09 November 2018

Lights Out And Broken Glass

We often say, "There's good news and bad news..."

Well, on this date in history, there is a bad event and a terrible one.  Neither relates directly to cycling, so if you want to skip today's post, I understand.

Anyway, I'll start with the bad news in history.  It's an event I remember pretty well, especially given how young I was. If you are of a certain age, you might have lived through it, too.

On this date in 1965, it was "lights out."  Yes, that's the literal truth:  The lights went out in the northeastern US and the Canadian province of Ontario.  It was the result of failures in power generating station, beginning with one near Niagara Falls.  

My family and I were living in Brooklyn.  We weren't in the dark for as long as some nearby areas:  Around 11 pm, power gradually returned, after about six hours without.  O the other hand, some parts of Manhattan and other boroughs and states didn't have "juice" until the following morning.

In some senses, we were lucky:  It was a classic autumn evening, crisp but not too cold.  More important, perhaps, were the clear skies and full moon.  People did what they could outdoors, but some homes (including ours) had at least some light coming through our windows.

And, even all of these years later, I recall how calm and even helpful most people were.  My father couldn't get home from work, as the subways stopped running,  but he was able to call us from a pay phone (Remember those?)  and assured us he was OK.  There were also some funny stories, like the one about people who got stuck in Macy's furniture department and slept on the showroom beds.

Such an atmosphere was in contrast to another blackout a dozen years later that affected mainly New York City.  It was a hot summer night and that year, it seemed, the city was in chaos, what with Son of Sam was shooting and the Bronx was burning.  Well, it seemed that the gates of Hell or some Freudian subconscious opened:  More fires were set, and stores all over the city were looted.  New Pontiacs were driven off a dealers' showroom on Jerome Avenue in the Bronx; the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick suffered devastation from which it would not recover for another three decades.  Lots of glass was broken that night.

And on the night of 9 November 1938 as well. Many fires were set, too.  On this date in 1938, what is often seen as the opening salvo of World War II occurred.  At the very least, it changed the nature of hatred in a nation.  Up to that time, Jews in Germany, Austria and other European countries were losing their rights--if they had them in the first place--in much the same ways African Americans lost rights during the Jim Crow era.  (I am not the first to draw this parallel; some scholars have said as much.)  For a brief shining period--about a decade or so--after the US Civil War, newly-freed slaves and their descendents enrolled in schools and universities, earned licenses to practice nearly every kind of trade or profession (including medicine and law) and were even elected to public office.  Those rights were withdrawn, as they were for Jews, and worse things came.

In the US, the Ku Klux Klan as well as other groups and individuals intimidated, harassed, beat and even killed black people who stepped out of "their place."  The Jews of the Reich didn't even have to do that:  On this date eight decades ago, bands of Nazis--as well some freelance thugs--destroyed synagogues and Jewish businesses all over Germany and Austria.  The police were under orders to do nothing except prevent injury to Aryans and damage to Aryan-owned homes and businesses.  

Although Jews were harassed, beaten and even killed--and their homes, businesses and synagogues vandalized--before this date, this event--known as Kristallnacht, the "night of broken glass"--marked the first mass, systematic terrorization of Jews.  And it shifted the means of expressing hatred of Semitic people from the legal and social to outright physical violence.  That night, more than 100 Jews were killed and 30,000 able-bodied men were arrested and sent to death camps in Dachau, Sachsenhausen and Buchenwald. (Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen had not yet opened.) Thus began the first mass deportations of Jews (and other "undesirables") to the camps: Until then, the arrests and deportations were less numerous and widespread.

In the US, citizens were outraged--at least for a while.  Newspaper editorials condemned the violence; no less than the New York Times suggested that the German government instigated the violence to line its coffers, both with the possessions seized--and fines levied on--Jews:  "Under a pretense of hot-headed vengeance, the government makes a cold-blooded effort to increase its funds."

Yes, the Jews were forced to pay for the violence they "instigated."  Sadly, Nazis and their followers in the Reich weren't the only ones who believed that the Jews brought it on themselves:  Father Charles Coughlin, and influential Catholic priest, said as much in his radio broadcasts, which reached tens of millions of Americans when the nation's population was about a third of what it is now.

Worse, though, was the initial inaction of the US government and others with power and influence.  At least some of it was a result of unconcious anti-Semitism, but I think a larger reason was that, for one thing, by that time, more Americans came from German ancestry than any other.  And people whose parents and grandparents came from other nations simply couldn't--or weren't willing to--believe that such systematic brutality could happen in "the land of Mozart".

Homes and synagogues burned as glass was broken and the lights went out.  I guess my family and city were lucky twenty-seven years later:  Our lights went out, but there was no broken glass.  And nothing burned.


  1. Didn't your rubber faced liar's family come from Germany...

  2. Actually, the opening salvo of WW2 came in East Asia. A sad postscript to your excellent post was the turning away of Jewish refugees on the Saint Louis by both the US President and the Canadian Government. Justin Trudeau just apologized for the Canadian actions. I don't think the US ever did. Perhaps this is a lesson for us even now, given the turmoil in Latin America...