Burning synagogues, feathers from torn comforters, broken glass, and men being arrested, create the most vivid memories survivors share about their experience on November 9-10, 1938, Germany's worse pogram. To many German Jews, this memory represents a shift in the society they lived in, and fractured their perception of the Jewish status within Germany. No longer could they deny the danger Nazism and Hitler posed. It really was the beginning of the end. Tomorrow marks the 71st anniversary of Kristallnacht, or the night of broken glass. Quickly, to summarize the event, Kristallnacht was a government organized program against Jews in Germany. This included mass destruction of Jewish synagogues, businesses and homes. Further, about 30, 000 Jewish men were arrested all across Germany and sent to concentration camps in Germany. (Martin Gilbert, Kristallnacht: Prelude to Destruction, 2006) Up until that point, these camps consisted of non-Jews; political enemies, homosexuals, gypsies and Jehovah witnesses. Kristallnacht, tipped the balance of inmates, reflecting the first time Jews in large numbers were jailed. (Andreas Nachama, Jews in Berlin, 2002) German propaganda explained the incident as a “spontaneous outburst of public rage”- in response to the assignation of Ernst vom Rath, a German in the embassy in paris, who was murdered by Herschel Grysnszpan, a 17 year old Polish Jew on November 7th, 1938. However, the government sponsored pogram had been in planning for some time, and this incident only provided the catalyst to create the event.
After Kristallnacht, most Jews could no longer believe that “things would change for the better” in Germany. Although most ordinary Germans (at least in bigger cities) did not participate in the pogram (side note: most were embarrassed with the program , not by the violence directed against Jews, but by the relative mess it left within Germany- Germans tended to be sticklers for neatness+organization) there was no real movement against it. Up to this point, many German Jewish families denied the possibility of any harm happening to them personally- their integration and status within German society eluded them to see the truth. However, it is only in retrospect of the Holocaust that we today, see concentration camps and death camps as inevitable. From their point of view, the Germans were still the most enlightened and forward peoples in Europe, and therefore these barbaric realities would have seemed farfetched and impossible to many German Jews living in 1938.
And now, people commorate and remember November 9th as an important turnning point withint he Holocaust. However, I ask; how does Kristallnacht, and the Holocaust in general affect our lives today as Jews? Why is it important? Is it simply to remind us of the past perils of the Jewish people? Or is it a call to believe more deeply and strongly in the Zionist dream? The Holocaust offers the prefext to believe in the neccessity of Israel as a safe-haven for Jews- or a land of "just in case", as is often quoted vis-a-vis the Jews of Russia or Ethiopia. I often meet Jews who find identity within the Holocaust; their identity is wrapped up in their sympathy, guilt, sadness and fear the Holocaust has created. “I am Jewish because my people was prosecuted, my people was threatened to the point of complete destruction, and therefore I must continue to be and live Jewish.” For me, my obsession for history, and my fascination of the holocaust, is inspired by viewing history as the explanation and the reason for everything we experience today. History has created the building blocks of our cultures, society and lives. Everything can be explained by looking at its historical beginnings, and everything gains more meaning and understanding by tracing its beginnings. Yet, when I ask myself why commeration of Kristallnacht, and the Holocaust is improtant, I can't justify it throught my love of history. I can’t look at this simply as an explanation, if I looked at the Holocaust or Kristallnacht as only an explanation for what I see today, I suck the importance out of the event. Perhaps it is therefore useful to sometimes look at events in a more "isolated fashion." By this I mean, I tend to focus on the the lives lost, affected and torn. I remember the burning Torahs, the men beaten on the street, the glass broken from stones thrown at Jewish business. I remember the marches men were forced to walk as they were stomped off to concentration camps for the first time, and how their wives and children felt, knowing their father was lost inthe unknown. I feel the injustice, the anti-semitism, the desperation and the sadness. For this, and this alone I remember Kristallnacht.. and although as a historian it provides the key for meaning in the Holocaust, it is as a Jew that I try to feel, as those Jews felt. And so, I remember so I won’t forget, so I can remember you and what you went through, and so that I can say never again.