I remember that once I'd been exposed to the Holocaust as a preteen by reading Anne Frank's diary and seeing movies like "The Pawnbroker" with Rod Steiger, I would repeatedly ask my parents and other members of their generation exactly what they'd known about the situation in Europe. I was always curious about their lives, wanting to learn what it had been like coming of age in the Depression, what it was like fighting in the war or living on the homefront. I wanted desperately to know all of these things, and when I learned that so little had been done to save European Jewry, I wanted to know what my parents had been aware of. They always insisted that it had been very little, that there hadn't been much in the papers, that the subject was avoided because of an innate anti-Semitism in American life during the period. They knew something terrible was going on, but they hadn't really understood the extent of it until the camps were liberated.
That was why I was shocked when I read Deborah Lipstadt's 1986 book Beyond Belief, which deals with the American press response to the Holocaust. There was doubtless a troubled relationship between our newspapers and what was happening to the Jews, and it was no doubt spurred on by underlying anti-Semitic feelings and a sense that isolationism was the way for America to proceed. Still, it was shocking to actually see how much had been written about, say, Kristallnacht -- that it had made the front page of The New York Times, and that there had been screaming headlines that made it clear what Germany had in mind for its Jewish citizens.
This particular event, Lipstadt makes clear, hardened American resolve against Germany, but did not change the general American wish to stay out of the mess brewing in Europe and to avoid welcoming any more immigrants to these shores. Her thesis is that the press response as a whole could best be summed up as "yes, but," which allowed readers to ignore any single event -- and the Holocaust as a whole, and all its implications. But she makes it clear that Kristallnacht and other major actions against the Jews were written about in our newspapers -- sometimes buried in the back pages, other times given more prominence.
'A Whirlwind of Destruction'
The same sense of shock I had reading Lipstadt 20 years ago returned when I began reading famed historian Martin Gilbert's new book, Kristallnacht: Prelude to Destruction, recently published by Harper Collins.
For those readers who still might not know, Kristallnacht -- what Gilbert calls "a whirlwind of destruction" unleashed against the Jews of Germany -- began early on Nov. 10, 1938. Within a matter of hours, thousands of synagogues had been set on fire and destroyed.
This was not a "spontaneous outburst" of anti-Jewish invective taken up by the German people against a hated minority, as Nazi officials tried to convince the world. Rather, as Gilbert and many other historians have made clear, it was "a coordinated, comprehensive rampage."
"In hundreds of Jewish neighborhoods, paramilitary stormtroopers of the SA 'Sturmabteilung,' or Storm Division -- some in their Brownshirt uniforms, others in civilian clothes -- lit bonfires and threw furniture and books from synagogues and private homes into the flames," writes Gilbert. "In the streets, Jews were chased, reviled and beaten up. Tens of thousands of Jewish shops and homes were ransacked, Jews were attacked in every German town, from the capital, Berlin, to the smallest towns and villages in which Jews lived throughout Hitler's Reich. In 24 hours of violence, 91 Jews were killed.
"Within those 24 hours, more than 30,000 Jewish men between the ages of 16 and 60 -- a quarter of all Jewish men still in Germany -- were arrested and sent to concentration camps. There they were tortured and tormented for several months. More than a thousand died in these camps."
This massive pogrom became known as Kristallnacht, "the night of broken glass." According to Gilbert, the perpetrators saw in this name both their sense of triumph and their contempt: "triumph at what they had destroyed, laughter at the thought of the sound of breaking glass."
And as Gilbert also makes clear right from the start, no event in the fate of German Jews between 1933 and 1945 was as widely covered by newspapers "while it was taking place." Writes Gilbert: "There were several hundred foreign journalists in Germany, including those from the main international news agencies, who reported freely on what they saw and heard. This was not wartime."
This is a major point that Gilbert stresses throughout his brief, intense narrative. He begins with the events and its origins, then moves back to describe the six years leading up to this wretched turning point (that is, from the point the Nazis seized power to the eve of Kristallnacht). His narrative also looks at the response to this night of terror by the Jews of Germany, the German government and the world at large.
For those who don't know much about these horrific few days, Gilbert's book is the place to start. And yet even those well-versed in the history of the Holocaust can learn a good deal. This is because Gilbert has done firsthand interviews with individuals who lived through the period -- or he quotes extensively from letters they've sent him about their experiences. In turn, he keeps readers apprised of the reports those foreign journalists were sending back to their papers about what was transpiring throughout all of Germany on Nov. 10.
'The Orgy Began ... "
The rampage was set in motion, the Germans said, in reaction to the shooting by a young Jewish man, Herschel Grynszpan, of a junior diplomat, Ernst vom Rath, at the German embassy in Paris. Grynszpan was angered by the expulsion of his family from Germany. He'd gone to the embassy on Nov. 7; three days later, vom Rath was dead.
"The orgy began in the early hours of this morning," one British newspaper correspondent reported from Berlin, "with almost simultaneous outbreaks of fire in nine of the 11 synagogues."
"The trouble began," another British newspaper reported, "when half-drunk mobs armed with crow bars and bricks began window-smashing in the West End, mishandling Jews and placarding shops with handbills." This last came from the Nov. 10 Evening Standard. The article translated the handbills for readers: "Fuhrer! Free us from the Jewish plague!" It was also reported that within the course of an hour-and-a-half, at least 200 Jewish stores had been wrecked.
But even days before the rampage began, a British newspaper noted that many Jews had been incarcerated in concentration camps, and commented on the "great barbarities" to which these individuals had been subjected. Continues Gilbert: "The mortality among those Jews was so high -- 'they perish of ill-treatment or are driven to suicide' in the camps -- that one who had recently been released stated that 'even in normal times' in the concentration camps the Jews 'die off like flies in autumn.' The newspaper added: 'It is to be feared that ill-treatment will be intensified as a reprisal for the assassination of a German diplomat. The German press and wireless accuse the Jews as a whole of responsibility for the deed."
Gilbert notes in his introduction that there are moments throughout the terrible events he describes when Germans of goodwill, as well as foreign diplomats, tried to help the victims. He insists that their courage should not be forgotten. "But nothing can lessen the suffering of those who were the victims of that night of terror, or mitigate the terrible consequences for the Jews of Germany, and for the human condition. Kristallnacht was the prelude to the destruction of a whole people, and an indication of what happens when a society falls victim to its baser instincts."
And as we read these terrible details, we must ask ourselves again why such things happen, and what in all of us, as we do read, prevents us from acting on our better instincts and attempting to stop what continue to be crimes against humanity.