This is a season of remembrance.
Some 150 years ago, President Abraham Lincoln gave his Gettysburg Address. A century later, an assassin killed President John F. Kennedy.
But between those two dates is another anniversary. This is also the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, a foreshadow of the Holocaust, when Germany’s Jews were targeted by government-encouraged haters.
Overnight between Nov. 9 and 10, 1938, about 7,500 Jewish businesses were gutted, about 1,000 synagogues were burned or damaged, uncounted Jewish homes were invaded and furnishings including windows and doors were smashed. The destruction left 91 dead and hundreds injured and more than 30,000 Jewish males were arrested and released only if they emigrated and agreed to surrender their wealth.
It’s hard to imagine that Kristallnacht happened only 75 years after the Gettysburg Address was given. We tend to think history takes longer than it does. There are no people living today who fought in or were civilians during the Civil War or who were in Gettysburg to hear Lincoln speak. There are people living today, however, who lived through Kristallnacht.
Five of those survivors sat down two years ago and spoke frankly to 10 students of the German School New York in White Plains. The students interviewed the senior citizens about their memories of Kristallnacht as part of a documentary project they did for school.
Their documentary got an airing last Monday to a select audience: about 150 people, including seventh- and eighth-grade students who currently attend the German School and their parents, eighth- and ninth-grade students from Congregation Emanu-El in White Plains and board members of the Holocaust and Human Rights Education Center, which co-sponsored the event with the school.
Ruth Bachner, pictured above, now of Somers, was living in Vienna on Kristallnacht and was one of the survivors interviewed two years ago. She was a special guest during the showing and participated, along with educators and officials from the Holocaust Center, in a special question-and-answer period afterward.
One question, which she couldn’t answer, was why Germany has acknowledged its part in the Holocaust and made restitution, and why other countries, especially Poland, have refused to do so. Some things, she said, take more time than others. “When all this happened, I was very angry, I was angry at the Germans, I was angry at the Austrians,” she said. “I can’t reconcile the fact that, because of a religion, all this death happened. This was the 20th Century and we were educated people. It wasn’t like we lived in some little hick town. They were educated people and they acted like barbarians.”
Bachman said that she felt comfortable talking with Jewish children about her experiences but felt a little constrained while talking with the students from the German School. She was worried about hurting their feelings, she said; after all, the children she spoke with were two, even three generations removed from the horrors of 1938 Germany.
Shawn Perekrestenko, a history, science and biology teacher at the German School and one of the organizers of the program, said 75 years is not too long to recall a low point in his country’s history.
“I found we do have a … responsibility toward history and what happened in Germany,” he said.
Head of School Ulrich Weghoff told the audience that he felt it was important “to understand the full extent of the inhumanity that took place … that we can prevent (such) cruelty from happening again, to learn from the past and build bridges for a better future.”
David Roth, 14, a ninth-grader at the German School, called the film “moving and very interesting,” saying that hearing testimony from survivors made an impression that textbooks do not.
Classmate Felipe Thomas, 15, said he liked the idea of building bridges between his school and students from Emanu-El.”
Rose Baranowski, 13, a student at Somers Middle School who attended the documentary with the Emanu-El students, pointed out that her generation probably is the last that will be able to hear these stories from the people who lived them.
The documentary is available for public viewing. Interested people are asked to contact the German School.