Op-Ed: Christians mostly failed to act in response to Kristallnacht

Rafael Medoff

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Most American Christian leaders strongly condemned the Kristallnacht pogrom that the Nazis carried out against Germany’s Jews 73 years ago next week, when hundreds of synagogues were torched, the windows of thousands of Jewish businesses were smashed, 100 Jews were murdered and 30,000 more were dragged off to concentration camps.

But the words of condemnation were not always accompanied by calls for action. When it came to advocating steps such as opening America’s doors to Jewish refugees or severing U.S. relations with Nazi Germany, Christian voices too often fell silent.

The liberal Catholic publication Commonweal called for suspending America’s immigration quotas in order to admit more refugees. The larger Catholic weekly magazine America, however, took a different line. America headlined its post-Kristallnacht issue “NAZI CRISIS.” But the two feature stories did not focus on the plight of Hitler’s Jewish victims. The first was a report about the mistreatment of nuns by Nazis in Austria. The second article charged that protests by American Jews against the Nazi pogrom were generating “a fit of national hysteria” intended “to prepare us for war with Germany.”

The issue did include an editorial titled “The Refugees and Ourselves,” but it was about the “grave duty” of American Catholics to help European Catholic refugees. Jewish refugees weren’t even mentioned.

An editorial in the leading Protestant magazine Christian Century did address the Jewish refugee problem: It argued that America’s own economic problems necessitated “that instead of inviting further complications by relaxing our immigration laws, these laws be maintained or even further tightened.”

A few months later, refugee advocates proposed legislation to help German Jews that could not be construed as undermining America’s economy. The Wagner-Rogers bill would have admitted 20,000 children — too young to compete with American citizens for jobs. Yet even then, Christian Century found a reason to oppose helping the Jews.

“[A]dmitting Jewish immigrants would only exacerbate America’s Jewish problem,” it wrote.

One notable Christian response to Kristallnacht was an initiative by the U.S. branch of the Young Women’s Christian Association.  Less than two weeks after the pogrom, the YWCA established a Committee on Refugees, which undertook information campaigns aimed at persuading the public that refugees were loyal and hardworking. Unfortunately, the YWCA’s national board soon lost interest in the project and declined to fund it. According to Professor Haim Genizi, the American Jewish Committee ended up providing much of the committee’s budget.

Christian Scientists, although small in number, had the opportunity to exercise influence through their mass-circulation newspaper, the Christian Science Monitor. But true to their church’s emphasis on the potential of prayer to heal all ills, the Monitor’s editors argued that in response to Kristallnacht, “prayer … will do more than any amount of ordinary protests to heal the hate released in the last few days and to end injustices and excesses practiced in the name of anti-Semitism.”

The Monitor did acknowledge that “finding havens for [the] refugees” was a necessity, but refrained from suggesting that America should serve as one of those havens.

One of the few consistently strong Christian voices in the aftermath of Kristallnacht was that of U.S. Sen. William King of Utah, a former missionary who was arguably the most prominent Mormon in America at the time. While President Roosevelt only recalled the U.S. ambassador from Germany temporarily for “consultations,” Senator King urged the administration to completely break off U.S. diplomatic relations with Hitler. While FDR said that liberalization of America’s immigration quotas was “not in contemplation,” King introduced legislation to open Alaska to Jewish refugees.

Sadly, Senator King’s initiatives attracted almost no support from America’s churches. The response of most  Christian leaders to Kristallnacht, like the response of the Roosevelt administration and most of the American public, was, in the words of Professor Henry Feingold, “no more than a strong spectator sympathy for the underdog.”

(Dr. Rafael Medoff is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, which focuses on issues related to America’s response to the Holocaust. The material in this article is based on the Wyman Institute’s ongoing research project on American Christian responses to the Holocaust.)