 500,000 Jews to killing them — a step that culminated more than three years later in the “final solution” to eliminate Jews entirely from Europe and the countries the Nazi war machine was conquering.
“It’s the opening act of the Holocaust,” said Charlie Sydnor, former director of the Virginia Holocaust Museum in Richmond and now its senior staff historian. “It is clearly when Germany crossed the Rubicon.”
The 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht is Friday and Saturday, but it will be observed at a ceremony at 2 p.m. on Sunday at Emek Sholom Holocaust Memorial Cemetery, within Forest Lawn Cemetery in Richmond’s North Side. In English, Emek Sholom translates as “valley of peace.” The keynote speaker is Alexandra Zapruder, a Holocaust historian and granddaughter of the man who filmed President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas 55 years ago this month.
A ‘wake-up call’
The anniversary comes two weeks after an armed man stormed into a Jewish synagogue in Pittsburgh, shouted “All Jews must die,” and opened fire with a high-powered rifle and pistols, killing 11 worshipers and wounding seven at a Saturday morning Shabbat ceremony.
For Baer, the attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue is a “wake-up call” for Americans in the face of rising anti-Semitism, much as Kristallnacht was an unmistakable omen of the fate facing German Jews who, unlike his family, could not get out of the country in time.
“It is about the betrayal of the long-accepted Jewish belief in the United States as a refuge from bigotry and hate,” he said in written remarks for this article. “Once an historic given, it is now under siege.”
Baer’s maternal grandfather, Meyer Hirsch, was among the 30,000 Jewish men arrested and sent to Nazi prison camps after Kristallnacht. So was the father of Henry Abraham, a retired scholar of constitutional law at the University of Virginia who came to the United States alone at age 15 in 1937 to escape the storm his mother clearly saw coming.
Abraham, now 97 and living in Charlottesville, settled in Pittsburgh, where he attended a reform synagogue but also went to events held by Or L’Simcha, the Orthodox Jewish congregation at Tree of Life Synagogue in the largely Jewish enclave of Squirrel Hill.
“My thought was, ‘So I told you it could happen, but I never thought it could happen in Pittsburgh,’ ” he said last week.
Abraham had witnessed torch-bearing white nationalists marching on the University of Virginia grounds in August 2017, chanting “Jews will not replace us!” That march came the night before a deadly protest rally and confrontation with counterprotesters in downtown Charlottesville.
“You see, this can happen anywhere,” he said. “It is important that people learn their history.”
The Kristallnacht pogrom came as a surprise even to senior Nazi leaders, including the SS, who were concerned about the damage to the country’s economy and foreign standing.
It was ordered by Hitler and carried out by Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, ringmaster of the Nazi militia, after the death of a German embassy official in Paris. The German official had been shot two days earlier by Herschel Grynspan, a 17-year-old Jewish youth whose parents had been forcibly deported from Germany to Poland.
They used the assassination of Ernst vom Rath, a diplomat in the Paris embassy (who, ironically, was under Gestapo surveillance for his suspect political sympathies), to justify the pogrom, said Sydnor, a former independent expert for Justice Department prosecution of Nazi war criminals. He also is a former president and CEO of Commonwealth Broadcasting Corp. in Richmond and former president of Emory & Henry College, where he now teaches an adjunct course on the history of the Holocaust.
Sydnor said Hitler sent his personal physician, Dr. Karl Brandt, to Paris the morning after the shooting to examine vom Rath. The doctor discovered that, in addition to gunshot wounds to the abdomen, vom Rath suffered from advanced tuberculosis of the stomach and intestines that contributed to his death on Nov. 9, 1938.
Brandt didn’t disclose vom Rath’s underlying condition — without which he would have survived the shooting — because it would have undermined the narrative that he had been assassinated by a Jew, Sydnor said.
“When he died, Hitler and Goebbels were ready to unleash a pogrom against the Jews,” he said. “It was the perfect pretext.”
