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Commentary: High-pitched elegance of Kristallnacht still echoes with horror

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: November 9, 2008- I still hear the lingering sound effects of Kristallnacht, the so-called Night of Broken Glass, ringing in my head. It's 70 years since the night of Nov. 9-10, 1938, when countrywide pogroms heralded the official start of wholesale violence against Germany's Jews. I haven't forgotten.

"Broken glass" doesn't actually do the German phrase justice; the English words suggest merely the sound of kitchen glasses hitting the tile floor while the German word points to the high-pitched sound made by fine crystal shattering. It's the sweet, reverberating sound that the delicate crystal chandeliers and the stained glass windows of German synagogues may or may not have sung as blunt instruments of force smashed them into thousands of splintered shards.

Imagine it, as the coiners of the phrase must have imagined it: the beautiful high-pitched mesmerizing sound of that elegant glass breaking. Like wind whistling through the forest. Sopranos practicing in their showers. Worlds coming to an end.

The Germans could not have chosen a better metaphor. The name is delicate and refined, perfectly harmonious with the urbane post-Enlightenment German civilization that had developed from the barbarism of earlier days. In little more than one century, the culture had produced the likes of Goethe, Brahms, Beethoven, Schiller, Schopenhauer, Kant, Nietzsche, Marx, Mendelssohn and other world-class writers, composers and philosophers. Educated people, including the resident Jews, found the intellectual climate incomparably stimulating and took pride in their sophisticated and highly literate Kultur.

So it was fitting that the lilting sound of shattering crystal, unlike the usual sounds of war, came to symbolize the beginning of the War Against the Jews.

The Nazi planners wanted to make it culturally acceptable in word and deed. The actual perpetrators of the night's violence bought into the Nazi ideology of a better world to come in which they would enjoy fine things and the company of other members of a beautiful and pure Aryan race.

If that vision suggests the promise of 70 beautiful virgins in paradise, it is no accident. The Germans, too, had faith. And the terrorist acts they engaged in that night were, in their minds, patriotic, idealistic, and, better yet, entertaining.

Most of them were probably just boys with weapons, out for a good time with their clubs and rifles, beating down doors, knocking down treasures, reveling in the sounds of their rapacity. It was not as if they hated Jews, these vandals in the state uniforms; they hardly knew any Jews personally. They had only heard the facts about them, how they had caused all the problems Germany ever had. It was a blast to have permission to smash their holy places to smithereens!

Poor souls. They could not have guessed what the ultimate consequences of their actions would be, that about 6 million Jews and 5 million other human beings (also not considered fit to live) would be slaughtered. Nor could they know how difficult it would be to get off the violent path once embarked on it. Even now, thinking back on the events of that night, one can wonder if it was the inevitable point of no return, if the process could have been diverted toward a different end by anything short of a miracle.

I think not. After that night's rampages, during which 91 Jews were killed, and 25,000 rounded up, arrested and later brutalized, everything was stacked against a good outcome. The good Germans, who were as horrified as we would be by the night's devastation, lacked the power, or the weaponry, to overcome the intent of their fascist government. Certainly there were many brave people who tried, and died. Their best efforts, performed at great risk to their own lives, saved only a small percentage of the intended victims and did no harm to the regime.

The current German government, finally shaken out of its defensive somnolence, has taken legal and other steps to make sure that there is no recurrence of the ugly history of the 20th century. Invited recently by the government of Hamburg (along with other emigres) to see the difference time has made, I saw for myself what good things are being done to honor the memory of the city's murdered Jews. We were welcomed royally by leading members of the government and by teachers and historians and students intent on remembering, and publicizing, what had been long, and willfully, forgotten.

One project especially meaningful to me was the installation in Hamburg of hundreds of Stolpersteine  (stumbling blocks), in the sidewalks in front of former Jewish residences. These 4-by-4 inch simple brass blocks are inscribed with the individual names and birth and death information of the Holocaust victims who formerly lived at the marked sites. The stones are hard to miss and thus are constant reminders of what transpired, even to the most dismissive passer-by.

Cologne artist Gunter Demnig has made the creation and installation of these miniature memorials, all over Germany, his life task. The Hamburg government, under the leadership of Lord Mayor Ole von Beust is rare in funding the stone implantation within its jurisdiction. [More info at www.smithsonianmag.com/people-places/stolpersteine.html]

The project is a practical step toward remembering, one that will remain way beyond the finite memories of those of us who were there that long-ago November night. For us, the date remains noteworthy both because of the fearful events that transpired, and because it is the only firm date we can affix to the unknown, undated, deaths of our many lost loved ones.

If there is one practical lesson we can draw from Kristallnacht and its consequences, it is the importance of keeping vigil over our civil rights as well as the rights of the people we despise. Once a government oppresses any of its minorities, all hell can break loose.

Miriam Raskin, a native of Hamburg, lives in Creve Coeur. 

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