Kristallnacht and the lessons for today

This month, 76 years ago in Germany and Austria, over two infernal days, more than 30,000 Jews were arrested and sent to concentration camps.

Over 300 synagogues were torched, thousands of Jewish-owned shops and homes were ransacked and cemeteries and schools were vandalized.

According to Nazi estimates, 92 Jews were killed, though the number of victims is probably higher.

This was Kristallnacht, a chilling embodiment of depravity and inhumanity.

The Nazis tried to portray this brutal assault as a spontaneous eruption of German hatred for the Jews.

But just before the infamous ‘Night of Broken Glass’ (proudly named by the Nazis because of the glass from the shattered window panes that carpeted the pavements) orders were given to police officers not to interfere with the impending, highly organised attack.

The orchestrated rampage was a  prelude to the Holocaust, the first in a series of violent riots that effectively marked Nazi Germany’s attempt to eliminate European Jewry.

Former West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt described the notorious  onslaught  as a major stage “along the path leading down to hell”.

That hell was Hitler’s Final Solution” to the so-called “Jewish problem”, the systematic, industrialised extermination of six million Jews and millions of non-Jewish victims, including homosexuals, Roma Gypsies, the disabled, political dissidents, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Communists, Socialists and religious leaders.

While Jews were beaten, humiliated and tortured, the German and Austrian public looked on as if this was just another day, sending a crystal clear message to the Nazis that they could go as far as they wanted with their war against the Jews. After the unspeakable atrocities, no German or Austrian could ever claim that they did not know of the persecution of the Jews.

While some nations denounced Kristallnacht, none cut off diplomatic relations with Germany or put in place meaningful sanctions.

It was this indifference and appeasement that spawned Auschwitz.

Sadly, anti-Semitism is not history.  It’s a very real and lingering present threat.

Over the last year, we have witnessed unprecedented levels of hatred and physical violence against Jews not seen for decades. The old taboos against anti-Semitism seem to have been breached. In Paris, mobs, using pogrom style tactics, looted Jewish businesses, damaged synagogues, set cars on fire and screamed “Slaughter the Jews”. In Germany, chants of, “Jews to the gas chambers”, were heard in demonstrations and Molotov cocktails were thrown at a synagogue.

Things have gotten so bad that Chancellor Angela Merkel felt it necessary to take part in a rally at the Brandenburg Gate titled “Stand Up: Jew Hatred – Never Again!”. Merkel observed that there was “not a single Jewish institution” in the country that does not require police protection and that it was “every German’s duty” to take a stand in the fight against anti-Semitism.

In Brussels, a gunman opened fire inside the Belgium Jewish Museum, killing four.

Elsewhere, British Jews were subjected to a record number of anti-Semitic attacks with a recorded 400% increase.

No wonder Ed Miliband has warned that this spike should serve as a “wake-up call” for those who believe that the disease of anti-Semitism has been overcome.  The British Labour leader called for a “zero-tolerance approach” to this scourge.

Who would have predicted, seven decades after the Holocaust, that nearly a quarter of European Jews would be afraid to go to Jewish events or Jewish sites.

For many, this is a red alert that worse is yet to come.

Here in Australia,  a dramatic escalation in racist incidents and sentiments is a  cause for great concern.  Over the last year, physical attacks against Jews trebled.

Germany’s days of shame is a timely reminder about  the dangers of silence in the face of incitement.

The lessons of Kristallnacht are that we must always speak out against bigotry.

It is our duty and responsibility to never be bystanders when the most vulnerable groups in our society are singled out.

We cannot close our eyes or be complacent to any radical ideology, conduct or violence.

As I write this column,  genocides and mass atrocities around the world are unfolding. Violence that targets religious minorities and their places of worship is surging.

Erasing prejudice from the hearts and minds of young and old  requires action from each of us. It begins with teaching our children to respect and appreciate people of every religion, culture, race, social and economic status, and sexual orientation.

Each family has a duty, from early childhood, to nurture a sense of community and deepen understanding of other faiths and ethnicities so as to ensure that the next generation is more tolerant than the one that precedes it.

We each have a role to play in this struggle.

Personally, we must confront our own prejudices and overcome our inclination to judge, tag or demean others. Because when you categorise and label people, they stop being a person with feelings and emotions.

They become objects that are easy targets for harm and hate.

As Abe Foxman, National Director of the Anti-Defamation League often reminds us, the “gas chambers in Auschwitz and the crematorium in Auschwitz didn’t begin with bricks, they began with words; ugly words, hateful words. These words were met with absence. Nobody challenged them, nobody questioned them, and then they became bricks.”

With a firm resolve we must rededicate ourselves to the never-ending mission of confronting intolerance and xenophobia wherever they persist and  foster a tolerant society that is free from any form of discrimination.

Kristallnacht is an enduring and potent symbol of how prejudice can spread when left unchecked, and how crucial it is that governments, schools and communities stamp out this evil.

We must learn the lessons of history lest we repeat our mistakes.

By working tirelessly to combat anti-Semitism and every manifestation of bias, and by vowing to never be silent in the face of hatred, we honour the memories of the victims and the families and say in one voice: ‘Never Again’

About the Author
Dr. Dvir Abramovich is Director of the Program in Jewish Culture and Society at The University of Melbourne and the Israel Kipen Senior Lecturer in Hebrew and Jewish Studies. He is also Chairman of the B'nai B'rith Anti-Defamation Commission. He served as President of Australian Association of Jewish studies and editor of the Australian Journal of Jewish Studies. A widely sought out speaker and media commentator, he has authored and edited three books and numerous articles.