It matters what we call things. We are in a battle to prevent the truth being distorted or disputed. The way we talk about our past has a very pressing message for today.
We are trying to find the right words to describe what happened on October 7th, the name that will conjure that day for the rest of our lives. Was it an event, a massacre, a pogrom? It isn’t just a question for the headline writers; memory and history is being crafted before our very eyes. Its name will define it for generations to come. I know this because I’ve seen it happen before.
As we mark 85 years since Nazi Germany’s nationwide attack on Jews we find ourselves talking about Kristallnacht. Kristallnacht features as the introductory page, as some sort of precursor of a lesser tempo or intensity than the subsequent chapters of the history of the Holocaust. This is partly because, as the name suggests, the broken glass became the abiding image of the night. However the evocative name does more to conceal the very nature of the event rather than to expose the gruesomeness and brutality of the night.
As we look around the crisis we are in today we are acutely aware that the destruction and trauma is never confined to one day or one night. October the seventh may well be the day that lasts for a hundred years. That’s why what we call things matters.
We who did not witness the events of the 1930s and 1940s have unfortunately now gained a better perspective on what a pogrom looks like at close quarters, more than we could possibly have imagined. In light of what we now know the time has arrived to start calling Kristallnacht what it was, a pogrom. Just as what happened on the 7th of October cannot be described as the ‘day of the breached fence’ nor the ‘day of burnt homes’, Kristallnacht cannot be the ‘night of broken glass’. It was the November Pogrom and this is why.
Because Kristallnacht suggests that it was a single night of terror, in fact it was at least two nights and days with the destruction carrying on for many more days in some areas of Austria and Germany.
Because Kristallnacht turns our attention to the broken windows; as if we are mourning acts of vandalism and the loss of property. In fact it was the murder of at least 100 Jews in the streets and the abduction of over 30,000 Jewish men to concentration camps, some of them never to return.
Because Kristallnacht, a German name, conjures a uniquely Nazi German event which occurred in the historical greyzone we call Nazi Germany. But it wasn’t a standalone event, it was true to the long history of murder, rape and pillaging that Jews had suffered for many centuries before. Nazi Germany may have been the most successful Jew-killers to date but they joined a long standing tradition with ancestors and unfortunately heirs to their hatred.
It was in fact the November Pogrom.
It was the November Pogrom because the murder and destruction of November 1938 was far more than a single day or night. As we well know, in the wake of a pogrom, the murder drags on, the injured not destined to recover eventually die and the flames of the burning buildings keep smouldering. Neither the setting nor the rising of the sun gives closure for the bereaved and the families of those stolen from their homes.
It was the November Pogrom because the murder and loss must take centre stage. Our hearts start to bleed afresh as we realise that there is a debate among scholars to this day about whether the victims numbered around 100 or closer to 3000. A margin of error of these proportions leaves us overwhelmed as the scale of the destruction.
It was the November Pogrom because the crimes of November 1938 were committed by Nazi Germany who were part of an extended family of perpetrators who have worn various masks over the millenia. Regardless of the languages they have spoken or the weapons they have used they have been united in a mortal hatred of the Jews.
While I think that changing the way we describe November 1938 will give us a deeper and more sensitive understanding of those days, maybe it is too late to fundamentally change the language we have been using for so long already.
But looking back we should realise that as we live through November 2023 we are firmly within the crucible of Jewish history and we can be mindful of the words we are using in the history we write today. The words we use to describe what has just befallen us will shape the memory of generations to come. That’s why it matters what we call things.
We are a nation in deep turmoil, fighting a war which we did not want, which runs to the very heart of our existence. But at the same time, just like those who came before us we are deeply concerned with the telling of the story. The question which plagued European Jews in the 1940s was, ‘who will write our history?’ Our question is ‘how will our history be written?’
Will we sanitise what we have seen by talking of the ‘events of October 7th’? Will we speak in the language of the world and call it ‘the October 7th Massacre? Or will we place it firmly on the historical continuum, a product of the world’s oldest hatred and call it what it was, the October Pogrom?