Sixty-eight years ago on Nov. 9, storm troopers and ordinary citizens in a thousand German cities ransacked Jewish homes and stores, destroying buildings with sledgehammers and beating innocent people. The horror that would be called Kristallnacht, or Night of the Broken Glass, sent 30,000 Jewish men to concentration camps and foreshadowed the atrocities of the Holocaust. As the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation commemorates this anniversary, it is important to remember the power of ordinary people. They might choose to perpetrate bigotry and violence or, like the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, they might join the righteous in working to end it.
The Kristallnacht pogrom followed a year of increasingly radical anti-Semitic activity in Germany, according to historian Eric Johnson. In Germany and Vienna, Austria, the pogrom damaged or destroyed about 1,500 synagogues, many Jewish cemeteries, and more than 7,000 Jewish shops.
As Kristallnacht in 1938 represents humanity’s most appalling potential, the actions of Wallenberg in 1944 demonstrate the human spirit at its best. Arriving in Budapest that summer, the diplomat designed false passports and established ”safe houses” under the protection of the neutral Swedish flag. Wallenberg’s actions saved 100,000 Hungarian Jews who had been condemned to certain death under the Nazi regime.
Ethnic and religious conflict and ensuing violence still permeate the headlines today, indicating that the heinousness of Kristallnacht is closer to us than a historical memory. It is as vital as ever for all to emulate the model of Wallenberg and other saviors of the Holocaust by valuing diversity, demonstrating civic courage and compassion, and embracing solidarity.