Former B'nai B'rith International President Tommy Baer of Richmond, Virginia wrote this column for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. To read more first-person accounts of Kristallnacht experiences, including Tommy Baer’s story, click this link.
Hannah Arendt called it the banality of evil. Author Martin Gilbert called it the collapse of morality, “an indication of what happens when a society falls victim to its baser instincts.” The name given to it was “Kristallnacht,” the Night of Broken Glass.
Today marks the 80th anniversary of the 24-hour rampage in 1938 Germany and Austria which some say was the beginning of the Holocaust. There was on that night, upon the direct orders of the Third Reich, a violent and systematic attack upon Jews and Jewish institutions perpetrated by German security forces, joined by a frenzied populace given free rein to terrorize and destroy, without interference by police or firefighters. On that night the German nation fell victim to its baser instincts.
Hundreds of synagogues were set ablaze and destroyed, Torah scrolls torn to pieces, prayer books desecrated. Thousands of Jewish shops, homes, hospitals, and schools were smashed and looted. Nearly 100 Jews were killed and 30,000 Jewish men, including my mother’s father, were arrested and sent to concentration camps, where they were brutalized.
On that night my mother heard the sounds of shattering glass from the window of her hospital room in Berlin where she was being treated for a serious breast infection. I was 3 months old.
The events of that night and the next day shattered not only glass, but the hopes of European Jews who believed that they would survive the tyrannical Nazi regime and its diabolical scheme to create a pure Aryan race. It was made clear beyond all doubt that the objective of the Nazis was to rid Germany and Europe of the Jewish people, thus eradicating the 1,000-year history of Jewish life and culture in Germany.
The genocide had begun. Never had mankind seen such evil on so grand a scale. The lives, hopes, aspirations, dreams, and contributions of 6 million Jews (1,500,000 children), one-third of world Jewry, were obliterated. Numbers so large and vast that they are difficult for the mind to process. Yet they must be processed if there is any hope that such madness will never again be allowed to occur.
Among Jews, and others, the question is often asked: Could it happen here? I always answered in the negative, not in this country. Our institutions are too strong, our law too settled, our sense of decency too great. While I remain optimistic, I am no longer so sanguine about our immunity from the exercise of our baser instincts.
A recent poll of millennials disclosed that 66 percent had never heard of Auschwitz. It is troubling that this place, this Nazi death camp where more than 1 million Jews were murdered, this hell on earth, could not be identified by so many of those upon whom the future of our nation depends.
Today’s expressions of intolerance and repression of free speech and assembly in public forums, on many college campuses, and in other venues is a worrisome development.
The alarming rise of anti-Semitism in our country, along with movements that deligitimize, not merely criticize, the State of Israel, is a cause of increasing concern.
Holocaust denial, a form of anti-Semitism and hate speech, is cause for anxiety.
The lingering specter of neo-Nazi mobs in Charlottesville chanting “Jews will not replace us,” evoking the Third Reich, and the most recent horrific mass murder of Jews by a crazed anti-Semite at a synagogue service in Pittsburgh while screaming “All Jews must die,” shock the conscience and remind Jews of a former time, causing apprehension and foreboding. We should have learned long ago that words and actions have consequences.
All of these, individually and in the aggregate, pose a clear and present danger to those precepts enshrined in our Constitution and regarded by most as inalienable.
But perhaps most of all, it is complacency that frightens me. If we cannot or will not identify evil and the purveyors of hatred in order to prevent their insidious spread to toxic levels, we shall be overcome and consumed by it. Though I am comforted by the posthumous message of Sen. John McCain, who reminded us that “We are citizens of the world’s greatest republic, a nation of ideals, not blood and soil,” we have become a nation vulnerable to excesses — in our political discourse, in our civility to one another, and in the breakdown of values we once cherished. The resistance of these negative impulses will require a strong America, one in which our leadership must speak out with moral clarity.
So, Kristallnacht must be remembered to prevent the savage beast in man from prevailing. Not here, not anywhere. Into that abyss we must not descend. Memory allows us to assess our history and ourselves, to ensure that we learn its lessons, so that we do not succumb to our baser instincts.
The words from a memorial plaque to the murdered Jewish children at the former concentration camp at Neuengamme, Germany, come to mind. They read: “When you stand here, be silent. When you leave here, be not silent.”
So let us remember; for if hatred prevails, we are all at risk.
To read the original story in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, click this link.
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