Kristallnacht mourners draw links to Rabin

Speakers at an event commemorating the 57th anniversary of Kristallnacht drew parallels between the horrors of "The Night of Broken Glass" and the recent assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

The ceremony, held Sunday at the Holocaust memorial in San Francisco's Lincoln Park, took place roughly 24 hours after Rabin was slain in Tel Aviv.

"It's hard to separate in our minds the tragedy that occurred in 1938 and the tragedy that occurred 24 hours ago," said John Rothmann, a San Francisco political analyst and Jewish activist who spoke at the commemoration.

The event, sponsored by the Holocaust Center of Northern California, drew an audience of about 50 people, including many old enough to remember when Kristallnacht was current news. They gathered around George Segal's stark plaster sculpture of dead bodies behind a barbed wire fence, and listened to a series of speakers.

Surrounded by the rolling green golf course of Lincoln Park and views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Marin headlands, Rabbi Alan Lew of San Francisco's Congregation Beth Sholom said, "I feel torn…standing on one of the most beautiful spots in the world, people walking with golf bags to a museum, past the plaster bodies."

With Rabin's assassination just a day before the planned commemoration, several speakers extemporized on recent events in Israel and how they compared to those of 1938.

Fifty-seven years ago, the monsters were outside," Lew said. "Last night…one could hear the faintest shattering of glass again, this time from the inside."

Both events, he said, involved assassinations. Both involved acquiescence and tolerance of hatred. As Britain allowed Germany to go ahead with Kristallnacht, Israel allowed the graffiti of "Death to Rabin" pictures showing Rabin's face mounted in a gun sighting.

"Nobody even took the pictures down," Lew said.

Keynote speaker Ernest Glaser talked further about how complacence helped lead to Kristallnacht, which he witnessed first-hand.

When he was a young boy living in Germany, he and his family found themselves glued to the radio on Nov. 9, 1938, listening to news that a German diplomat had been assassinated by a Jew and knowing "something bad would happen," he said.

"I may not remember what happened yesterday, but I remember many of the events that night," said Glaser, now a 71-year-old marketing executive living in the East Bay.

His own father had voted for the right wing in 1932 because he had grown disillusioned with centrists, and was less afraid of anti-Semitism than of communism, Glaser said. When one of his teachers asked the class for money for hobnails to complete a board with the symbol of the Nazi youth, Glaser's mother gave Glaser money to contribute, saying, "One shouldn't stick out from the crowd."

Eventually Glaser's father had to work out business arrangements with a competitor because Nazi restrictions made it too difficult to travel. Other Jewish professional men also soon found it impossible to work.

Kristallnacht itself was an "unbelievable scene," Glaser said. Women were sitting in glass on the sidewalk trying on shoes stolen from a store behind them, while a policeman watched and laughed. After Jews' houses had been set on fire, the fire department sprayed only the surrounding houses to prevent the fires from spreading.

Glaser's family eventually escaped to Shanghai just before the march on Poland, on the last boat through the Suez Canal. Even then, the family thought the move was temporary. They ended up staying eight years.

Rabbi Doug Kahn, executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council, told the gathering that the American public was well aware of Kristallnacht. Ninety-four percent of Americans polled said they disapproved of what the Nazis had done. But 77 percent were against opening immigration to Jews.

The commemoration ceremony began with students from the Hebrew Academy and volunteers from the Holocaust Center reading excerpts from the testimony of other, unnamed Kristallnacht survivors.

"I yelled [to people on the street], `Our synagogue is burning!' and they all looked away," one survivor wrote. That day, "we realized Hitler meant every word he said in that book."