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Germany marks Kristallnacht’s 75th anniversary

What tips a society into madness?

In 1938, Nechama Drober, a German Jew, looked out her bedroom window in the medieval port city of Koenigberg to see her synagogue in flames. This week she addressed a crowd in Berlin about the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. (Claudia Himmelreich/MCT)

In 1938, Nechama Drober, a German Jew, looked out her bedroom window in the medieval port city of Koenigberg to see her synagogue in flames. This week she addressed a crowd in Berlin about the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. (Claudia Himmelreich/MCT)

BERLIN — Seventy-five years ago, Nechama Drober, a German Jew, looked out her bedroom window in the medieval port city of Koenigsberg to see her synagogue in flames.

Drober, now 86, recalls the horror. “The large temple with its golden cupola, it was the most beautiful synagogue I have ever seen.”

But she also remembers that it was only the beginning. “The next day, my dad was arrested, and our landlord evicted us. All I could think of was the song we had sung in summer camp the years before, ‘Jew, where in this world can you go?’”

Saturday marks the 75th anniversary of what Germans now call Reichspogromnacht, but which the rest of the world knows as calls Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass. By the time it was over, Nazi thugs had killed 91 Jews and taken 30,000 others prisoner, for deportation to concentration camps. Thousands of businesses and synagogues were burned or destroyed. It was far from the beginning of Nazi persecution of German Jews, but it is fair to say it was the beginning of the end, a single night of animalistic violence in Germany, Austria and the occupied region of Czechoslovakia.

It began Nov. 9, 1938, and bled over into the early hours of Nov. 10, and then into the next six and a half years. Nazi storm troopers kicked it off, smashing windows painted with “Jude” in white letters, battering some Jews. Others joined in, looting, taunting and spitting on the Jewish victims.

Deidre Berger, director of the American Jewish Committee in Berlin, works to ensure Germans don’t forget that night, and the descent into inhumanity it represented.

“It’s important to understand why the veneer of civilization was so easily cracked,” she said. She notes that there were many who stood against “this mass orgy of violence” against their longtime friends, neighbors and associates.

But there were more who joined in or stood by passively. That, she said, has to be an enduring lesson of Kristallnacht.

“It takes so little to tip the scales,” she said. “It really shows the fragility of political systems. In one night, so many who had grown up together, turned and attacked the dignity and the safety of their neighbors, laughed as they were arrested.”

At an event this week at the aptly named Topography of Terror documentation center built on the grounds of the Nazi Gestapo headquarters, Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit spoke about that lesson. Wowereit is openly gay, and while he did not make this point in his talk, Berliners know he, too, would have been targeted by the Nazis.

“At the same time, many neighbors remained indifferent, and I’m asking myself why over the years, so few came out and admitted: ‘I saw it, and looked the other way. Today, I am ashamed,’” he wondered about those who had witnessed the events.

Experts say knowing exactly where the tipping point into madness sits is impossible. It clearly involves the loss of civility, of respect, of tolerance. Germans have spent the last year very publicly remembering this night 75 years ago. Public art exhibits and concerts and speeches have focused on what was lost in the years following Kristallnacht, their tipping point.

Drober didn’t need the events to remember, though. That night, sitting up and watching her world burn marked the beginning of decades of suffering. “From 1941, we had to carry the yellow star on our clothing that said ‘Jew’ in the middle. Thus marked, people spat at us and pushed us from the sidewalk,” she remembered.

Her father survived the war as a slave laborer. When the Nazi world collapsed and the Soviets took over, he was sent to a Siberian labor camp. Her mother and brother died of starvation. It wasn’t until the Soviet Union collapsed and she was able to move to Israel that she felt free of oppression.

“Throughout my life, I could never forget what happened that night of Nov. 9, 1938,” she said. “It is good that Germany, my fatherland, remembers and commemorates what happened.”

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