For those of us engaged in the fight against anti-Semitism, the commemoration of Kristallnacht which took place 70 years ago on November 9-10, has special meaning. Of course, Kristallnacht is important to remember because it was the moment when it became clear that Nazi hatred of Jews was beyond anything seen before. It is important to remember because there are yet those among us who lived through, witnessed it, and survived it. And it is important to remember because after Kristallnacht, the world no longer had any excuses for not acting against the barbarism of Nazi anti-Semitism.
Most of all, however, Kristallnacht teaches us the most basic lesson about how to view anti-Semitism and other forms of hatred. One could ask the question: if we observe Yom HaShoah every spring, why do we need to have a second commemoration every year on the anniversary of Kristallnacht? The answer, I believe, lies in the different focus. Yom HaShoah speaks to the horror of the murder of six million. It remembers and calls attention to the ultimate brutality that humans are capable of and that the history of anti-Semitism eventually produced. It is about remembering the millions of people whose lives were snuffed out because of hatred. And it reminds us that “Never Again” must be a guiding principle of our lives as Jews.
Kristallnacht, on the other hand, is not about the end product of hate but the process. It represents the reality that a Holocaust does not just happen; it has to be prepared, cultivated, acted upon first in small steps, then bigger ones, and finally the biggest. In this sense, Kristallnacht commemoration is not only about remembering the over 90 Jews who were killed, the 30,000 male Jews who were arrested and sent to concentration camps, the over 1,000 synagogues which were torched along with their Torah scrolls and prayer books, and the 7,000 Jewish shops and business that were looted and destroyed.
It is also about how the Holocaust came to pass. It reminds us that the Holocaust couldn’t have happened had there not been 2,000 years of demonization of Jews throughout Europe, as reflected in the Decide charge and in the scapegoating of Jews as an evil and powerful force. It couldn’t have happened had there not been cynical anti-Semites who produced the infamous forgery The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zionism which gave credibility to the notion of worldwide Jewish satanic power.
Harsh words, no action
Hatred in its most extreme form, like the Holocaust, evolves over time. The challenge is not to wait to stand up until the final stage when it is too late. The time to stand up is during its evolution, indeed as early as possible. Kristallnacht was the moment when the world had to stand up. It didn’t.
There was no doubt from that point on that the Nazis were no longer content to simply strip Jews of their legal rights. Many newspapers and government officials around the world decried the violence and barbarity of Kristallnacht, but few governments were prepared to act.
Franklin Roosevelt condemned the outrages and recalled the US Ambassador from Germany for “consultations,” but any liberalization of America’s tight immigration quotas was, he said, “not in contemplation.” The British cabinet allowed 10,000 Jewish children into Britain from December 1938 to September 1939 in the course of the famous Kindertransport, but refused to allow 21,000 more into Palestine.
Kristallnacht proved the point. The world responded with harsh words and no action. Soon enough, the words themselves echoed empty and hollow. Silence followed. Kristallnacht was the first nail in the coffin of European Jewry.
Kristallnacht commemorations are important for many reasons, including the need to show the world that we must stop hate in its tracks before it leads to the ultimate - a final solution.
Abraham H. Foxman, National Director of the Anti-Defamation League and a Holocaust survivor, is the author of "The Deadliest Lies: The Israel Lobby and the Myth of Jewish Control" and "Never Again? The Threat of the New Anti-Semitism"