• Steven Heller

A Horrible But Timely Anniversary

Today and tomorrow is a sad anniversary. Coming on the heels of the shooting and murder of eleven congregants at The Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh, it is the 80th anniversary of the terrifying events of Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass) throughout Nazi Germany on November 9 and 10, 1938. This was the state sanctioned pogrom against German Jews, which saw violent mobs burn Jewish businesses and murder Jewish civilians. It foreshadowed the European Holocaust to come.

To commemorate this dark chapter in German history, the Leo Baeck Institute worked with C&G Partners to develop “1938 Projekt: Posts from the Past”, an enlightening year-long digital and exhibition program presenting a daily stream of archival documents which tell the story of how German-speaking Jews perceived the events of that fateful year at the time.

Kristallnacht took the form of assaults, property destruction, burning of synagogues, forced incarceration and murder, affecting tens of thousands of innocent Jewish citizens.  “1938 Projekt: Posts from the Past” tells the story of how German-speaking Jews perceived the progressing situation of the year leading to Kristallnacht through daily web and social media posts of actual archival documents from the same corresponding dates in 1938 to create a growing online calendar in real time. The “projekt” also includes companion exhibitions and programs in the US and Germany.

The Leo Baeck Institute documents German-speaking Jewish culture, and has built a world-class research collection documenting centuries of Jewish life in Central Europe with an 80,000-volume library, millions of pages of archival documents, 25,000 photographs, 8,000 art objects, 2,000 memoirs and hundreds of oral histories. “1938 Projekt” focuses on individual stories by presenting documents from LBI’s extensive archives and those of numerous partner institutions.  Every day this year, a new document — a handwritten letter, a diary entry, a photo, a newspaper article — is posted to social media and the website reflecting the experiences and intimate impressions of its former owners as they grappled at the time with the gradual loss of their rights, livelihoods, homes and personal safety. The archival documents are gripping to read today, since they portray daily life in the buildup to what we now know will be the coming violence of Kristallnacht, after which all hope was lost.

The project’s graphic design, lead by Maya Kopytman, said the strength of the project is in how the calendar concept draws the public in by building suspense in small daily doses. The design reflects the modernist, Bauhaus style of the late 1930s.  In the visual identity, the numeral “8” in the year and letter “O” in “Projekt” are aligned and highlighted with a vertical red gesture, hiding in plain sight a commemoration of the 80 years since the 1938.  The archival documents posted each day are sometimes accompanied by a brief sidebar story of a world news event from the same date in 1938 to provide historical context. Visit the online exhibit here.