It was early November, 1988, and I had just returned to JFK in New York from Rome, where I had been invited to present a paper at the Second International Conference in Moral Theology (9-12 Nov.). I was waiting in line at one of the limousine counters to present my receipt for a return trip to Fairfield County, where I had left my car a week earlier. The wait was part and parcel of a traveler’s lot in our contemporary world; the young lady at the desk was on the telephone, assisting the person in the line before me.
In a line to the left, however, some commotion was taking place. A rather elderly man, with what I judged was a Jewish accent, was pleading with a baggage clerk; his ticket to Fairfield County was somehow deemed inadequate. The main problem, I guessed, was that the clerk was shouting back angrily to a man who was not fluent with New York City idioms and was just completely fatigued, to say the least. (It was hot for November and he was wearing a heavy tweed overcoat.)
As I looked at the public debate taking place, I could see obvious panic in the poor man’s eyes. He apparently had no extra funds to purchase another kind of ticket (if that were a solution); besides, he expressed anxiety that a circuitous route being forced on him, a route involving transfers, would result in his becoming lost.
Just as I was about to offer my willingness to explain to the man exactly what was happening, the clerk spirited him and his luggage away, almost like (I hesitate even to mention it) a storm trooper.
Later, when I boarded my limousine, I opened the rear door only to find the same man seated there, in his heavy coat, still with a look of fear on his face. He made no effort to communicate.
Many miles onward, as we headed through Westchester County, I made the first effort to converse – hoping that I could somehow recall a meaningful Hebrew expression or even some Yiddish phrase I’d learned from my Jewish friends many years ago in high school or at work. (As a teenager I’d actually served my employer, a religiously observant Jew, as a Shabbas goy.)
When I finally engaged the man in conversation, he whispered to me that he was returning home from Germany, where he had attended a memorial for the victims of Kristallnacht. I immediately felt humbled. He was there, he said, in Germany, on 9-10 Nov. 1938.
Kristallnacht, referred to often in English as the "Night of Broken (Shattered) Glass," was of course one of the darkest events of the 20th century; by 1 Sept. 1939, Poland was being trampled by the Nazi Wehrmacht, following a Blitzkrieg. World War II had almost begun.
In 1938, I was not entirely aware of what had happened on the "Night of Broken Glass"; I was hardly 10 years old. However, I was soon totally attuned to Hitler’s march into Poland; I have clear recollections of reading large headlines about it in our local evening (sic) newspaper. (Bridgeport had two evening papers then; also a morning one. Besides, the New York newspapers were available in kiosks and smoke shops everywhere. Also, very urgent news merited an "Extra," a newspaper delivery boy’s cry, heard for miles from critical junctions crossing Main Street.)
The history of Kristallnacht began to become clearer and clearer to me as I went through high school, and studied history and current events. All that I read or heard was confirmed by my parents and by books borrowed or purchased about World War II. Newspaper articles and television commentaries helped fill in the picture.
What happened that infamous November night was that Nazi rioters roamed through the Jewish community and burned or otherwise destroyed over 260 business buildings, Synagogues, Jewish-owned homes, while somehow damaging or looting over 7,500 Jewish businesses and killing an estimated 91 Jewish people. Jewish hospitals, schools and cemeteries were also vandalized. On the morning of 10 Nov. 1938, Jewish sectors were inundated by a sea of broken glass, where windows of Synagogues, homes, shops, schools and service centers had been insanely shattered by anti-Semitic mobs.
Furthermore, the tragedy of all this evidently resonates up to the present day. I could detect it in the pained face of that elderly Jewish survivor who was on the limousine with me, heading north from JFK. Ironically, he was being "dismissed" here and now, almost as if he were only an "it," rather than a "Thou."
I have often thought about how the incomparably great Flannery O’Connor would have explained all this in a short story.
Msgr. David Q. Liptak is Executive Editor ofThe Catholic Transcript
and censor librorum for the Archdiocese of Hartford.