Compared to the Nazi genocide that virtually wiped out Europe's Jews, a night of window-smashing and arson would seem a pale subject for a documentary.
But Kristallnacht: The Journey from 1938 to 1988 (tonight at 8 p.m. on Ch. 7 and repeated Sunday at 1 p.m. on Ch. 11) spotlights a moment in history when history could have been changed. The world was shocked, but did nothing, and Hitler's destruction of the Jews went forward.The one-hour film will air over most Public Broadcasting stations on Nov. 9, the 50th anniversary of "crystal night," when widespread Nazi attacks on synagogues and Jewish businesses and homes littered the streets with shattered glass.
"It was Hitler's last test to see how the world would react, and the world reacted with silence," said Ronald Lauder, who underwrote the film through his Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, a philanthropic organization that aims to preserve European Jewish history and culture.
Lauder, heir to the Estee Lauder cosmetics fortune, served as ambassador to Austria from 1985-87, and was an outspoken critic of anti-Semitism at a time when Austrians were electing former U.N. Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim as their president in spite of his Nazi background.
Lauder told a small group that gathered for a preview screening of the documentary that its purpose was "to teach us a lesson that we have to speak out, speak out whenever there is any type of bigotry government-sponsored, any type of religious persecution."
The film describes the events through rare pictures, including never-before-seen amateur movies of the burning of a synagogue, and interviews with survivors and witnesses. It later catches up with present-day Austrians and Germans who have varying opinions on their connection to the past.
Kristallnacht is well-known in Europe, but Lauder said he was chagrined to find out that only about 10 percent of Americans polled by his foundation had ever heard of it.
"It became part of me when I was in Vienna," he said in an interview. "I began to realize all the different currents, why they were happening. I also saw in Vienna there were very few synagogues left. One of the major ones . . . is today a parking lot. I realized that this was a center of Jewish life, and there's a parking lot. What happened?
"After Nov. 9, 1938, the world was never the same," Lauder said. "There was something different. People couldn't put their finger on it, but it was different. It affects your life, it affects my life, it affects all our lives. And that's why I did it. I wanted people to understand it. And no matter how much I explained to people when I travel what happened, I couldn't get it across."
For producer Robert Frye, a former ABC News producer, making Lauder's film was a difficult project, since little visual material was available.
"The Nazis didn't want any evidence of the widespread nature of this," Frye said. He held little hope for film footage until someone tipped him there was an amateur film sitting in a museum in Germany.