When I was a student at Newtown High School in Elmhurst, some of my classmates and friends were refugees from Central Europe. They and their families got out while they could and a few managed to escape with some money.
One family I knew, from then-Czechoslovakia, arrived here via Shanghai. Many of the refugees settled in Elmhurst, Jackson Heights and Forest Hills.
I cannot remember any of them talking about their experiences in Nazi Europe. World War II was all around us and we talked more of the world than of personal matters.
My friends and their families were the lucky ones. Others stayed behind because they could not manage to leave. Others, who might have made it out, stayed too long and were caught up in the horror of mounting anti-Semitism.
For many, this was a world they could not understand. Hadn't Jewish men fought and died for Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire in World War I? Didn't they have the medals to show for it?
How could the "Kultur" of Central Europe become a death chamber? Weren't these nations the homes of Mahler, Freud and Einstein? These things could not happen in such places.
But they did, and things got more horrible as years went by.
Finally, something happened on the night of Nov. 9-10, 1938 — the 70th anniversary of which is coming up in a few weeks — which forever changed the view that the brutality of the Nazis was an aberration.
This was Kristallnacht, the "Night of Broken Glass." More than 90 Jews were murdered and 25,000 to 30,000 are estimated to have been arrested and sent to concentration camps. Two thousand synagogues were destroyed. Tens of thousands of businesses and homes were ransacked.
I cannot recall hearing any of my friends at Newtown speaking of this horror. I never found out if any of them lived through that terrible night.
We know not everyone in Germany and Austria joined in the murders of innocent people, but far too many allowed the Holocaust to happen. They did not speak out as the Nazis moved toward the "Final Solution."
But one who did was Martin Niemoller, a submarine officer in World War I who became a minister. His early statements showed him to be anti-Semitic, but it was not until Adolf Hitler struck out against the Protestant churches that he turned against the regime. With others, especially Diedrich Bonhoeffer, executed for his anti-Nazi work, he formed the Confessing Church to counter Nazi teachings.
In 1937, Niemoller was sent to prison, where he remained until 1945. For the rest of his life he was an activist against discrimination, war, poverty and all other world horrors. In 1961, he became head of the World Council of Churches.
He wrote a poem which remains a call for active personal responsibility in the world — still all too pertinent. It is a reminder to all of us to help other human beings, especially in times of danger:
First they came for the Communists and I did not speak out — because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the Socialists and I did not speak out — because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out — because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews and I did not speak out — because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak out for me.
©2008 Community News Group
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