On November 15, 1938, President Franklin Roosevelt addressed the issue of the Kristallnacht at a White House press conference: “I could scarcely believe such things could occur in a twentieth century civilization.”  Roosevelt's incomprehensibility referred to the night of November 9 - 10, 1938, in Germany and Austria which, within the course of just a few hours, 815 shops, 171 homes, and 76 synagogues were destroyed; an additional 191 synagogues were set on fire; 36 Jews were murdered, another 36 seriously injured, and some 20,000 were arrested and sent to concentration camps.

The Kristallnacht marked Germany's final descent into the abyss of its barbarity which would precipitate the Second World War and Holocaust and result in tens of millions of deaths in Europe. 

75 years later at the Minnesota State Capitol, the anniversary of the Kristallnacht was observed in the rotunda – the ceremonial and historic crossroads of our state.

Attendees at the Minnesota State Capitol Building

The location of the remembrance was evocative due to its proximity to the legislative and judicial centers of Minnesota in a space surrounded by the Civil War battle flags of the Minnesota regiments. 

The commemoration was one of the anchors of the programming associated with the exhibit “Lawyers Without Rights: Jewish Lawyers in Germany Under the Third Reich.”  The exhibit teaches not only the fate of German Jewish lawyers after Hitler came to power but the dangers of the disintegration of the Rule of Law which can lead to genocide at any time or place.

(The exhibit and programming were brought to all of Minnesota – with events in the Twin Cities, Duluth and Virginia – under the aegis of Chief Judge J. Michael Davis and Judge Susan Richard Nelson of the Federal District Court of Minnesota in partnership with the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, the Federal Bar Association (Minnesota Chapter), the Twin Cities Cardozo Society, and Associate Justice David Stras of the Minnesota Supreme Court.  Particular thanks are owed to Judge Susan Richard Nelson for her continual stewardship of the project.)

Chief Judge Michael J. Davis began the commemoration noting the words inscribed in the atrium of the Minneapolis Federal Courthouse: “Equal Justice Under Law.”  These fundamental words – the foundation of the Rule of Law – are etched in granite above the entrance to the Supreme Court of the United States of America.  Similarly, with respect to the Kristallnacht commemoration, the ties of justice extend from Minnesota to Washington D.C.  The architect of the Minnesota State Capitol, Cass Gilbert, was the architect of the United States Supreme Court.

Chief Judge Michael J. Davis

Many themes were sounded in contemplating the Kristallnacht which was both a fissure in time and a continuation of the anti-Jewish “legislation” of the Reichstag and behavior of Germany.

One sound heard was music – patriotic, poignant, lilting – echoing through the State Capitol.

Another sound heard were the voices of the speakers articulating the themes, some of which highlights are noted here: Judge Susan Richard Nelson reminded us the collapse of the democratic Weimar Republic underscoring the fragility of the Rule of Law.  Continual vigilance is necessary for a fair and just legal system to persevere.

The Honorable Samuel Kaplan, former United States Ambassador to Morocco, recalled his esteemed mentor, Minneapolis attorney Sidney Kaplan, and his role in helping to draft the indictments for the first Nuremberg war crimes trial.

Major General Richard C. Nash, Adjutant of the Minnesota National Guard – and great thanks are owed to the Minnesota National Guard for its partnership for the commemoration – reminded the gathering of the need to resist evil and the responsibility for preparation in the face of a “gathering storm.”  General Nash invoked the service of Minnesota soldiers across the generations from the soldiers who defeated Nazi Germany in the European Theatre of Operations to his own command in Bosnia in the wake of the murderous ethnic cleansing of Bosnians.  “Never again” he urged.

Sen. Rudy Boschwitz recalled the great foresight of his father who decided to leave Germany after Hitler became chancellor in 1933.  As a refugee and a small child who came to the United States in 1935, Sen. Boschwitz recalled the pre-war years and World War II as a dark time for humanity.  He urged, though, to recall the light of the Danes and Bulgarians and others “Among the Righteous” who saved Jews.

Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman, Senior Rabbi of Temple Israel (Minneapolis), recited the El malei rachamim memorial prayer, the Kaddish, for those who perished in the Holocaust remembering places throughout Europe where the Shoah was perpetrated.

