Kristallnacht anniversary drums up memories of U.S. indifference

Sixty-six years ago this week, Nazi storm troopers carried out the infamous Kristallnacht pogrom against the Jews of Germany. On Nov. 9 and 10, 1938, about 100 Jews were murdered and 30,000 more were sent to concentration camps. Nearly 200 synagogues were burned down. More than 7,000 Jewish-owned business were destroyed. The vast amount of shattered glass from the windows of Jewish homes and shops gave the rampage its name, Crystal Night, or Night of the Broken Glass.

During the five years before the pogrom, Germany’s Jews had been stripped of their legal rights and subjected to occasional outbursts of violence. But nothing compared with the systematic, nationwide devastation of Kristallnacht. Hitler’s persecution of the Jews assumed a new and terrifying character in the autumn of 1938. The führer awaited the world’s response, to see whether there would be any serious international opposition to his anti-Jewish policies.

President Franklin Roosevelt condemned the pogrom, recalled the U.S. ambassador from Germany for “consultations” and extended visitors’ visas for the approximately 12,000 German Jewish refugees who were in the United States. But at the same time, the president announced that America was not contemplating changing its immigration laws. The Christian Science Monitor echoed Roosevelt’s position, telling its readers that prayer, not more immigration, was the best response to the persecution of German Jewry.

In the wake of Kristallnacht, humanitarian-minded members of Congress introduced legislation to aid German Jews. A bill sponsored by Sen. Robert Wagner and Rep. Edith Rogers proposed the admission of 20,000 German refugee children outside the quotas. Nativist and isolationist groups vociferously opposed the Wagner-Rogers bill. Typical of their perspective was a remark by Roosevelt’s cousin, Laura Delano Houghteling, who was the wife of the U.S. commissioner of immigration: She warned that “20,000 charming children would all too soon grow into 20,000 ugly adults.”

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s appeal to the president for his support of the bill fell on deaf ears, and an inquiry by a congresswoman as to the president’s position was returned to his secretary marked “File No Action FDR.” Mindful of polls showing most Americans opposed more immigration, Roosevelt preferred to follow public opinion rather than lead it. Without his support, the Wagner-Rogers bill was buried in committee.

Ironically, Pets Magazine the following year launched a campaign to have Americans take in purebred British puppies so they would not be harmed by German bombing raids. The magazine was flooded with several thousand offers of haven for the dogs.

American Jewish organizations were reluctant to challenge either the administration’s policy or the prevailing public mood. Three days after Kristallnacht, representatives of the General Jewish Council, the umbrella group for the four largest Jewish defense organizations, decided “there should be no parades, public demonstrations or protests by Jews” and no calls for more immigration. They feared that would provoke anti-Semitism. They were likewise reluctant to urge more immigration. When Roosevelt asked his closest Jewish adviser, Samuel Rosenman — a prominent member of the American Jewish Committee — if more Jewish refugees should be allowed to enter the United States in the wake of Kristallnacht, Rosenman opposed such a move because “it would create a Jewish problem in the U.S.”

Four months before Kristallnacht, the Roosevelt administration had organized a conference in Evian, France. The president invited delegates from 32 countries to discuss the Jewish refugee problem. But the delegates reaffirmed their unwillingness to change their immigration quotas, and the British refused to even discuss Palestine as a possible haven. Some critics later pointed out that “Evian” was “naive” spelled backward. The real problem was not naivete but calculated indifference; the U.S. administration convened the gathering in order to create the impression that the world was taking action, when it was doing nothing of the sort.

One German newspaper’s comment on Evian stands out: “We can see that one likes to pity the Jews … but no state is prepared to … accept a few thousand Jews. Thus the conference serves to justify Germany’s policy against Jewry.”

Kristallnacht did not fundamentally alter the international community’s response to Hitler. There were many verbal condemnations, but no economic sanctions against Nazi Germany, no severing of diplomatic relations, no easing of immigration quotas, not even a complete opening of the gates to the Jews’ own ancient homeland. The world’s muted reaction to the Kristallnacht pogrom foreshadowed the terrible silence with which it would greet the Nazis’ Final Solution.

Rafael Medoff is director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies near Philadelphia (, which focuses on issues related to America’s response to the Holocaust.