Karen Sutton

Commemorating the 85th Anniversary of Kristallnacht with Fresh Tears and Hope

In light of the terrorist attack by Hamas on Oct.7, this year’s 85th commemoration of the Nazi onslaught against the Jews of Germany in the early morning hours of November 9th and 10th might appear to have shrunk in significance. But the reality is the opposite. Through an invisible lens, by remembering the heinous acts of the perpetrators, by hearing the cheering of the bystanders, by visualizing the helplessness of the victims, and by recalling the tepid global responses to that night’s defilement of Jews, a vivid message for today begins to emerge. Could it be that the “Never Again” that Jews have so tenaciously clung to in the eight decades since the Holocaust is now an anachronism?

As an historian, a Jew, and an educator, I am sublimely awestruck by the alarming similarities between Kristallnacht and October 7th.   Also, somewhat shaken is my belief in an educational system which was supposed to have fostered in its youth of all races and religions a milieu that would never again need to draw on the lessons of past human-orchestrated atrocities. However, during the days and weeks since October 7, we have had to make analogies and draw on the courage and strength of others before us, the victims of the Holocaust and other genocides who have had to face and resist deadly acts of persecution.

The similarities between Kristallnacht in 1938 and the Hamas terrorist Attack of Oct 7th are enough to make one shake in despair:  the surprise assault, the cheering of onlookers, the taking of hostages (the Nazis took 30,000 Jewish men as hostages and placed them in Buchenwald and Dachau until their release would be negotiated with Reichsmarks), the blame for the attack placed on Jews themselves, and worst of all the loss of innocent lives and destruction.

Still, the differences between the two tend to gently sway one in the direction of solace and optimism. This is especially true when looking at the responses of U.S. leadership and Jews themselves in the wake of the heinous events.  The colossal defense capabilities and military might of the Jewish nation demonstrated by the actions of the past weeks contrast so vividly with the near total inability for Jews to defend themselves after Kristallnacht and during the Holocaust.  Israel, in defending its own people and borders, did not need or wait for the support or of others — not the U.S., and certainly not UN peacekeeping forces.  Unlike the situation in November of 1938, when the Jews were completely alone without adequate without weapons or a defense force, today Israelis are strong and self-reliant.

American Jews are no longer meek, lacking self-confidence or afraid to upset the political or social “apple cart.”  Although facing disparagingly Antisemitic histrionics on campuses and the outpouring of vitriolic demonstrations, the grounded and solid institutions of the U.S. (of which Jews are intrinsically part) have the strength and capacity to demonstrate, albeit less loudly, their support of the Jewish people and Israel’s right to defend itself.  Unlike America in 1938, today American Jews form a politically active force to be reckoned with as we peacefully urge our lawmakers towards unconditional support of Israel.  Unlike 1938, when Jews were counting on the world leaders of the Evian Conference for aid and relief to their brothers and sisters in Germany and Austria, Israel has shown the world that it will not be timid and intimidated by the world’s “do gooders” who in fact may do little good in terms of real aid and support.

In 1938, it was becoming evident that Jews would be facing “the beginning of the end” alone, without adequate means to defend themselves and without the support of the countries fighting against the Germans.

Now, as we remember the “Reichspogromnacht” (the night of the state-sponsored pogrom) against the Jews, when a 95-year-old survivor, David Greenbaum, speaks to my class, he will tell us how alone and helpless he, his family, and all the Jewish families in Germany felt then.  But David has already shared with me that he will also state how thankful he is that this is not the case today.

When under attack, we as a people unconditionally come together.  Our strength is grounded in belief in G-d and in the knowledge that while our soldiers are at the front, G-d has our backs. That is the strength of the Jewish people and message of Kristallnacht and the lasting legacy of the Holocaust as we garner courage to face today.

About the Author
Dr. Karen Sutton is associate professor of history at the Lander College for Women, a division of Touro University, in New York City.
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