My View: Exhibit recalls Nazi terror, world's inaction

Steve Hunegs / My View

The Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas (JCRC) is proud to partner with Minnesota State University to present Transfer of Memory at the Centennial Student Union Art Gallery.

Transfer of Memory is an exhibit of color photographic portraits of Minnesota Holocaust survivors (photographer David Sherman) and vignettes of their lives (writer Lili Chester).

Appropriately, the run of the exhibit (Oct. 8-23) nearly coincides with the 80th anniversary of the Kristallnacht, which unfolded from Nov. 9-11, 1938. Thank you to Carol Glasser, assistant professor of Minnesota State’s Department of Sociology & Corrections and director of the Kessel Peace Institute, for supporting Transfer of Memory programming in Mankato.

Profoundly appropriate is the presence of the photograph of the late Fred Baron — along with his wife Judy Baron (who recently celebrated her 90th birthday) — in the exhibit. Fred witnessed the Kristallnacht.

Born in Vienna in 1923, the trajectory of Fred’s years mirrored the lives and fates of many German and Austrian Jews. He was raised in a non-religious family and received religious Jewish education in public school in time reserved respectively for Catholic, Protestant and Jewish instruction.

As chronicled in Witnesses to the Holocaust: Stories of Minnesota Survivors and Liberators, Fred enjoyed a happy and cultured upbringing with opera, concerts and summer camp. The family spoke German “and looked and felt like everyone else.”

Life dramatically changed when Germany marched into Austria in March 1938. As Fred noted: “What had evolved in Germany over five years happened in Austria within a matter of weeks.” Jews were excluded from public places, parks, cinema, libraries, transportation and from stores except one hour a day.

Fred witnessed the Kristallnacht and the burning of synagogues in Vienna. He was arrested — identified by his yellow star — and released after a few hours after his mother’s intervention.

The Kristallnacht accelerated a process of Nazi terrorism towards Jews, which meant the implementation of the Final Solution under the cover of World War II. For Fred, it meant first slave labor and ultimately incarceration at Bergen Belsen concentration camp. After liberation, a British Army physician saved Fred’s life. Fred also received medical treatment in Sweden where he met his wife, Judy.

The violence of the Kristallnacht shocked the world. According to the late historian, Lionel Kochen, in Germany and Austria, 91 Jews were murdered; 30,000 were sent to concentration camps; 1,000 synagogues burned and 7,000 Jewish businesses destroyed.

President Roosevelt commented at a press conference: “I could scarcely believe such things could occur in a twentieth century civilization." The United States recalled its ambassador in Berlin in protest.

In Minnesota, Catholic and Protestant congregations “united in prayer” from Nov. 18-20, 1938. The Minneapolis Journal opined about Germany that a “horrid infection is sweeping the land.” The St. Paul Pioneer Press compared Germany’s “terrorism” towards its Jews as a reversion to the Middle Ages. The Cowles family owned interventionist Minneapolis Star, which warned only a rearmed United States could safeguard the Americas from Nazism.

Despite sympathy for the plight of German and Austrian Jews, little was done to help. The Wagner-Rogers Act, which would have admitted 10,000 German children to the United States, never even received a committee vote.

Similarly, the pre-Kristallnacht Evian conference of July 1938 convened to try to address the plight of increasing numbers of Jewish refugees resulted in none of the 32 participating nations — except for the Dominican Republic — in reaching any agreement for the acceptance of Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany.

The vice further tightened around Europe’s Jews when the British White Paper of May 1939 strictly limited Jewish immigration into the Palestine Mandate — 75,000 for five years and then no further immigration. As the leading Jewish statesman of the day remarked ruefully: “There are two sorts of countries in the world, those that want to expel the Jews and those that don’t want to admit them.”

Without refuge, the Nazis murdered six million Jews as well as the Roma people, homosexuals, and the disabled in the killing fields of the Einsatzgruppen or the death camps and concentration camps. Only the gargantuan war effort of the United States as the “Arsenal of Democracy” and the combined might of the Allied armed forces destroyed Nazi Germany, liberated occupied Europe and ended the Holocaust.

With Veterans Day approaching, indeed, we should recall the contributions and sacrifices of the Mankato area during World War ll. As Shelley Harrison of the Blue Earth County Historical Society in a February 2015 Free Press story, three families from Mankato (Hallman, Morson and Sullivan) sent five sons into the United States armed forces. Approximately 75 soldiers from Blue Earth County lost their lives according United States Army records.

The Allied victory saved a remnant of Europe’s Jews some of whom — most of those photographed in Transfer of Memory — came to the United States via the Displaced Persons Act of 1948.

Some 73 years after VE Day, we remember and honor the liberators and the liberated.

Steve Hunegs is the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas.

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