Touro remembers the “night of broken glass”

Survivors share history lessons to mark 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht

November 11, 2013
Mark Hasten addresses an audience of nearly 100 when Touro College commemorated the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht.
Mark Hasten addresses an audience of nearly 100 when Touro College commemorated the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht.

To commemorate Kristallnacht, the Institute on Human Rights and the Holocaust (IHRH), Lander College for Women-The Anna Ruth and Mark Hasten School (LCW) and the Graduate School of Social Work sponsored the event. Featured speakers included Dr. Mark Hasten, chairman of Touro’s board of trustees, who served in the Polish army and at age 17 was part of the liberation of the concentration camp Majdanek; and David Greenbaum, a Kristallnacht survivor, who was born in Nuremburg, Germany.

Greenbaum told of going to sleep on the night of Nov. 9, 1938  and  dreaming of the doorbell ringing incessantly, then waking from the dream only to realize that it really was ringing and that armed men were at the door.

“To this day, that high pitched sound is ringing in my ear,” said Greenbaum, who was only 10-and-a-half at the time.

“After the event, I didn’t go outside for a day or two, and I didn’t go to the synagogue until about 10 days later,” he added. “It was kind of like 9/11.” People saw the burned wreckage of their shul, and for them, it was like seeing the space where the twin towers had been, he said.

Greenbaum said his family was assisted along the way by Germans who did not like what was going on, including one who insisted his father check himself into a local hospital prior to Kristallnacht. Because his father wasn’t home when the Gestapo arrived, he was not deported to a concentration camp, as were most male heads of Jewish families that night. He was able to escape to London, joining family already there, just three months after Kristallnacht.

Although restrictions against Jews had already been put in place, Kristallnacht unleashed a state-sponsored pogrom in which Germans turned on their Jewish neighbors, beating and terrorizing them, burning synagogues and homes, and destroying businesses and property. At the end of the rampage 91 Jews had been killed, and 30,000 Jewish men were deported to concentration camps, where many would eventually perish. Almost 2,000 synagogues were ransacked, and 267 set ablaze.

Hasten, who grew up in a Polish shtetl, was 11 on Kristallnacht. He recounted the events that led up to, and served as a pretext for, the German pogrom. Polish Jews living in Germany were made stateless, he said, then deported to the border of Germany and Poland and abandoned there, when Poland refused them entry.

One family wrote to their son, Herschel Grynszpan, who was living in Paris, telling him of the deplorable situation. Grynszpan purchased a gun, went to the German consulate in Paris, and shot an official, Ernst vom Rath. The Germans used the assassination to rally the mob for Kristallnacht.

Hasten, who later served in a Polish brigade of the Soviet Union’s army on the Eastern Front, spoke of those events leading up to Kristallnacht. He joined the Irgun while in a DP camp after the war, and went to Israel on the ill-fated Altalena, a freighter carrying weapons to the new nation of Israel. On the Altalena, which Israel’s Prime Minister David Ben Gurion ordered sunk, Hasten met Grynszpan’s first cousin, and later served with him in the fledgling Israel Defense Force.

During a question and answer session following the presentations, which included a short film clip about Grynszpan, a woman asked how to teach about the Holocaust to her young child.

“This is a very good question,” Hasten said. “The answer is very simple: You tell her the truth. There are persecutors all over the world today, and the only way you can prevent persecution is that you have to tell about the past.”

The evening was moderated by Anne Bayefsky, director of the Institute on Human Rights and the Holocaust. Other participants in the program included Karen Sutton, an assistant professor of history at LCW, Dr. Steven Huberman, dean of the Graduate School of Social Work, and Dr. Alan Kadish, president and CEO of Touro College and University System.

Kadish struck a reflective note, focusing on the importance of remembering the destruction that accompanied Kristallnacht and how it changed the course of history. The existence of Touro as one of the largest Jewish institutions of higher education stands as a victory over that darkness, he said.

“Our very presence here is our greatest revenge against our agressors,” he said. “The health and stability of Touro College and University Systems signifies the prosperity of our tradition. Every voice engaged at Touro echoes with the words ‘Am Yisrroel chai.’”