12/11/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Kristallnacht: 70 Years Later

Seventy years ago yesterday, hundreds of groups of marauding Germans were tearing through Berlin and other cities in Germany vandalizing, looting, and in many cases burning to the ground Jewish synagogues, businesses, and private homes. Later, this horrible night of terror would be called Kristallnacht, or the "Night of Broken Glass" because of the constant sound of the shattered storefront windows of the Jewish-owned businesses. German Jews had been suffering one indignity after another since the Nazis took power five years earlier, but Kristallnacht was a major turning point in what would soon lead to the expulsion and murder of millions of European Jews. During this well planned event, 30,000 Jews were arrested and sent to concentration camps, hundreds of ancient synagogues were destroyed and burned down, and thousands of Jewish businesses and homes were attacked.

It boggles my mind whenever I hear people say that German citizens and the rest of the world didn't know what was happening to the Jews until after the war. The events of November 9, 1938, were fully reported in every newspaper on the planet and the Nazi officials in 1938, well before the start of World War II, made no bones about their plans to get rid of the Jews.

Following increased restrictions placed on Jews, the Nazis had been looking for an excuse to ramp up their persecution in a more organized and violent way. On November 7, 1938, a 17-year-old German-Jewish kid named Herschel Grynszpan, distraught over his family's expulsion from Germany, walked into the German Embassy in Paris, pulled out a gun, and fired at a junior diplomat, Ernst vom Rath. The diplomat died of his wounds two days later which gave Joseph Goebbels just the opportunity he was looking for to set into motion a country-wide attack on Germany's Jews and their property, all under the pretense of making the Jews pay for vom Rath's death.

I just spent several hours pouring through the American newspaper accounts of this ugly night. (Hey, it's a beautiful day in Los Angeles, what else should I be doing?) Here are a few observations that came to mind as I read the articles.


Many people spoke up, others were shockingly silent. Goebbels, the Minister of Propaganda, initially got credit in the American press for stopping the mayhem and sending in the police to protect the Jews even while he defended the brutal attacks. "The justified and understandable anger of the German people over the cowardly Jewish murder of a German diplomat in Paris found extensive expression last night," Goebbels said. "A final answer to the Jewish assassination will be given to Jewry by way of legislation and ordinance." Reports of the crowds of onlookers included many people laughing and applauding, some seeming quite upset about what was happening and trying to help the Jewish business owners, and others shouting "Kill the Jews! Why not hang the owner of the store in the window!" A young American woman on the streets of Berlin that night said she saw one Jewish man dragged from his shop, chased by a crowd of German boys, and viciously beaten to death. She then saw a second Jew beaten by a single man as the crowd looked on and did nothing. Looting soon began everywhere. In some cases, Nazis gathered up items from the smashed store windows and threw them into the crowd, shouting "Here are some cheap Christmas presents."

The first notes of protest were sounded by the executive committee of the World Jewish Congress in Geneva, who described the assassination of the German diplomat in Paris as a poor excuse for the Nazi campaign. In the U.S., there was no immediate comment on the incident from President Roosevelt. The first American officials to decry what happened were New York District Attorney Thomas E. Dewey and former Governor Alfred Smith who attacked Germany in a radio broadcast sponsored by the Anti-Nazi League to Champion Human Rights. Dewey said he wished to appeal to world opinion to rebuke a "dictatorship gone mad."

"We stand appalled," he said, "by the sight of what has happened in Nazi Germany. If you saw a gang of cowardly ruffians set upon a helpless man in the streets, and proceed to beat him, you would not long remain silent. If you saw a fanatical mob pillage and burn a church or synagogue, you would not long remain silent. If you saw a brutal band drive helpless families from their homes, you would speak out promptly. Multiply these incidents by thousands and you have the sickening spectable of Nazi Germany. No amount of lame explanation by the German Minister of Propaganda can make the picture any different."

Other people who immediately spoke out included famous feminist Carrie Chapman Catt who sent telegrams to the State Department asking the government to protest the action. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Louis Bromfield wanted to help the fleeing Jews. He suggested that the Mexican peninsula of Baja California could be used as a haven for the persecuted people. Others proposed that up to a million Jews might seek refuge in Northern Rhodesia. The National Negro Congress asked President Roosevelt "to provide in America a free haven for the oppressed Jewish people." John P. Davis, national secretary of the congress, wired Mr. Roosevelt that "Negro people in America, representing a minority in our democracy, are deeply concerned over the inhuman barbarism being practiced on the Jewish minority in Nazi Germany."

Another public figure who spoke out about the events that November was former President Herbert Hoover. After expressing his outrage at the German government and reminding them how he worked so hard to save the German people from famine when he was President, Hoover said the current attacks endanger the whole world.

"It is still my belief," he added, "that the German people if they could express themselves would not approve these acts against the Jews.But as they cannot so express themselves it is the duty of men everywhere to express our indignation not alone at the suffering these men are imposing on an innocent people but at the blow they are striking at civilization itself."

President Roosevelt finally weighed in on November 16th with a slightly guarded statement: