Series in remembrance of Holocaust begins with account of Kristallnacht

More than glass was broken: Steven Wessler tells some of the personal stories of the people attacked in Germany by the Nazi regime during “Kristallnacht” during his presentation on Monday in University Hall theater on the Indiana State University campus.Tribune-Star/Joseph C. Garza

A year-and-a-half has passed since Arthur Feinsod and Brad Venable saw World War II-era concentration camps in Poland, but the experience stuck with the Indiana State University faculty members.

“It had a big impact on both Brad and myself,” said Feinsod, a theater professor.

Feinsod and Venable, art education coordinator for the Department of Art and Design, made the visit after staging a production of Feinsod’s play, “Coming to See Aunt Sophie,” in Germany.

The play tells the story of Jan Karski, who Feinsod called a “hero of the Holocaust” for relaying information about the horrors committed by the Nazis in Poland. Vernable portrayed Karski as an older man.

Their trip sparked an idea for a week-long series of events remembering the Holocaust, particularly Kristallnacht or “The Night of Broken Glass,” the coordinated series of attacks against Jews in Nazi Germany and Austria in 1938.

The events kicked off Monday with keynote remarks in the Bayh College of Education from Steve Wessler, a human rights educator, trainer and advocate.

Also Monday, at the United Hebrew Congregation on Sixth Street, Holocaust survivor Walter Sommers shared his memories of Kristallnacht and congregation representative Scott Skillman detailed the history of a special torah.

Monday marked the 77th anniversary of the start of Kristallnacht, which continued into the following day. Ninety-one Jews were killed in the attacks.

Other events are scheduled elsewhere on campus, Vigo County Public Library and CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center. For more information, visit www.indstate.edu/night.

The library, CANDLES, United Hebrew Congregation and several ISU offices and departments are sponsoring the events.

“We thought that by educating about Kristallnacht we could also educate about events that are relevant to today,” Feinsod said, speaking to the Tribune-Star before Wessler’s lecture.

Feinsod and Wessler were friends and roommates at Harvard University.

Venable said he wanted students and other community members to have a better understanding and context of Kristallnacht, saying the visit to Poland re-framed his knowledge about the Holocaust.

The depth of the Jews’ experience, he realized, went beyond days in time.

“It seemed to be a part of who they were,” he said. “And that really touched me.”

Wessler frequently travels the world facilitating workshops, lectures, keynote addresses and conflict resolution dialogues — including between Protestants and Catholics in northern Ireland.

He founded the Center for the Prevention of Hate Crime Violence.

In emphasizing the importance of speaking up for those targeted with bias, hate and violence, Wessler read highly emotional accounts from survivors of Kristallnacht.

After a Nazi officer smashed dolls and toys in front of a sobbing girl, he told the child’s mother, “You can drown that brat in the River Jordan.”

Wessler said as many as 2,000 synagogues were burned over the two-day rampage, while firefighters stood by, working only to prevent the blazes from spreading to non-Jewish properties.

The attacks got their name from the glass of shattered windows from buildings belonging to Jews.

A common thread, Wessler said, exists in all the events of hate and bias he’s seen over the years. The situations never appear from thin air.

Instead, they are part of escalating biases and prejudices that are expressed, along with a silent majority like was seen during Kristallnacht.

“The unwillingness to speak up and say no to hate sends a message to perpetrators,” he said, “and perpetrators and supporters of bias and hate interpret it as support.”

“And those perpetrators will take that view as a green light to move to increasingly ugly and increasingly violent acts.”

Reporter Nick Hedrick can be reached at 812-231-4232 or nick.hedrick@tribstar.com. Follow Nick on Twitter @TribStarNick.

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Nick Hedrick has been a reporter for the Tribune-Star since 2015. A 2012 graduate of Indiana State, he covered government and features for the (Winchester) News-Gazette and was editor of the Jackson County Banner before returning to Terre Haute.