Hillel vigil marks

by Douglas Rojas

On the morning of Nov. 10, 1938, Henry Oertelt tried to ride his bike to work as he usually did.
But the extended carpet of shattered glass covering the streets of Berlin didn’t let him get too far. Still, Oertelt pressed on. Along the way, he saw charred synagogues — the destruction done the night before by the Nazi German troops.
Monday evening on the steps of Northrop Auditorium, Oertelt recalled his harrowing experiences.
“I couldn’t believe what I saw with my eyes,” said Oertelt, a Holocaust survivor. More than 20 people gathered with lit candles to hear Oertelt’s story, read poetry, and say a prayer to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Kristallnacht. The event was organized by Hillel, the Jewish student center at the University.
Known as “The Night of Broken Glass,” Kristallnacht was a massive and coordinated attack on Jews throughout Germany that took place on Nov. 9 and 10 of 1938. It was the first official repressive action that eventually led to the Holocaust — the harsh, systematic persecution that killed about 6 million Jews during the Nazi reign.
“I remember very vividly the voices, the fear of my family,” Oertelt said. Born in Berlin, Germany and 17 years old when Kristallnacht took place, Oertelt was sent in 1943 with his family to various concentration camps.
On the evening of Nov. 9 and the morning of Nov. 10 in 1938, Nazi storm troopers beat and murdered Jews, broke into and wrecked Jewish homes, shops and department stores — brutalizing Jewish women and children. The action was coordinated all over Germany, Austria and other Nazi controlled areas.
German officials at the time said 7,500 businesses were destroyed, 267 synagogues burned and 91 Jews killed. About 30,000 Jewish women and men were rounded up and later sent to concentration camps. After this incident, the United States recalled its ambassador.
Kristallnacht set up the Nazi machine of destruction and revealed its horror, said Amy Fierstein, an intern with Hillel and a sophomore in the College of Liberal Arts.
However, the repression against the Jewish community in Germany started before “the night of broken glass.”
German classical, folkloric and scientific literature written by Jews was considered trash and was burned on the streets, Oertelt said — including the writings of physicist Albert Einstein.
Jews were blamed for high levels of unemployment in the 1930s, Oertelt said, and those that didn’t know anything about Jewish people started to believe what Hitler was saying. After it was over, Hitler tried to promote Kristallnacht as a spontaneous reaction of the German people, Oertelt said.
Jews were blamed for this reaction and had to pay 1 billion Deutsche Marks for restoration damages. German insurance companies were ordered not to cover the damages.
“My activity is for one reason,” Oertelt said. “I hope people learn from what happened.”
For Fierstein, people have to remember history regardless of their nationality.
“It’s been 60 years and it is just as important to remember today as it was 60 years ago,” she said.
Hillel Rabbi Sharon Stiefel also agreed that events such as speech and candlelight vigils are necessary in preserving a collective memory of the past.
“It’s a good way to remind ourselves that this will never happen again — to the Jewish community or to any community in the world,” Stiefel said.