On November 9th, 1938, Jews all across Germany were subjected to a night of terror now known as “Kristallnacht” for the broken glass of shop windows, homes and synagogues that were destroyed. In 1988, the Leo Baeck Institute produced a 1-hour documentary to mark the 50th anniversary, calling it Kristallnacht: More Than Broken Glass. Now, for the 80th anniversary, the NYC Municipal Archives has digitized over a dozen hours of previously unaired interview footage shot for the documentary. Those interviewed fled religious persecution in Germany as children and were some of the lucky Jewish refugees the United States accepted during the War. Most of them became New York City residents, adopting new Americanized names and losing their accents almost entirely, in turn forever changing the history of the City and America’s moral role on the world stage.
Prior to Hitler taking power, Jewish rights in Germany had gone through periods of expansion and contraction until they were fully enfranchised after the end of World War One. At the same time, German Jews were largely blamed for the loss of the War as part of a conspiracy theory fanned by disgraced German military leaders, experiencing an increase in informal discrimination from their fellow citizens. The long-term ambiguity about Jewish rights in Germany caused many of those interviewed and their families to dismiss or downplay the danger Hitler posed, notwithstanding the blatantly violent anti-Semitic rhetoric being used by the Nazis for years.
Born Peter Frühling in 1923, Peter Gay changed his surname twenty years later when he and his family arrived in America. His father had been a small businessman in Berlin, representing glass and ceramic manufacturers. Peter attended a modern public school with Jewish and non-Jewish children where he did well and had friends. His family had renounced their Jewish faith before Hitler seized power and did not see themselves as primarily Jewish, but German. Aside from occasional verbal harassment, he described his youth in Germany as largely uneventful.
However, Peter remembered getting a lot of “very mixed signals” about his place in Germany after the Nazis took power. By 1935 it was already clear to Peter and his teachers that he and other Jewish students would soon be removed from public schools. Regardless, both his teacher and the head of the school took a deep interest in his academic development, going so far as to personally talk to his father about Peter learning English. In the same year, one of Peter’s smartest classmates volunteered for the Hitler Youth and stopped associating with Peter or any of their Jewish neighbors entirely. Peter’s teachers were also Nazi party members and despite their interest in his success, Peter was expelled in 1938 after Kristallnacht.
Miriam Cohn, another Jewish refugee, recalled that 1937-8 was a turning point in her experience of anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany. Miriam remembered that most Jews in her home town of Essen thought “Hitler was an aberration and would pass.” Starting in 1937, aspects of her everyday life began to change. Like Peter, more and more of her non-Jewish friends began joining the Hitler Youth and stopped playing with her. Her mother warned her to hide if she ever saw a group of Nazis walking through the streets as a general sense of unease took hold. That same year, Miriam started attending a private Jewish school for her own safety, even though there was a long commute. As they were now legally excluded from public life, the very places targeted during Kristallnacht like synagogues and community centers became even more important for German Jews as the last safe places remaining.
On the night of November 9th, Miriam’s family had heard a rumor that ‘something terrible was about to happen.’ At 2 AM, her mother woke Miriam up, warning her that the Nazis had already arrived and begun destroying their home and the synagogue where her father was a rabbi. After pulling Miriam and her family out to the street, the Nazis forced them to watch as they destroyed their possessions and burned the building. Terrified, Miriam and her family fled, only to find that their neighbors had gathered to throw rocks at them as everything they owned vanished. By the end of November 10th, 30,000 Jewish men had been detained in concentration camps and nearly 100 men, women and children had been killed. Miriam was only 12 years old.
Miriam and Peter would eventually find refuge in New York, but the Nazi persecution they fled from in Germany had already found its way to the City. Nazi sympathizers abounded in 1930s America, agitating successfully to keep the level of Jewish refugees admitted to America low. While more than 125,000 Jews applied for refugee visas in the months following Kristallnacht, only 27,000 were admitted. Various American Nazi groups held mass rallies in Madison Square Garden in 1934, 1935, 1936 and most famously on February 20th, 1939, just months after Kristallnacht. This last gathering set up by the German American Bund was the largest of all, with 20,000 people filling the Garden. There, President Roosevelt was repeatedly referred to as ‘Rosenfeld’ promoting his ‘Jew Deal’ to introduce a Bolshevik-American alliance.
At the same time, this gathering was met with popular resistance and protesters clashed with Bund Stormtroopers in the streets of New York after the 1939 rally. Officials like Mayor LaGuardia went on record repeatedly denouncing the Nazi party and its clear desire for “the complete annihilation of the Jews in Germany” as early as 1934. Groups like the Bund eventually collapsed after they urged their members to resist the draft for World War Two, but American Nazi political movements have continued to resurface since. Despite this, the United States remained a relatively safe country for Jews to live in and practice their faith openly without fear of reprisals all throughout the Postwar Era.
The Municipal Archives is expanding its digital platform to the videos currently being preserved with plans to offer streaming services within the next several months. In the meantime, the stories highlighted here are only a small portion of the footage now available for viewing at the Municipal Archives’ 31 Chambers Street location. With nearly 10 interviews spread across more than 40 tapes, this series offers hours of unique and personal perspectives on one of the worst periods of the 20th century. In addition to the powerful interviews, the videos also feature rare examples of anti-Semitic propaganda, footage of the Eichmann Trial and a large number of personal still photographs provided by the people interviewed. Those interested in personal accounts of how Germany changed from a democratic republic into a fascist dictatorship over the course of only a few years will find this series an unparalleled resource.