Ruth Mendel, who lost more than half of her family in the Holocaust and is one of the few remaining survivors, will speak Thursday, Nov. 9, at 5 p.m. in Old Chapel at a Kristallnacht commemoration.
Considered by many to be the start of the Holocaust, the pogrom known as Kristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass), refers to Nov. 9-10, 1938, when German Nazi paramilitary forces attacked Jewish individuals and their property in a widespread campaign of hatred and violence.
The pogram was named after the smashed glass that was strewn on the streets from the windows of looted and vandalized shops and synagogues. World War II broke out a year later when Germany invaded Poland.
Mendel’s talk is free and open to the public. It is sponsored by Hillel, the Office of Intercultural Affairs and the Department of Religious Studies, and organized in conjunction with the Holocaust Survivors and Friends Education Center in Albany.
Stephen Berk, the Henry and Sally Schaffer Professor of Holocaust and Jewish Studies, will provide opening remarks that provide historical perspective.
“It is more important than ever that we commemorate Kristallnacht,” said Hillel Director Bonnie Cramer. “We must pay tribute to memory of the victims, and we must never underestimate virulent antisemitism, which is manifesting on many college campuses in the wake of the Oct. 7 pogrom in Israel.”
At 91, Mendel, who lives in Bethlehem, Albany County, has spent the last decade speaking at schools and synagogues across upstate New York, increasingly so as Holocaust denialism intensifies.
Mendel was born in Luxembourg in 1931 to Polish parents and had a self-described happy childhood until May 10, 1940, the day Nazis attacked her country of 3,500 Jews. Mendel’s grandparents’ dry goods store soon was slapped with the Star of David to keep away patrons, and nine-year-old Ruth was kicked out of school.
Confronting their desperate situation, her family fled to Belgium to secure visas and managed to make their way by train to Paris, Spain and Portugal before getting on a boat to the U.S. Due to very strict American immigration requirements, theirs was one of the last boats that was allowed to leave. Jewish refugees on another transport never made it out.
“Some people wound up in southern France, others in the camps,” Mendel said, “and it was just pure luck that we got out.”
The Nazi genocide killed six million Jews across Nazi Germany-occupied Europe.
Mendel’s talk comes at a time of revisionist history and surging global antisemitism. Since the Oct. 7 massacre, the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism has recorded a significant spike in antisemitic incidents in the U.S. Preliminary data indicates that reported incidents of harassment, vandalism and assault rose by 388 percent over the same period last year.
In referring to her speaking engagements, Mendel said, “If there were no need for it, I wouldn’t do it.”