‘A culture of murder’
Although the SS had not been told of the plan in advance, its second-in-command, Reinhard Heydrich, sent a teletype message to Gestapo offices early on Nov. 10, 1938, instructing them to allow the violence to proceed unhindered against Jewish synagogues, businesses and homes.
“Kristallnacht began what I call a climate of killing in Germany that in 1941 would turn into a culture of murder,” Sydnor said.
For the world, the Nazi rampage revealed Hitler’s intentions.
“It was a wake-up call, but not all nations heard it,” Baer said.
One that did hear was the United States. President Franklin Roosevelt publicly condemned the violence, recalled the U.S. ambassador from Germany and extended visas for 12,000 German Jewish refugees here, but was hindered from doing more by domestic politics and anti-Semitism.
In Pittsburgh, young Henry Abraham relied on The New York Times and communications from family in New Orleans for news about the events and his family in Offenbach, his hometown near Frankfurt. His father, Fred, a decorated German World War I veteran, had refused all entreaties to leave, thinking his military record would protect him. But he was quickly arrested and sent to the Nazi concentration camps of Sachsenhausen and Dachau.
“I visualize my father with his Homburg hat and his new overcoat saying goodbye to my mother and brother,” Abraham said.
His mother and younger brother, Otto, were imprisoned in the basement of their apartment building for almost two weeks. “Except for one brave unmarried couple who sneaked in food, none of the other residents lifted a finger to provide even a modicum of concern, let alone aid,” Abraham wrote in a memoir for his sons.
Abraham’s father ultimately would be released and allowed to leave Germany with his wife and son, who would join Abraham in Pittsburgh. Fred Abraham’s health never would be the same, and he died at 61.
“They came out of the camps broken, absolutely broken, by what they had been through,” Sydnor said.
Abraham’s grandmother, Marie, known as Oma, died from a heart attack at their home in Offenbach after fleeing with his maternal grandfather from their farm in Busenberg in the Rhineland-Palatinate. His grandfather somehow reached the United States in 1941, although the family never knew how.
Henry Abraham returned to Offenbach in 1945 as part of a U.S. Army unit temporarily stationed in Frankfurt. There, he attended the first religious service at the town’s synagogue since its destruction during Kristallnacht, in which just one Torah scroll was saved by the gentile wife of the caretaker.
“It was a wrenching, incredibly moving service, highlighted by the reintroduction of the saved Torah, carried by the old caretaker and two American Jewish soldiers into the small adjoining building, where the service took place,” he wrote in a memoir for his two sons.
Baer, who turned 80 in early August, had the good fortune to have a father, Bernhard, known as “Benno,” who had been born in the United States. That gave his young son American citizenship and an improbable way out with his mother a year later, after the outbreak of the war.
“But for my birth, they probably would not have left Germany,” he said.
Hirsch, his maternal grandfather, eventually was released from Sachsenhausen concentration camp, where he was beaten after his arrest during Kristallnacht. But he and his wife, Regina, were arrested during the war and sent to Theresienstadt concentration camp in what is now the Czech Republic, where they were killed.
Baer’s paternal grandparents, Moses and Doris, also were sent to Theresienstadt in 1943. She survived as a cook in the camp, but he was killed there the next year.
The 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht “is about memory,” Baer said, “remembering the horror and destruction of lives and hopes caused by these acts of evil until the memory is indelibly seared into our consciousness.”
“Only then will ‘never again’ have meaning.”
“It’s the opening act of the Holocaust. It is clearly when Germany crossed the Rubicon.” Charlie Sydnor, former director of the Virginia Holocaust Museum in Richmond and now its senior staff historian
A young man prepared to clean up broken glass from a Jewish shop in Berlin the day after the Kristallnacht rampage on Nov. 9, 1938.
Pedestrians stood amid the wreckage of Jewish shops in Berlin after Nazi gangs burned synagogues and damaged businesses, homes and schools.
A sculpture by artist Linda Gissen in the Emek Sholom Holocaust Memorial Cemetery in Richmond honors family members of Richmond’s Jewish community who died in the Holocaust.