Sunday, November 10, 2013

75 Years from Kristallnacht: Commemoration and Meaning

On November 9-10th 1938, the largest pogram in Germany broke out on the streets of Nazi Germany and Austria.  Yesterday marked the beginning of the 75th anniversary of the program, otherwise known as Kristallnacht, or "night of broken glass".

Quickly to summarize, Kristallnacht was a government organized pogram against Jews in Germany and Austria. 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. Up until that point, these camps consisted of political enemies, homosexuals, Jehovah witnesses, Roma and Sinti. Therefore Kristallnacht tipped the balance of inmates, the numbers now reflected a larger number of Jews. Nazi propaganda explained the incident as a “spontaneous outburst of public rage”- in response to the assignation of Ernst vom Rath, a German diplomat in the embassy in Paris.  He was murdered by Herschel Grysnszpan, a 17 year old Jew on November 7th, 1938 who was angry about the deportation of his parents back to Poland from Germany.  Poland refused to accept his parents, and so they, along with approximately 12,000 other Jews were stranded between the two borders.  

A few things:

First, we know that Kristallnacht was not spontaneous because lists of Jewish men were created by the state in advance.  Nazi SS officers sought out these men between November 9-10th, crossing them off their lists and sending them to concentration camps.  Vom Rath's murder was simply a pretext or catalyst.  

Second, most ordinary Germans did not participate in the pogram.  It was mainly perpetrated by Nazi party members, police officers and the SS.  Most Germans were embarrassed by the pogram.  Unfortunately, not because violence was directed against Jews, but rather because of the mess it left on the streets of Germany.  This is one of the only instances that "messy violence" graced the streets of Germany. (Most of the "dirty work" was done in Poland and Eastern Europe, away from ordinary German eyes)  

Third, this is the first time Jews are arrested for one reason only: because they were Jews.  This to me, signifies a major turning point in the events of the Holocaust.  German Jews prior to the pogram could convince themselves that if they stayed political neutral, and under the radar, they could potentially pass unscathed during Hitler's reign.  After Kristallnacht, Jews saw the real danger of Nazi Germany: you could no longer deny it.  

Last, those Jewish men who were arrested and put into concentration camps, had the option of leaving, IF someone could provide for them, a slip of immigration to another country.  Of course, this was easier said then done, but many men did leave the camps and immigrated out of Germany.  This tells us that the German goal vis-a-via the Jews in 1938, was still unclear.  Murder was not at the top of the list, if immigration was encouraged.   

But, what does Kristallnacht mean? As in, why do we commemorate it every year?   There are many milestones during the Holocaust, but aside from National Holocaust Remembrance day (commemorating the liberation of Auschwitz) and Yom HaShoah (commemorating the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising), this is one of the most popular commemoration dates.

Historically I can tell you this was a turning point for Germany's Jews.  This event made it almost impossible to deny the threat of the Nazis. German Jews, even those most integrated and assimilated, finally began to properly reevaluate their own future and safety in Germany. (Of course, not in a mass murder sense, because who can "guess" that)  However, between 1933 and 1945, I can list you hundreds of other turning points and milestones, that do not get commemorated on a yearly basis.  Why Kristallnacht?

I think it's because of what Kristallnacht represents within Jewish history (not just modern or Holocaust history) and how it can be utilized today. Kristallnacht says, in a much more tangible sense than other event, that Jews can never be safe on their streets. (outside of Israel)  That every Jew is a potential victim of antisemitism, for one reason only: being Jewish. (religiously, culturally, or accidentally)  Historians attribute approximately 2, 000 deaths to Kristallnacht, (including those in the concentration camps) which in comparison to the overall (6 million) or those in Treblinka, (870, 000) or Auschwitz (1 million) or perpetrated by the Eizengruppen in Eastern Europe (1 million), is a drop in the bucket.  Not to deny that every death isn't meaningful, (because in my opinion, individualizing or humanizing our understanding of the Holocaust through individuals and stories is integral to commemoration) but it reflects how important meaning becomes in commemoration.  "How can we use it" becomes key.  Kristallnacht says, we can politically claim the fragility of Jews or Jewish communities outside of Israel, because even when they think they are safe, or secure, or that antisemitism is a passing phase, we've seen what the potential threat can be.  We can look what happened to those 'well meaning assimilated Jews' and even more powerfully, we can point to what it led to.  Kristallnacht isn't a turning point in the decision towards the Final Solution, but rather Jewish perception of their own position within Germany.  Therefore, within the context of Jewish history, it can be used as another reminder to Jews today, that only within Israel, can we truly be safe, and can we truly be Jews.  Like it or not then, Kristallnacht is the commemoration that says, "no matter how safe, or integrated you think you are, there's always a threat outside of Israel."  It's the model argument for Aliyah and American "illusion" of safety.  (Of course we'll hear, in light of the recent Pew Report)

The question is therefore, what should commemoration be?  Of course this taps into a much larger debate on the bias and influence of commemorations, that is outside the scope of this blog post.  

I will say, the last time I posted about Kristallnacht in this blog, in 2009, I asked people to see Kristallnacht, not by sucking away it's own meaning by using it as a political lesson for an interested future but rather as a tragic event within the Holocaust.  To look at testimony, and stories, with the intent to remember victims of the event, and how it affected their own personal lives.  Alternatively, using it as a larger warning against racism and the dangers of exclusion within our own cities. (rather than only antisemitism)

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