The Cold War on the Rhine. A writer-journalist's day book--sort of. If you've found this place, you know the way.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Clouded memories of Kristal Nacht

On the 20th anniversary of Kristal Nacht, an aged priest led a group of Americans on a tour of a town on the Rhine and recounted the attacks against Jews that he witnessed and knew about in that town on that night. Kristal Nacht (the Night of Broken Glass)occurred on 9 November 1938 marked the beginning of the Holocaust in Germany. During that night and the one following, 91 Jews were killed, 267 synagogues were set afire, Jewish businesses were ransacked and vandalized, and 200,000 Jews were arrested and sent to concentration camps.The attacks were led and carried out by the Gestapo, but citizens joined in and formed mobs which did the most destructive work of the night.

I was among those on that tour in Germersheim, where I was stationed.  My problem is that it has been 50 years since that tour, and while the images and events of that tour are clearly impressed on my memory,  it was one of two outings we took to remember and understand Kristal Nacht.  i have forgot some of the details of the stories we were told. 


Our post was isolated and small.  For those who wished to attend religious services, there was scant opportunity.  We were served by a chaplain who came periodically, but he was a protestant, a Missouri Synod Lutheran.  The Catholic and Jewish soldiers had to attend services off post if they wished to worship.  We had a number of devout Catholic men for whom attending mass was essential.  The area where we were stationed was heavily Catholic, but the church members exuded a coolness and disapproval when G.I.s filed into the church pews.  A number of us who were Protestant--or merely curious--accompanied the Catholic men to church to provide them moral support and to make friendly overtures to the townspeople.


There was a small Catholic women's college in Germersheim, and we sometimes arranged to have some students accompany us to mass, in exchange for accompanying them on post to see American movies we showed in the Special Services club.  Admittedly,  our overtures to the young women were not totally ecumenical.  A priest from the church who spoke 
English and served as a chaplain at the college was friendly to the G.I.s and he encouraged the Catholic soldiers to attend the church and he invited the rest of us to various events.  


He suggested that we might find it edifying to join a  20th anniversary of Kristal Nacht tour led by an older priest who witnessed mob actions against the Jews in the community.  The invitation came after a discussion some of we Protestant soldiers had with some college students and the priest.  I am a Lutheran.  I was in town on Reformation Sunday that year and commented that there were no services to observe that important day in the Protestant liturgical calendar.  The priest pointed out something I had not been aware of.  
The organizers of Kristal Nacht had used a tract written by Martin Luther to motivate the public into accepting and helping with the attacks on the Jewish communities.  They cited and quoted Luther's On the Jews and Their Lies (Von den Juden und ihren L├╝gen).  Among the things Luther said in that 65,000-word tract were:

  • the Jews are "full of the devil's feces ... which they wallow in like swine."
  • the synagogue is an "incorrigible whore and an evil slut."
  • synagogues and schools [should] be set on fire, their prayer books destroyed, rabbis forbidden to preach, homes razed, and property and money confiscated. 
  • the Jews  should be shown no mercy or kindness and  afforded no legal protection.
  • these "poisonous envenomed worms" should be drafted into forced labor or expelled for all time.
  • "[w]e are at fault in not slaying them."
 Earlier in his career, Luther had defended and commiserated with the Jews for the ill treatment they have received in the Middle Ages. What led to his vicious anti-Semitism is much commented on by historians and theologians, but Hitler cited him as superb reformer, and   On the Jews and Their Lies was used at Nazi rallies to enflame the German populace against the Jews. The book was used as a justification for Kristal Nacht, which is cited as the initial action of the Holocaust. Kristal Nacht was Martin Luther's birthday.

 There were actually two tours involved.  On a Sunday afternoon before the Kristal Nacht anniversary,  we traveled to towns neighboring Germersheim where synagogues had been burned:  Speyer, Landau, and Karlsruhe.  The Germersheim synagogue was spared.  We visited that on a dark and dank evening of the anniversary day.  The elderly priest said that there were fewer than ten Jews in Germersheim at the time.  Their synagogue was appropriated by some Storm Troopers and the people were shipped out of Germersheim shortly after.  The story of that Jewish community was that some people from the neighboring towns where synagogues were set ablaze and Jewish men were being arrested came to the town looking for refuge and safety from the raging Storm Troopers. They were told that the synagogue was not a safe haven, and what happened to them was not explained.  The elderly priest told some stories about the night, and we got the impression that he was involved in hiding the refugees.  It was a spooky night, and the stories of families torn apart and men sent off to concentration camps never to be seen again had a fitting setting.  The priest explained that some of the people arrested in Speyer and Karlsruhe were released under the promise that they were making arrangements to leave Germany.  However, many did not make the deadline and were sent to the death camps.  


Some years ago, a man I served with at Germersheim sent me a photo of a plaque that had been erected on the building where the synagogue was.  It doesn't tell the story of why that synagogue is longer there.