75 years after Kristallnacht: Time to toughen up and reclaim our memory

Seventy-five years later, the very word Kristallnacht still casts a long shadow — on Europe and on the Jewish people.

The countrywide pogrom orchestrated in 1938 by the German High Command marked the Nazi regime’s transition from the quasi-legal, anti-Jewish discrimination of the Nuremberg Laws to the coming of the Final Solution. Official statistics — 91 Jews were killed, thousands more put into concentration camps, 267 synagogues burned and 7,500 Jewish businesses vandalized — fail to capture the sheer sense of terror and impending doom that afterward enveloped German and Austrian Jews. Beyond the horrors of those nights, Jewry witnessed the overwhelming indifference and antipathy of neighbors, and of police and firemen who were deployed not to protect houses of worship, only the adjacent property of proper Aryans.

In his diary, Joseph Goebbels chortled: “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 the path from burning hulks of shuls would lead to the ashes of mass-murdered Jews spewing forth from death camp crematoria, covered by the fog of war and buried by an indifferent humanity.

But another conflagration would soon envelop all of Europe. Cities from London to Warsaw to Leningrad were engulfed in flames by the Nazi Blitzkrieg. But by the time World War II ended, those very streets in Munich and Berlin where synagogues were torched and from where Jews were disappeared, were themselves reduced to rubble by the onslaught of Allied firebombs.

Seventy-five years later, the images of Kristallnacht are reduced to grainy photos and footage. The last of the surviving victims and victimizers, heroes and bystanders are leaving the world stage, leaving us to ponder: What, if anything, have we learned?

Is European hatred of Jews a thing of the past?

Manfred Gerstenfeld, a respected author and expert, has analyzed 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?

Twenty-five percent are afraid to wear kippot or Star of David jewelry in public. Attacks on European Jewish institutions aren’t ugly footnotes of history. 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 French day schools and yeshivot.

And there is more, much more. This isn’t only about Islamist extremists for whom Jew is a dirty word. There is increasing European mainstream hate and disrespecting of Jews, their homeland and core Judaic values.

From Greece to Hungary and Ukraine, political parties increase their clout by playing the ant-Semitism card. Campaigns are under way in the mainstream of Europe’s democracies to criminalize the core Judaic mitzvot of brit milah and shechita.

And in the ultimate insult to our people — living and dead — respected European NGOs, politicians, media and prominent church leaders cast Israelis as latter-day Nazis, while protesters chanting “Death to Israel” and “Jews to the Ovens” went unchallenged. Meanwhile, anti-Israel ideologues audaciously hijack Holocaust commemoration and education. How bad can it get? At the 65th anniversary of Kristallnacht commemoration, Norwegian authorities —“not wanting any trouble” — forbade any Jewish symbols, including the Star of David and the Israeli flag, from being displayed. The evening news showed a group of Jews attempting to join the commemoration being firmly told by a policeman to “please leave the area.”

This Kristallnacht we must start by reclaiming memory.

On Oct. 24, I was part of a Simon Wiesenthal Center delegation that met with Pope Francis at the Vatican. In his exchange with the pope, my colleague and mentor, Wiesenthal Center dean and founder Rabbi Marvin Hier offered this insight into the dual dimensions of Jewish memory. He quoted Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (“Fate and Destiny”), “Evil is an undeniable fact. …  It exists, and 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 teaches us, 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.

Here are three points that can help us protect and nurture the memory and lessons of the Shoah.

First: Memo to European leaders: If you don’t respect live Jews, don’t join our minyan mourning 6 million dead Jews.

Second: Stop de-Judaizing the Nazi Holocaust. The Shoah is not an abstract idea. Anne Frank and 6 million of her brethren were murdered by the Nazis and their European collaborators — 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. This is an area where younger Jews on both sides of the Atlantic must take a stand. Going on vacation to Paris, Rome or London? Make a point of publicly showing you are a proud Jew. And you don’t have to eat kosher to understand that Norway’s law banning kosher slaughter since 1929 is an insult to every Jew. How about a social networking campaign to shame them to action?

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 tiskhach.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper is associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and its Museum of Tolerance.