The Atlantic Selects
The Echoes of Kristallnacht
Oct 30, 2018
Leo Baeck Institute
Just before midnight on November 9, 1938, the Gestapo chief, Heinrich Müller, sent a telegram to every police unit in Nazi Germany. “In shortest order,” it read, “actions against Jews and especially their synagogues will take place in all of Germany. These are not to be interfered with.” Firefighters stood by as synagogues and Jewish-owned homes, schools, and businesses burned to the ground. Within a day, 91 Jews had been murdered, and between 20,000 and 30,000 arrested and sent to concentration camps.
“Kristallnacht changed everything,” says Dr. Ruth Weistheimer, one of the nonagenarian Holocaust survivors interviewed in a new short documentary from the Leo Baeck Institute. Indeed, the pogrom—which occurred 80 years ago next week—is widely considered by historians to be the inflection point of the Third Reich, when persecution of German Jews sharply escalated to violence, incarceration, and murder.
In the film, the interview subjects recall their experiences in Weimar Germany and the early days of the Nazi regime. Many escaped by the Kindertransport program; others were lucky enough to obtain visas through well-connected family members or friends in America.
“America did not exactly make it easy,” remembers one woman interviewed in the film. “That’s a myth—the open arms of the Statue of Liberty. It wasn’t true then, and it’s not true now.”
Despite the efforts made by emigrants and international-aid organizations through 1938, said William H. Weitzer, the executive director of the Leo Baeck Institute, “nobody wanted to accept the German Jewish refugees.”
Weitzer said his organization is attuned to “similarities and differences” between historical events, such as the Night of Broken Glass and now. “For those we interviewed, Germany of the early 1930s was a model for rule of law,” he said. “In spite of that, they saw the collapse of the democratic system.” He views firsthand narratives, such as this 1938Projekt short film, to be powerful tools. “They teach us that we—like the generations before—do not know what will happen next.”
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Author: Emily Buder
About This Series
A showcase of cinematic short documentary films, curated by The Atlantic.