Kristallnacht – the night of broken glass

84 years ago, on 29th September 1938, Richard and Edith Landauer and their three children fled Germany for London. Their youngest, my father Robert, was eleven years old. Ten days later, on 9th November 1938, attacks were made by the SA and by members of the public against Jews, Jewish property and synagogues. Broken glass littered the streets as men attacked buildings with sledgehammers. Also known as Novemberpogrome or Reichspogromnacht, many Jewish men were arrested and taken to concentration camps, some to be released later, for a while at least. Several committed suicide, foreseeing a bleak future in their homeland. 

The Landauers had taken refuge for the past six years with my great-grandparents Adolf and Cäcilie Hirsch in Landshut, who as assimilated Jews would certainly have been caught up in Reichspogramnacht. These events were widely reported by foreign journalists working in Germany, and the Landauers must have been so anxious for their parents left behind in Landshut. The London Times reported “No foreign propagandist bent upon blackening Germany before the world could outdo the tale of burnings and beatings, of blackguardly assaults on defenceless and innocent people, which disgraced that country yesterday” (11.11.1938). 

That shame is still felt, and Landshut planned to hold a big memorial event for the 80th anniversary, in November 2018. Our extended family, Hirsch and Landauer descendants, was invited to attend. The main event of the evening was to be a speech by Moritz Fischer, a historian and former student of the Hans-Canossa Gymnasium (the school my father and his brother had attended), on his newly published book Forced sterilisation and ‘euthanasia’ in Landshut. I was asked to give a brief address, and we were promised further speeches, and klezmer music. In the early part of the evening some youth groups planned a memorial walk from the Heilig Geist Kirche to the Dreifaltigkeitsplatz, stopping at each of Landshut’s sets of Stolpersteine and reading aloud the biographies of the Jewish citizens who had lived there; we were invited to take part in that too. (Stolpersteine, ‘stumbling stones’, are memorial tablets set into the pavements outside the last homes of Nazis’ victims. There are Stolpersteine for the Hirsches and for the Landauers in Landshut.)

The newspaper article in the Landshuter Zeitung publicising the event was headed ‘The end of Jewish life – 80 years later’, and it mentioned the current increase in anti-Semitism, and the need to resist the far right. The article quotes Max Mannheimer: ‘You are not responsible for what happened, but you are responsible for making sure that does not happen again.’ 

At the Reichspogromnacht memorial in the packed hall of the Redoutenshaal Bernlochner I learnt from Morris Fischer that a hundred and eighteen men, women and children from the Landshut city and county were ‘euthanised’ – murdered – and more than four hundred and thirty-nine were forcibly sterilised. This was such sombre information. Nevertheless I finished my speech on an upbeat note:

My father Robert was a cheerful idealistic man who loved humanity and lived to help others; he became a social worker and a Quaker. He had a sunny nature and indeed lived up to his second name – Felix. He courted my English mother with translations from poems by his ‘beloved Rainer Maria Rilke’.  

In his memory, it feels even more important to look to the future, to work to build understanding between different countries and peoples and races, and to be loud in protection of tolerance and peace. Before we came to Landshut we had only fragments of knowledge about our family’s history. Thanks to your openness, your moral courage and your friendship, we have been given a sense of connection with Germany – with the past, the present and the future. On my grandmother Edith Landauer (née Hirsch)’s gravestone is inscribed: “I was not born to share men’s hatred but their love.” From Sophocles Antigone, and all the world’s religions, to our coming together today to remember, we should try to live by this: I was not born to share men’s hatred but their love. 

What does commemoration mean in 2022, 84 years after this pogrom? Why is racism, including anti-Semitism, still rising? As governments become ever more polarised with the differential between rich and poor increasing, we each have to try to find ways to express real love for our fellow human beings, and for the planet we share, in our daily lives.

%d bloggers like this: