Kristallnacht. Seventy-five years later, the very word (Night of Broken Glass) still casts its long shadow. On Nov. 9th, 1938, a mass pogrom was unleashed by the German High command against the Jews of Germany and Austria. It marked the Nazi regime’s transition from the quasi-legal discriminatory Nuremberg Laws to coming of ‘Final Solution’ genocide against European Jewry.
The official statistics— 91 Jews were killed, thousands more put into concentration camps, 267 synagogues burned, and 7,500 Jewish businesses vandalized, fail to describe the overwhelming sense of terror and foreboding which enveloped German Jewry. They had just experienced the overwhelming indifference and antipathy of neighbors, when police and fire departments were deployed not to douse the flames engulfing historic houses of worship or stop vicious beatings, but only to protect the property of proper Aryans.
In his diary, Reich Minister Goebbels celebrated: “As I am driven to the hotel [in Munich], windowpanes shatter. Bravo! Bravo! The synagogues burn like big old cabins.”
He and Hitler had reason to celebrate. The world didn’t give a damn about the Jews and soon the path from burning synagogues would lead to the plumes of ashes of mass murdered Jews spewing forth from death camp crematoria, covered by the fog of war and buried by an indifferent humanity.
Their celebrations continued as other conflagrations enveloped all of Europe. Cities from London to Warsaw to Leningrad were devastated by the Nazi Blitzkrieg. But by May 1945, when WWII ended, the very same streets in Munich and Berlin whose synagogues were torched and whose Jews were disappeared, were themselves reduced to rubble by the onslaught of Allied firebombs.
Seven and a half decades later, we are left with grainy images of that night of horrors. As the last of the surviving victims and victimizers, heroes and bystanders inexorably leave the world stage, it is time to ponder, what, if anything we’ve learned from Kristallnacht:
Is European hatred of Jews a thing of the past?
In his latest book, “Demonizing Israel and the Jews,” Manfred Gerstenfeld, analyzes polls taken across the continent and estimates that at least 150 million Europeans still harbor extreme anti-Jewish and/or anti-Israel animus.
Do Europe’s Jews feel safe?
According to Gerstenfeld, 25 percent are afraid to wear kippot or Star of David jewelry in public. While today armed police stand on guard across Europe protecting synagogues, 80 synagogues have been attacked in recent years in Germany alone. Jewish children have been targeted for bullying in Scandinavia and for insult, injury, even death on the campuses of day schools and Yeshivot in France.
And there is more, much more. This isn’t only about Islamist extremists for whom Jew is a dirty word. There is increasing mainstream hate and disrespecting of Jews and core Judaic values.
From Greece to Hungary to Ukraine, political parties increase their clout by playing the ant-Semitism card. Campaigns are underway in leading European democracies to criminalize the core Judaic mitzvot of brit milah and Shechita.
And in the ultimate insult to Jews– living and dead–respected European NGOs, politicians, media and prominent church leaders cast Israelis as latter-day Nazis. Even Holocaust commemorations have been hijacked. In Norway, on the 65th anniversary of Kristallnacht, Norwegian authorities—“not wanting any trouble”—forbade any Jewish symbols, including the Star of David and the Israeli flag, from being displayed. Jews attempting to join the commemoration were firmly told by police to “please leave the area.” What’s wrong with Europe’s memory is encapsulated in comments made by my colleague and mentor, Rabbi Marvin Hier, the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s dean and founder during our audience with Pope Francis at the Vatican. Rabbi Hier quoted, revered Jewish thinker, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik who said,“Evil is an undeniable fact. It exists. I will neither deny it nor camouflage it….” Rabbi Hier added, “Evil existed during the time of Moses as it did in Jesus’ time and as it does in our own time. “That is the reason why, Soloveitchik taught, the Torah has two ways of expressing memory. One is positive, Zachor, to remember, reach out, dialogue, to find common ground. The other dimension is negative, Lo Tishkach, do not forget to act when you are dealing with evil.
The Nazi Holocaust was the quintessential example of humanity’s capacity for evil. Here are three points for gentile and Jew to reflect on this Kristallnacht.
First: If European leaders refuse to protect live Jews, they shouldn’t bother attending memorials for 6 million dead Jews.
Second: Stop de-Judaizing the Nazi Holocaust. Evil is not merely an abstract idea. The Nazis murdered Anne Frank and six million of her brethren for death only because she and they were Jews. Public memorials and teaching modules omitting this truth desecrate the dead.
Third:We Jews have to toughen up. Accepting the status quo in Europe is demeaning and only emboldens the bigots on the street and in the halls of Parliaments.
2013 is not 1938. But, we Jews dare not repeat the mistakes of the 1930s by pinning our hopes that Europe’s leaders will do the heavy lifting to defend our rights. Only we can secure our dignity. As Simon Wiesenthal himself often said: “Freedom is not a gift from heaven. It must be fought for every day.” Zachor, Lo Tisckhach.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper is associate Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center