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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Kristallnacht in the writings of Arthur Miller and Philip Roth

The night of November 9, 1938, marks the beginning of the two days known as Kristallnacht, “The Night of Broken Glass.” As Sigrid Shultz reported in The Chicago Tribune the next day:
Systematic destruction of Jewish property, looting, arson, and wholesale arrests of Jews without official charges swept Germany today. It is estimated that 20,000 Jews were arrested in Germany and what was Austria.
The Nazi violence far outdid anything that happened along this line in Germany in the darkest days of the Red revolution. Then hungry mobs stormed food stores. Today the mobs gloated over the smashed stores of Jews. They helped themselves to clothes, furs, and toys, and scattered the goods in the streets for their friends to pick up.
Later reports estimated that 30,000 Jews were arrested and sent to concentration camps, more than 200 synagogues burned down and 7,000 Jewish businesses destroyed. Most historians date the beginning of the Holocaust from Kristallnacht and Jews worldwide memorialize the events every year.

Reimagining Kristallnacht has challenged writers since Günter Grass confronted the event with his harrowing novel The Tin Drum in 1959. Two American writers renowned for tackling difficult subjects waited until their seventies to try. In 1994 seventy-nine-year-old Arthur Miller wrote the play Broken Glass, in which the marital difficulties of a Jewish couple living in New York City in 1938 are inextricably entangled with the husband’s struggle with his identity as a Jew and his wife’s pathological reaction to news reports of Kristallnacht:
Hyman [a doctor]: Very disturbing. Forcing old men to scrub the sidewalks with toothbrushes. On the Kurfurstendamm, that’s equivalent to Fifth Avenue. Nothing but hoodlums in uniform.
Gellburg [the husband]: My wife is very upset about that.
Hyman: I know, that’s why I mention it. (Hesitates.) And how about you?
Gellburg: Of course, it’s a terrible thing. Why do you ask?
Hyman: (a smile)—I don’t know, I got the feeling she may be afraid she’s annoying you when she talks about such things.
Gellburg: Why? I don’t mind.—She said she’s annoying me?
Hyman: Not in so many words, but . . .
Gellburg: I can’t believe she’d say a thing like . . .
Hyman: Wait a minute, I didn’t say she said it . . .
Gellburg: She doesn’t annoy me, but what can be done about such things? The thing is, she doesn’t’ like to hear about the other side of it.
Hyman: What other side?
Gellburg: It’s no excuse for what’s happening over ther, but German Jews can be pretty . . . you know . . . (Pushes up his nose with his forefinger.)
Philip Roth was a spry seventy-one when he concocted The Plot Against America (2004), his alternate history of the war years. When Walter Winchell tours the country to speak out against President Charles Lindbergh’s anti-Semitism, riots break out and American Jews experience their own Kristallnacht:
The worst and most widespread violence occurred in Detroit, the Midwestern headquarters of the “Radio Priest” Father Coughlin and his Jew-hating Christian Front . . . There, in the city’s biggest Jewish neighborhoods, shops were looted and windows broken, Jews trapped outdoors were set upon and beaten, and kerosene-soaked crosses were ignited on the lawns of the fancy houses along Chicago Boulevard and out front of the modest two-family dwellings of the housepainters, plumbers, butchers, bakers, junk dealers and grocers who lived on Webb and Tuxedo and in the little dirt yards of the poorest Jews on Pingry and Euclid.
Related LOA works: Reporting World War II: Part One: American Journalism 1938-1944 (includes Sigrid Schultz’s report on Kristallnacht); Arthur Miller: Collected Plays 1944-1961; Philip Roth: Collected Works 1959-1995

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