Remembering Kristallnacht After Pittsburgh

November 8, 2018Aron Hirt-Manheimer

Today Jews will commemorate the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht (Night of the Broken Glass), the pogrom in Germany and Austria in which 91 Jews were killed, more than 30,000 imprisoned in concentration camps, and hundreds of synagogues and Jewish-owned shops set ablaze. It was the first large-scale attack on German Jews in the Third Reich.

We remember Kristallnacht as we mourn the 11 victims of the deadliest attack on Jews in American history.

What happened in Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue attack is frightening, but we must guard against drawing direct parallels with Kristallnacht.

In 1938, the police did nothing to stop the violence; in fact, they arrested Jews “for their own protection.”

In 2018, police acted heroically to stop the assailant; four officers were wounded in the line of duty.

In 1938, top government officials masterminded the pogrom as part of a campaign of  “Aryanization,” but portrayed it as a spontaneous outburst after a 17-year-old Polish Jew named Herschel Grynszpan assassinated Ernst vom Rath, a German embassy official in Paris.

In 2018, the attack appears to have been carried out by a “lone wolf,” Jew-hating terrorist.

In 1938, the German people reportedly did little to defend their Jewish neighbors, though some hid them from storm troopers at great personal risk.

In 2018, the Jewish community – in Pittsburgh and far beyond – received an outpouring of support from civic and interfaith groups, as well as elected officials at all levels of government.

There is, however, one significant thread connecting these two historical events: the plight of refugees and the closing of borders to asylum seekers.

Kristallnacht was triggered by the Nazis after Grynszpan shot vom Rath in an act of protest upon learning that his parents were among 17,000 Jewish refugees banished to a no-man’s-land between Poland and Germany.

Kristallnacht was part of the Nazi strategy to pressure German Jews to emigrate, knowing that four months earlier the leading Western democracies had decided at a conference in Evian, France to keep out the Jews of Europe seeking refuge.  

President Franklin Roosevelt condemned the pogrom and recalled the U.S. ambassador from Germany for consultations. He extended visitors’ visas to approximately 12,000 German Jewish refugees already in the country but opposed changing the annual quota of 27,000 German and Austrian immigrants.

Senator Robert Wagner (D-NY) and Representative Edith Rogers (R-Mass) sponsored a controversial bill to admit 20,000 Jewish children to the U.S. from “Greater Germany.” A January 1939 Gallup poll found that 61 percent of Americans (twice as many as those who supported the bill) opposed the government’s permitting mostly Jewish children to enter this country. The wife of the U.S. Commissioner of Immigration (and a cousin of President Roosevelt) expressed the view of many Americans when she warned that those “20,000 charming children would all too soon grow into 20,000 ugly adults.” The bill was not passed.

Canada, too, closed its borders to Jewish refugees during the Holocaust. When asked how many Jews should be accepted into the country, a high-level government official famously responded, “None is too many.” And the British blocked Jews from entering Palestine.

After the war, restrictions severely limiting Jewish immigration to the U.S. remained in effect. Faced with congressional inaction, President Harry S. Truman issued an executive order, the "Truman Directive," on December 22, 1945, which required that existing immigration quotas be designated for displaced persons (DPs). As a result, nearly 23,000 DPs, of whom two-thirds were Jewish, entered the United States from Europe.

Following intense lobbying by the American Jewish community, Congress passed legislation in 1948 to admit another 400,000 DPs, of which nearly 80,000 were Jewish. By 1952, close to 100,000 Jewish DPs had settled in the United States.

The vast majority of Holocaust survivors, including my family, which arrived on these shores in 1951 from the Feldafing DP camp in Germany, received assistance from the non-profit Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), established in 1881 to aid Jewish refugees in the aftermath of the first anti-Semitic pogroms in Tzarist Russia.

Today HIAS supports refugees of all religious and ethnic origins whose lives and freedom are at risk due to violence, war, and persecution.

Minutes before the gunman opened fire on Shabbat worshipers in the Tree of Life synagogue shouting, “All Jews must die,” he posted this message on social media: “HIAS likes to bring invaders that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered…I’m going in.” The timing of the attack coincided with the portrayal by the right-wing media and the president of the caravan of asylum seekers moving through Mexico as an “invasion.”

What Kristallnacht and Pittsburgh have in common is the politics of hate and xenophobia, which are on the rise in Germany, the place of my birth, and in America, where my stateless family found sanctuary.

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