Kristallnacht and FDR’s failure to Act

An Interview with Dr. Rafael Medoff


by Jerry Gordon and Rod Bryant (December 2018)

Synagogue in Hanover, Germany burning during  Kristallnacht, November 9, 1938



November 9-10, 2018 marked the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the “night of broken glass” in 1938 when Hitler perpetrated a nation-wide pogrom in response to the assassination of a German diplomat Ernst Von Rath at the Paris Embassy by a 17-year-old Polish Jew Herschel Grynspan. The Nazi SA and Hitler youth rampaged through Germany and Austria 7,500 Jewish homes and businesses were ransacked, 267 synagogues were attacked, 76 were destroyed, nearly 100 Jews were killed. Most significantly 30,000 Jewish men were sent to Nazi concentration camps at Dachau, Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen. German Jews were fined over $400 million for the cleanup of the Nazi pogrom. It marked the end for Jews in Germany. Many consider it as the precursor for Hitler’s Final Solution, the murder of six million European Jewish men, women and children in unspeakable ways.


FDR responses to Kristallnacht at press conferences a few days after the Nazi pogrom did not challenge the Hitler regime, not even identifying the victims as Jews. This contrasted with headlines in US and foreign newspapers drawing attention to the Nazi existential threats to Germany’s Jews. FDR’s State Department even ruled against offers by the Governor of the US Virgin Islands to take in German Jewish refugees. There was the little-known offer of the Dominican Republic, made earlier than Kristallnacht in 1938, to take in over 100,000 German Jews- in the end they took in less than 1,000 in the settlement of Sosua. The FDR Administration were concerned that these German Jewish refugees would ultimately infiltrate the US. That was reflected less than six months later in June 1939 when the 930 German Jews aboard the fateful ship the St. Louis were barred entry by the State Department, many of whom went to their deaths in Nazi killing centers. FDR didn’t want strong action against Hitler’s Germany for fear of triggering a war and impacting trade during the economic Depression. Hollywood’s Jewish moguls didn’t want to lose export markets in German for film productions. Many Jewish leaders remain silent for fear of anti-Semitism, while a few demonstrated against the Hitler Nazi regime. By contrast the British took in 10,000 Jewish children in the so-called Kinder transports and 15,000 young Jewish women as nannies and maids.


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To address these troublesome aspects of FDR’s reactions to Kristallnacht and what lessons for might be drawn for policymakers in the 21st Century. Rod Bryant and Jerry Gordon of Israel News Talk Radio -Beyond the Matrix reached out to Dr. Rafael Medoff, director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies to discuss the Nazi pogrom against Germany’s Jews- on its 80th anniversary, FDR’s and American Jewish leaders responses and the implications for policymakers facing existential threats today like Iran’s nuclear and genocidal threats to wipe the Jewish nation of Israel off the map of the world.


Rod: Jerry, we have as our guest Dr. Rafael Medoff of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust studies. We will be discussing Kristallnacht and what took place on the Night of Broken Glass in Germany and in Austria in November 1938. You have an eyewitness story about the Nazi pogrom.


Jerry: Yes, when I was an undergraduate at Boston University in my freshman year, I had two Jewish roommates. One was from Maine while the other one was the son of German Jewish refugees who had come to the United States. His father was incarcerated along with 30,000 German Jewish men in one of the three German Concentration Camps during Night of Broken Glass on November 9th and 10th, 1938. In 1935 he was subject to the Nuremberg racial laws in Germany. He was then Captain of his town’s soccer team and yet he was denied being an active sportsman. On Kristallnacht—the Night of Broken Glass—he was one of thousands of German Jewish men incarcerated in Dachau for three months. His wife bribed the Camp Commandant to get him released. They were fortunate enough to subsequently leave Germany within a year with a visa obtained by a relative in the US.


Rafael: Thanks for having me back on your show. The Kristallnacht pogrom which took place in Germany in 1938, 80 years ago was the transformation of the persecution of German Jews under Hitler from discrimination to outright violence. It was a nationwide, government orchestrated orgy of violence, mass attacks on Jewish homes, Jewish businesses, synagogues which involved among other things the shattering of so many windows of the homes of German Jews and their storefronts that came to be known as the Night of the Broken Glass, Kristallnacht in German. It involved far more than the breaking of windows. Hundreds of synagogues were burned to the ground. Nearly 100 Jews were murdered in mob violence. Thirty thousand German Jews were dragged off to German concentration camps. It was a night long hurricane of violence which resulted in the devastation of German Jewry and a complete change in the way that German Jews saw their future. The international community now understood Hitler’s purpose about the Jews.


Rod: Rafael, what was the atmosphere within the German government and society that gave permission to do something like this?


Rafael: For the previous five years since Hitler’s rise to power early in 1933, the policy of the German government had been to gradually push Jews out of German society. This was accomplished by legislation which forced Jews out of many professions. The Nuremberg laws of 1935 stripped German Jews of their citizenship. It was a gradual exclusion of German Jews from the wider society as well as a massive propaganda effort by the German government through its schools and from the popular culture to demonize Jews. It portrayed them as a terrible menace to German society and ultimately as the enemy: the cause of all Germany’s recent economic and other problems.


