I’ve never gone to Germany. Although I’ve traveled a lot, including to places that most travelers don’t typically visit, like Rwanda and East Timor, I haven’t been able to bring myself to go to Germany. My reason is completely irrational: That’s where the Holocaust started, of course, where the Nazis made plans to exterminate every Jew in Europe.
As a Jew, it terrifies me to think of how the Holocaust happened. We now know that there were 42,500 ghettos and concentration and extermination camps throughout Europe, a figure that shocked even those who are Holocaust scholars. But the Holocaust didn’t begin with extermination camps. It began slowly and insidiously, with anti-Semitism an integral element of Nazi ideology when Hitler took over the government in 1933, followed by legal discrimination in the Nuremberg Laws of 1935.
But for most scholars and historians, the beginning of the Holocaust, the path that led to the death camps, gas chambers, and killing fields, happened on Nov. 9 and 10 throughout Austria and Germany in what is known as Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass. This was a government-sanctioned pogrom (riot) against the Jews of Austria and Germany. The German paramilitary and non-Jewish civilians ravaged and burned more than 1,000 synagogues and homes, destroyed 7,000 Jewish shops, and rounded up and incarcerated more than 30,000 Jewish men in concentration camps. The pogroms raged while police and firefighters stood by, taking action only to prevent the spread of fire to non-Jewish-owned properties.
The name Kristallnacht comes from the glass shards littering the streets after windows were shattered in the Jewish-owned stores, buildings and synagogues. Historians note that no other event in the tragedy of German Jews between 1933 and 1945 was so widely reported as it was happening, and the accounts from the foreign journalists working in Germany sent shock waves around the world.
This year, Nov. 9 and 10, 2013, is the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht.
Five days after the devastation of Kristallnacht, a delegation of British Jewish and Quaker leaders appealed to the prime minister of the United Kingdom to permit the temporary admission of Jewish children, without their parents, to the UK.
The British Cabinet prepared a bill to allow the entry of unaccompanied children, from infants up to the age of 17, because of their persecution as Jews. No limit on the permitted number of refugees was ever publicly announced. The Jewish agencies hoped for 15,000 children to enter Great Britain in this way.
On Nov. 25, two weeks after Kristallnacht, British citizens heard a BBC radio appeal for foster homes. Within a very short time there were more than 500 offers.
In Germany, organizers made lists of those most in peril: teenagers in concentration camps or in danger of arrest, Polish youth threatened with deportation, children in Jewish orphanages, or children with a parent in a concentration camp. Once the children were identified, the guardians or parents were issued a travel date and departure details. Children could take only a small sealed suitcase with no valuables and only 10 marks or less in money. Some children had only a manila tag with a number on the front and their name on the back.
The first kindertransport, a rescue mission of 200 Jewish children, arrived in England on Dec. 2, 1938. Ultimately, more than 10,000 children were saved. One of those children, Benno Black, now age 88, lives in Minnesota.
This year, 2013, is the 75th anniversary of the kindertransports.
The Genocide Convention
The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 9, 1948, almost exactly a decade after Kristallnacht. It defines genocide in legal terms and is the culmination of years of campaigning by lawyer Raphael Lemkin. Lemkin, a Polish Jew, escaped from Europe during the Holocaust. He tried unsuccessfully to get his family to safety and lost 49 family members at Auschwitz.
This year, 2013, is the 65th anniversary of the Genocide Convention.
We must acknowledge these important anniversaries. The Hebrew word zachor means ‘remember.’ But we must do more. Six million Jews perished in Europe. That number is now reverberating across the world. Six million people have perished in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in a conflict that began nearly 20 years ago and continues today. Six million Syrians are displaced in a crisis that is now in its third year. The responsibility to protect innocent people is an obligation that belongs to us all.
I haven’t been to Germany, but I will remember these anniversaries. We all must remember them, and we must act so that anniversaries like these will not keep happening.
World Without Genocide is sponsoring a talk, “Holocaust Anniversaries: Kristallnacht, the Kindertransports, and the Genocide Convention,” on Monday, Dec. 9, from 7 to 9 p.m., at William Mitchell College of Law Auditorium, 875 Summit Avenue, St. Paul. The event is open to the public, and no registration is necessary ($10 admission, $5 students and seniors, $35 lawyers for 2 Standard CLE credits pending, Mitchell students free).
Ellen J. Kennedy, Ph.D., is the executive director of World Without Genocide at William Mitchell College of Law.
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