Kristallnacht: A warning from history still not heard

November 9th marks 82 years since Kristallnacht – The Night of Broken Glass. It signaled the start of two days of terror for the Jews of Germany and Austria. Synagogues, Jewish homes, shops, schools and institutions were ransacked, tens of thousands were arrested and lives were lost. Kristallnacht is rightly viewed as a seminal moment, the point at which Nazi persecution transformed from economic and social intimidation, into physical terror. It was a precursor to the unimaginable horrors to come.

Sadly, the world did not comprehend the gravity of Kristallnacht.

The devastation of Kristallnacht transcends physical ruin. At the symbolic heart of this pogrom, was the wanton destruction of more than 1,400 synagogues, which for generations had served as sanctuaries and refuges for both body and soul. The image of burning synagogues became the motif of Kristallnacht. Their destruction was not mere vandalism, it was the deliberate and unrestrained obliteration of Jewish identity.

And yet, all too often the tragic echoes of Kristallnacht can still be heard today. In the United States, according to the FBI, attacks in churches, synagogues, temples and mosques increased by a staggering 38.4 percent between 2014 and 2018, the last year for which such data is available. Globally in 2019, hundreds of worshipers were killed in houses of prayer. They include the horrific Easter Sunday attacks on churches in Sri Lanka and a deadly gun attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. Worshipers were also murdered last year at a synagogue in Poway, Southern California and at a Buddhist temple in Thailand.

The lessons of Kristallnacht, the dangers of where racism and extremism can lead, are more relevant today than perhaps ever before. The survivors of Kristallnacht and the Holocaust that it ushered onwards, are dwindling. Someone who was 18 at Kristallnacht would be 100 this year. The witnesses to man’s gravest depravity will soon depart this earth. It falls to others to ensure that humanity’s darkest hour is never forgotten.

Sadly, there is much work to be done. A poll in the United States suggested that two-thirds of millennials are unable to identify what Auschwitz is. Meanwhile, research shows that 69% of French youngsters do not know that six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust. When young people are unaware of the abyss to which racism can lead, there is no telling where it may end. Such ignorance can be the beginning of a very dangerous chapter.

Moreover, we are living through an age of immense global uncertainty. The COVID-19 pandemic has placed the health, social and economic well-being of so many countries in the balance. It is precisely this type of uncertainty which is the perfect breeding ground for extremism. The extremists and the bigots are already taking advantage. They are making sure that as the coronavirus crisis intensifies, so too does fear of “the other.” Today, as in previous eras, they are placing the blame for society’s ills on those who are different. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, a worrying increase in racist incidents across the world has been recorded by the World Economic Forumhuman rights groups and beyond.

Quite simply, Kristallnacht must not be confined to the pages of history. It must be a very real lesson for today. We must all make sure that this year, more than any other, Kristallnacht becomes an opportunity for meaningful reflection and education. In these turbulent times, the battle for hearts and minds is very real.

At March of the Living, we educate people from around the world not only about the history of the Holocaust, but also about its lessons, and where prejudice, intolerance and hatred can ultimately lead.

At a time of great confusion and anguish, these lessons hold truer than ever. On November 9, the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the very night on which the forces of darkness prevailed, we ask that synagogues, educational institutions and private homes leave on a symbolic light, as a mark of our collective memory of the horrors of that night, and our shared commitment towards tolerance and respect. As the Lubavitcher Rebbe would often quote, “A little bit of light dispels a lot of darkness.”

Together, we can make a powerful statement. Let the memory of Kristallnacht be the turning point towards a brighter, more hopeful future. This would surely be the best possible tribute to those who suffered unimaginably at the hands of the Nazis. Moreover, the very future of all decent people — regardless of our beliefs or background — may depend on it.

About the Author
Phyllis Greenberg Heideman is president of International March of the Living, the annual international Holocaust education program.
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