In the fallout of the fires and broken glass of Kristallnacht, some of the best friends Jews had were in the Black community, Seymour Drescher said. “The African-American press editorials noted that the pogrom [Kristallnacht] and its decrees marked the end of Jewish existence in Nazi Germany,” said Drescher, a professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh. “The Pittsburgh Courier’s headline simply read: ‘German Jews Face Hopeless Fate as New Wave of Nazi Terror Hits. Unable to Earn Living Young May Escape Old Are Doomed.’ ”
Drescher made his remarks during a Kristallnacht remembrance program, titled, “Lessons from Kristallnacht: The Entangled History of Race, Sports & Inhumanity in Nazi Europe,” Tuesday, Nov. 13, at the August Wilson Center, Downtown.
The event was the second in a series of programs jointly sponsored by the August Wilson Center and the Holocaust Center of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. The two centers also collaborated on the “Nazi Olympics” exhibit, which opened last month.
Sala Udin, co-director of the August Wilson Center, said the series is bringing to light “an important collaboration in American history” between Blacks and Jews.
As the title of the program suggests, Drescher — the featured speaker — lectured on Kristallnacht and the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin and how the two hate-stoked events affected Blacks and Jews.
Drescher’s wife, Ruth Drescher, a survivor of Kristallnacht, spoke briefly about her experiences.
Speaking to a crowd of 250 mostly elderly guests, much of Drescher’s lecture dealt extensively with the reaction by the Black community and particularly the Black press, to the events in Europe.
While hundreds of American newspapers condemned the events of Kristallnacht, the Black press was particularly vocal in its outrage.
“African-Americans could clearly see that the nationally sponsored violence in Germany had crossed lines never breached in the United States,” Drescher said. “Here was a nationwide assault on all of a minority’s sites of worship; on its communal existence, on its wealth; and livelihood. A minority was pauperized by deprivation of its right to employment. It was subject to mass incarceration. Had the number of arrests been proportionately applied to Blacks in the United States, a million African-Americans would have been rounded up. Had blacks suffered the same proportion of deaths as in Kristallnacht, 75,000 to 80,000 of them would have perished.”
Kristallnacht, or “Night of the Broken Glass” in English, was a pogrom carried out in Germany and Austria on the night of Nov. 9-10, 1938. Orchestrated on the pretense of retaliation for the assassination of a German embassy official in Paris by a Jewish boy, the night is seen as the turning point for Jews’ fortunes in Germany. Their stores were smashed and looted, hundreds of synagogues were torched and 30,000 Jewish men were unjustly arrested and detained in concentration camps.
While many countries, including United States, were unwilling to relax their quotas to accept more Jewish refugees following Kristallnacht, the Black press called for their admission, Drescher said.
He again quoted The Pittsburgh Courier, which wrote, “American Negros would welcome the importation of Germany’s benighted Jewish population to the American Southern States where, we believe, they would be a leavening influence working on terms of equality with elements of the population already established there.”
Ruth Drescher, who was a child in Stuttgart, Germany, the night of Kristallnacht, recalled her older sister Margot coming home in tears that morning because she saw her school on fire. She remembered how fearful her mother was and how she pleaded with her father to make plans for the family to leave the country. Her father escaped being sent to a concentration camp that night because a police official warned him of the roundup of Jewish men, and even let him stay at his villa for several nights.
“When I think about Kristallnacht, I always think of it as a major turning point in my life,” she said.
Blacks and Jews, likewise lobbied against participating in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, advocating moving the Games, because of Nazi’s avowed racist statements and exclusion decrees preventing Jews from participating in sports associations where Olympic qualifying trails took place.
“Jewish organizations and the NAACP were among the first to bring pressure to bear upon the AOC (American Olympic Committee) and the Amateur Athletic Union to prohibit American participation in the upcoming Olympics.
But the AOC, led by Avery Brundage — a known anti-Semite — wanted to participate, and had their way.
“Despite vociferous opposition from Jewish and African organizations, Brundage successfully lobbied the AOC to approve American participation. He argued that he was “protecting” American sport from communists and Jews.
The legacy of the Holocaust in general continues to have a place in Black culture, Drescher said.
“African-Americans have used the Holocaust in their own rituals of remembrance,” he said. “A number of scholars of memory have referred to the example of Jews who preserved memories of the Holocaust as a way of understanding and withstanding contemporary problems.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)