Rafael: Yes. The German government had been planning for some time to unleash an event like this. We know from the documents that the Kristallnacht pogrom was not spontaneous. Hitler wanted it to appear as if it was spontaneous, so he had a pretext, a distraught Polish Jewish teenager shot and killed a lower level diplomat at the German Embassy in Paris in November 1938. That was obviously a thin excuse. The attacks that took place, the massive violence by the Nazis throughout the country, clearly had to have been planned and prepared long in advance. It would have been impossible for there to have been so many coordinated attacks throughout Germany that night.


Rod: You are saying that this was coordinated within Nazi party elements and timed for such event to take place?



Rafael: Keep in mind that during the previous five years Germany’s Jews were undergoing constant economic deprivation. This was again part of the process of destroying, dehumanizing German Jews in order to drive them out of German society. The astronomical fine that the Nazis leveled on the Jews in the wake of the pogrom was just the capstone of a process that had been going on for years. It was part of the overall Nazi strategy of starving the Jews out and trying to drive them out of German society and then out of the country entirely.


Jerry:  Of the 30,000 German Jewish men who were incarcerated that night, how many of them were released?


Rafael: The camps that we refer to in 1938 were concentration camps, not death camps as we later know. They were brutal detention facilities. Many of the people arrested on the night of Kristallnacht were released on condition that they would emigrate from Germany within a very short time. The problem was that there were so few countries that willing to open their doors and take them. It was possible to be released from Dachau or Buchenwald, but it was made on condition, that they would leave and to find a place to go was an extremely difficult task for a German Jew in 1938.


Rafael: The reaction involves several aspects. One was President Roosevelt’s immediate response. The second aspect was the question of immigration. Was the United States willing to take in any of the Jews trying to flee from Hitler? The third question was whether the Roosevelt administration would take any other sort of actions such as breaking diplomatic relations or ending trade with Germany. Each of those was a very important question that was on the minds of the American public and the American Jewish Community in the aftermath of the Nazi pogrom.


Rod: Did FDR and his Jewish advisors make any definitive response to go ahead and take people in?


Rafael: If you read the typical history book you will see the claim that Roosevelt responded quickly, forcefully, unequivocally in condemning the Nazi pogrom. That however is not the case. Now it may seem odd that there would even be a dispute about condemning it because how could anyone not condemn it, a massive pogrom. In fact, other world leaders did not condemn it. Germany’s neighbors like France and England were so nervous about the possibility of a conflict with Hitler that their leaders did not even issue specific condemnations of the pogrom. President Roosevelt’s response that was different than that of the British, the French and other world leaders. In fact, he did not initially condemn it. Two days after Kristallnacht, the Nazi pogrom, Roosevelt had his weekly press conference and he was asked by a reporter whether he had any statement about this massive violence going on in Germany. Keep in mind that Kristallnacht was no secret. It was front page headline news around the world.



Rod: If anything, he had some praise of Mussolini on his Italian fascist regime at the time. We know that FDR always had a difficult time supporting rescue of Jews during World War II. We have talked about this in previous interviews with you.


Jerry: Rafael, how did American Jewish leaders react to the existential threats to Germany’s Jews?


Rod:  Rafael, couldn’t the President with an executive order have changed that obstacle so that the US could bring these German Jewish refugees into the Virgin Islands because there was no resistance from the territory itself?



Rod: In contrast to FDR denying sanctuary to German Jewish victims in the wake of Kristallnacht what did the British do?


Rafael: Ironically the British Government headed by Neville Chamberlain, who is properly reviled by us today for his attempts to appease Nazi Germany, did considerably more for German Jewish refugees after Kristallnacht than President Roosevelt. The British took in 10,000 German Jewish children, the Kindertransport, and they admitted another 15,000 young German Jewish women as nannies and housekeepers. So about 25,000 young German Jews were saved thanks to the British Government, whereas President Roosevelt did nothing more than extend the tourist visas for five thousand German Jews and who happened to be in the US on tourist visas at the time of Kristallnacht.



Jerry: What lessons can we take away from the history of Kristallnacht in the 21st Century?


Jerry: Rafael, does that include support for what we would consider as allies within these dictatorial countries? Here I speak about the minorities for example in Iran and in Syria, specifically the Kurds and the Baloch.


Rafael: Every situation is unique, but I think there is a broad principle here that most Americans would support. That the United States, while it is not responsible for every Civil War or every problem that goes on anywhere in the world, should take an interest when there is a danger that some Civil War or other crisis could mushroom to the point where it could be a threat to America or to its ally Israel. Thus, America should, facts and the legal authority authorized, do something earlier rather than wait until it is too late.


Jerry: What is it that we can understand from Kristallnacht about its heritage with respect to what the American Jewish community should have done? We know for example that Roosevelt had Jewish advisors who basically wanted nothing to do with this Nazi pogrom. We also know, for example, that the Jewish moguls in Hollywood had continued movie trade with Nazi Germany right up until the declaration of war. What is it that we can do in the Jewish community to basically oppose what you are talking about?




Listen to the Israel News Talk—Beyond the Matrix interview.


Jerome B Gordon is a Senior Vice President of the New English Review and author of The West Speaks, NER Press 2012. Mr. Gordon is a former US Army intelligence officer who served during the Viet Nam era. He was the co-host and co-producer of weekly The Lisa Benson Show for National Security that aired out of KKNT960 in Phoenix Arizona from 2013 to 2016. He is co-host and co-producer of the Middle East Round Table periodic series on 1330amWEBY, Northwest Florida Talk Radio, Pensacola, Florida.

Follow NER on Twitter @NERIconoclast

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