What the Horrors of Kristallnacht Should Teach Us Today
During the summer of 1938, with an urgent situation facing Jews in Nazi-occupied lands, 32 nations gathered in Evian, France, to find a solution to the Jewish refugee crisis. German, Austrian and Czech Jews were desperate to leave, but few nations would accept any Jewish immigrants beyond their meager quotas. Nothing was resolved at Evian, as delegate after delegate refused to expand their quotas.
The horrors of Kristallnacht on November 9, 1938 exacerbated the German Jewish refugee crisis. Nearly 100 Jews were murdered and 30,000 were sent to concentration camps. Five hundred synagogues were burnt down, and more than 7,000 Jewish businesses were destroyed. More than 200,000 German Jews had not yet left, and 200,000 Jews in Austria were under German occupation.
Just six weeks before Kristallnacht, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain triumphantly proclaimed “peace in our time” following the ill fated Munich deal.
A full page advertisement in the London Jewish Chronicle — in an appeal for German Jewry — simply stated, “HELP! Before it is too late.”
The British did react with a gesture. The Kindertransport plan presented to the British Parliament on November 15, 1938, allowed for 10,000 German and Austrian Jewish children to be brought into Great Britain. The first train left on December 10, 1938, with six hundred children.
Many Americans realized after Kristallnacht, known then as “Black Thursday,” that along with the Jews, all Western civilization was in danger. The Cleveland Plain Dealer noted that “The Jews are not the sole sufferers. This is a pogrom against Christian civilization itself. Decent world opinion and civilized governments cannot remain indifferent or silent.”
United States President Franklin Delano Roosevelt did extend the visas for 12,000-15,000 German Jewish refugees who were already in the US as visitors, but would not change US immigration policies. At a White House Press conference, Roosevelt expressed shock at the news of the pogrom, “I myself could scarcely believe that such things could occur in a twentieth century civilization.” When asked if immigration restrictions would be relaxed, he responded, “This is not in contemplation. We have a quota system.”
Roosevelt’s position mirrored the views of most Americans. According to a Fortune Magazine poll after Kristallnacht, 83% of Americans opposed enlarging quotas, 8.3% were undecided, and 8.7% were not opposed. Years of demagoguery and antisemitic hate mongering by the likes of Father Coughlin and Gerald K. Smith had its impact. There was revulsion at the violence but a continued unwillingness to respond meaningfully.
However, President Roosevelt could have nonetheless still taken action. Economic sanctions could have been imposed on Germany. Refugees could have been permitted to settle temporarily in a US territory such as the Philippines or the Virgin Islands.
Jewish organizations did not protest. There were no rallies, no protests, no significant efforts mounted to call for change. Samuel Rosenmann, an influential leader of the American Jewish Committee, stated that bringing in refugees “would create a Jewish crisis in the USA.”
Some members of Congress sought action. The Wagner-Rogers Bill proposed admitting 20,000 German Jewish children under the age of fourteen, but it never came to a vote.
One nation offered sanctuary: the Dominican Republic under Rafael Trujillo. Dominican law #48 proposed to accept 100,000 Jewish refugees on their Caribbean island nation, but they were pressured by none other than the US State Department to rescind their offer.
What about refuge in the Land of Israel and the promises made by the British Balfour Declaration in 1917, and the League of Nations San Remo Conference in 1920 to facilitate the creation of a Jewish State?
On November 16, 1938 — a week after Kristallnacht — The New York Times expressed its opposition to Jewish statehood in an editorial, entitled, “The Refugees,” declaring that “Palestine is no answer.”
On May 17, 1939, the British government, caving in to Arab pressure and Arab terror, issued the MacDonald White paper which limited total Jewish immigration into Palestine for the next five years to 75,000.
Throughout the 1930s, nations of the world were far too tolerant of Nazism and reluctant to take any action to ameliorate the sufferings of European Jewry. In refusing to confront the Nazis, they also sealed their own devastation via the Second World War.
In today’s times, Western nations have been far too tolerant of the forces of radical Islam. Just like the Nazis, they threaten Israel and the West jointly.
Those who spoke out against the rise of Nazism in the 1930s were often labeled war mongers. Today, those who cite the threats posed by radical Islam face the same labels and similar criticisms.
Once again, the Jewish establishment maintains its silence in the face of the current threats, fearing the reaction of the outside world as it did 70 years ago.
The horrors of Kristallnacht shocked the world, and signaled the extreme dangers posed by the Nazi regime to the Jews — and to all humanity. What will it take to wake people up this time?