Rep. Frank Hornstein, a member of the Minnesota legislature whose parents survived the Holocaust, told of returning to Poland and meeting the partisans with whom his mother fought in the 1944 Polish uprising in Warsaw.  He told of meeting legislators in Poland and their dedication to fighting racism and anti-Semitism.

Associate Justice David Stras of the Minnesota Supreme Court, simply and powerfully, read from a speech of his grandfather – a Holocaust survivor – "Holocaust-Liberation-Aftereffects." Great thanks to Justice Stras and the Minnesota Supreme Court staff for making the logistical arrangements necessary for the Kristallnacht commemoration and the display of "Lawyers Without Rights" at the Minnesota Judicial Center.  Justice Stras asked the Holocaust survivors present to stand.

I recognized the Holocaust survivors present: Fred Baron, Margo Berdass, Charles Fodor and Paula Rubin.  I thanked them for coming to the United States and their example of the affirmation of life through raising families, starting businesses and loving their neighbors and country.  I noted the presence of three JCRC presidents who are Temple Israel members: Jim Jacobson, Cliff Greene and Allen Saeks.  (Former president Alan Weinblatt and board members Jeff Oberman and Joni Sussman also attended the commemoration.)  I also thanked the Minnesota National Guard contingent present – Gen. Nash, Col. Eric Ahlness, Major Patricia Baker and Chaplain (Major) Philip “Buddy” Winn – for the ongoing partnerships in many projects with the JCRC.

I also thanked the network of Holocaust educators contributing to the "Lawyers Without Rights" exhibit including Prof. Daniel Wildeson of St. Cloud State University and Prof. Alejandro Baer of the University of Minnesota.

The procession of programming associated with the "Lawyers Without Rights" exhibit has also included a study of Minnesota's reaction to the Kristallnacht.  Great thanks to the librarians of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals and Minnesota Federal Court – Andrea Wambach and Kristyn Anderson – for their instrumental role in research and creating the placards of the display.  Thank you, also, to JCRC intern Edmund Nevin for his research assistance at the Minnesota History Center.  Michael Vicklund of the Minnesota Federal Court has been essential to all of the "Lawyers Without Rights" programming.

The programming of the "Lawyers Without Rights" shifted venues and direction to the Duluth Federal Courthouse from November 9 to November 14.  The opening ceremony and reception took place on November 12th in the federal courthouse – whose origin (1934 and WPA) invoked the period of the disenfranchisement of German-Jewish lawyers and the prelude to World War II but also the great marshaling of American "Arsenal of Democracy" both in spirit and the military in defeating the Axis.

Judge Susan Richard Nelson

Again, as with each programming opportunity of the exhibit, every seat was filled.  In the light of the dusk near the shores of Lake Superior, the speakers included:  Chief Judge Michael J. Davis, Judge Susan Richard Nelson, Magistrate Judge Leo Brisbois, Rabbi David Steinberg, Prof. Deborah Petersen-Perlman, Leonore Baeumler and me.  (I had the opportunity to note two special moments – one from the present and one from a generation ago.  For the former, I introduced Minneapolis attorney Joe Kaminsky who attended the Duluth opening after a court appearance in Grand Marais earlier in the day.  Joe Kaminsky's father was Felix Kaminsky who was saved by Oskar Schindler.  For the latter, I recalled visiting in October, 1983 the American military cemetery for the Eighth Air Force in Cambridge, England.  There touring this sacred American space abroad amid the crosses and stars of David, I came across the grave of Sgt. Held of Duluth.)

Attendees at the Federal Courthouse in Duluth

Judge Davis noted, with the backdrop of the ore boats which delivered to the east the Minnesota natural resource which became the steel of the war effort, that the Federal Courthouse is named for Gerald Heany, a Minnesotan from Duluth who became a judge of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.  Judge Heaney was a United States Army Ranger who was among the first ashore at D-Day at Normandy.

After Duluth, the exhibit travelled to the University of Minnesota Law School, the IDS Center, and the Twin Cities Cardozo Society annual dinner.  There was also programming in connection with the exhibit in Virginia, Minnesota.  It was an honor and privilege to be associated with this powerful and moving exhibit.