Catholic Sentinel photo by Ed Langlois
Rabbi Michael Cahana speaks at St. Mary Cathedral about Kristallnacht.
Catholic Sentinel photo by Ed Langlois
Rabbi Michael Cahana speaks at St. Mary Cathedral about Kristallnacht.
Rabbi Michael Cahana says inviting a rabbi to lecture at a Catholic church is a sign of progress and a good way to keep bigotry at bay.

Rabbi Cahana, of Congregation Beth Israel in Northwest Portland, spoke at St. Mary Cathedral last month about the government-organized pogrom in cities and towns across Germany and Austria 75 years ago.

In a precursor to death camps, almost 100 Jews died and 30,000 men were rounded up for deportation on Nov. 9-10, 1938. A thousand synagogues, 7,500 Jewish-owned stores and many homes, schools, hospitals and cemeteries were smashed and burned. Christian citizens took part or stood by for the most part. Firefighters came to blazing synagogues, but were ordered by Nazi officials only to keep flames from spreading to non-Jewish buildings.

The name of the one-night attack, Kristallnacht, refers to the vast number of broken windows. The Nazis would bill Jews for the cleanup and seize insurance payments going to shop owners.

"Kristallnacht was the Nazis' word for it," Rabbi Cahana told a group of 60. "It was not about the broken glass. It was about the broken dreams. It was a night that changed everything for the Jewish community and for the world: A sophisticated, modern culture could turn on its own people."

The pogrom was widely reported, including on the front page of the New York Times. But many reports made it seem like a popular uprising when it was actually an orchestrated attack. Investigators have found letters from the Nazi SS to local police chiefs commanding that the scheduled "action" against Jews not be halted.

Kristallnacht did not come out of the blue. It was a culmination of events, including a requirement that Jewish shopkeepers post a sign in windows designating their faith. Officials had canceled residence permits and refused to renew them for Jews. Not long before the pogrom, police tried to force 17,000 Jews out at the Polish border.

The overall strategy was to make life so hard for Jews that they would leave. But after countries like Poland and the U.S. refused to accept German Jewish refugees, a 1942 Nazi council decided instead on mass killings in concentration camps.

The Nazis faced no quick consequences for Kristallnacht. "They felt the right to do with their Jews as they liked," Rabbi Cahana said.

Rabbi Cahana's mother, an artist whose work has been shown at the Vatican, is a survivor of Auschwitz. He says the United States has been a unique nation in Jewish history. It is the first place since the destruction of the temple 2,000 years ago where Jews feel at home without having bags packed, waiting for something to turn against them.

"Here, the police are actually on our side," the rabbi said.

That was not the case in Germany 75 years ago, even though Jews had roots there going back at least to the 4th century. There were large stable communities and magnificent synagogues. Quickly, everything turned in Berlin, Vienna and small towns.  

The world does not seem to be done with genocide, Rabbi Cahana laments, explaining that Rwanda proved that. There is also growing anti-Semitism in Europe, especially in France, where a new European Union report shows that two-thirds of Jews fear a verbal or physical attack in the next year.    

"The most profound answer to the Nazis and those who want to destroy is to get together like this," Rabbi Cahana told the group of 60. "This is a story not just about Nazis, but about everyday people who turned on you and treated you like you weren't a human being. It's very hard to buy into a prejudice when you have people you know."

Rabbi Cahana and Msgr. Patrick Brennan of St. Mary Cathedral will join the Rev. William Lupfer in an annual joint presentation by the three faith leaders. The session is set for 7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 4 at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral.