If one were constructing a time-line of events which profoundly changed the course of human history, the night of November 9-10, 1938 would be engraved thereon in bold letters. Known afterward by the German term Kristallnacht or more graphically as The Night of Broken Glass, it was actually the unleashing of the world’s most infamous act of mass genocide.
Ever since the day Adolph Hitler managed to assume power over Germany in 1933, his propaganda machine had been “at war” against certain racial, religious and ethnic groups being painted as “enemies of The State.” Prominent among these were the Jews of Europe, many of whom had already and systematically been shorn of citizenship, barred from office and deprived of business and home ownership rights throughout Germany and Austria. With the dispatch of Nazi thugs on errands of destruction on November 9th, 1938 based on trumped up and spurious news reports, the opening campaign of what the world would come to know as the holocaust was underway in earnest. That night, 7,000 Jewish businesses were destroyed or damaged, 1,000 synagogues burned, and more than 30,000 people arrested and incarcerated.
The most tragic and chilling understory to all of this was the massive silence on the part of Germany’s populous, and good people everywhere who saw what was happening but did or said nothing. Even more disillusioning was the fact that even as the targeted citizens heeded Hitler’s encouragement to leave the country of their birth – the same country many of them had fought for with honor in WWI – neighboring countries, already dealing with large numbers of refugees, began to close down their borders.
Alex Goldschmidt of Oldenburg, one of those decorated war veterans, and a prominent businessman found himself bereft of all his properties and goods, no longer welcome among long-time friends and neighbors, and stranded together with his son Helmut in a land he no longer recognized; a land where the only remaining destination would be a concentration camp into which so many had already “disappeared.” After being denied permission to enter not only any other European country, but even the formerly-welcoming United States of America, an answer seemed to appear as the country of Cuba agreed to accept an allotment of émigrés whose passage on a ship of the world-famous Hamburg-America Line had been arranged by an international group. Together with 900 others, the Goldschmidts finally found themselves aboard the S.S. St. Louis en route to freedom and a new life in early May, 1939.
Even as the St. Louis prepared to dock in Havana, fate was in the process of intervening once again. Under extreme pressure from Spain’s fascist leader and Hitler ally Francisco Franco, the Cuban government revoked its welcome and refused entry to the escapees, despite the heroic pleadings of the ship’s kind and caring skipper, Captain Gustav Shroeder. Although efforts on the part of the international Jewish organizations did everything they could to bring a solution, the passengers of the St. Louis remained people without a country while the Hamburg-American liner was running out of food, fuel and options. But what about the U.S.A., a country that had opened its arms to “the tired and the poor” from around the world?
It was an election year in America, and President Franklin Roosevelt – trying for an unprecedented third term – needed the support of his own Democrat Party, in control of both houses of Congress but unfriendly to the idea of an avalanche of Jewish immigrants after setting a firm annual limit. Finally, the coalition of Jewish relief organizations found what seemed a solution, when France, Belgium and England agreed to share a division of the 900 despairing St. Louis voyagers.
Unfortunately for Alex and Helmut Goldschmidt, they were among the 224 refugees sent to France, where a future which at first seemed so bright ended with imprisonment at a series of work camps soon administered by the Nazi “puppet” regime of Henri-Philippe Pétain, and an eventual train ride to the ovens of the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. Along with more than six million others of their heritage, they became a part of history’s blackest time-line. The story of their fateful journey is well-told in the 2014 book “Alex’s Wake” by Martin Goldsmith, Alex’s grandson and Helmut’s nephew. As I traveled on that sad journey through the pages of Goldsmith’s odyssey, I was reminded of an ancient prophecy found in the 28th chapter of Deuteronomy which ends with the words. . .”ye shall be sold unto your enemies for bondmen and bondwomen and no man shall buy you”.
Also ringing in my ears are the words of Edmund Burke: “All that is necessary for evil to prevail is that good men do nothing.”
The Hamburg-American liner M.S. St. Louis photographed in its home harbor during days of peace.