This year we will mark the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. As each year passes, there are fewer and fewer survivors still alive, who can tell us about their traumatic experiences of the Sho’ah. We speak of Kristallnacht – ‘the night of broken glass’ – but we know that so much more than glass was broken during hours of violence that lasted much longer than one night: homes, synagogues and businesses were set alight, men, women and children were assaulted and killed. Kristallnacht was not, in any case, a single event, an aberration; rather it marked a new stage in the Nazi policy towards ‘the Jews’. Between 1933 and 1938, the Jews of Germany were systematically marginalised and excluded; after Kristallnacht, discrimination turned to violence.
So, how will we remember Kristallnacht in 20 years’ time after the last survivor has passed away? And who will do the remembering? Is it just the responsibility of Jews and Jewish communities to remember Kristallnacht? The decision to follow the secular date and not the Hebrew one, suggests otherwise. If Kristallnacht was simply a date on the Jewish calendar of remembrance, we would mark it on the 16th of Cheshvan each year (the Hebrew date on the night of November 9th 1938). Indeed, there are good arguments for using the Hebrew date, which falls at the full moon in a month that the early rabbis called Mar Cheshvan –‘Bitter Cheshvan’ – because it is the only month that is empty of any commemorative days. What could be more appropriate than a ‘bitter’ month to recall the bitter barrage of murderous persecution unleashed on Kristallnacht.
But the argument for using the secular date is very powerful. Isn’t it the responsibility of all the nations to remember the Nazi onslaught? Shouldn’t Germany, in particular, ensure that Kristallnacht, which was initiated in Germany and is known by its German name, is remembered each year in Germany? As delighted as I was, when the Berlin wall came down in November 1989, I also recall feeling quite queasy about the date chosen by the East German government to announce that its citizens were now free to cross over to the West: November 9th. I remember wondering to myself at the time, whether there was a conscious or unconscious mechanism at work to ensure that the henceforward in Germany, the shameful memory of Kristallnacht would be overtaken by happy memories of a new beginning for the united German people. And I also recall thinking, how ironic it was that Leonard Bernstein was there at the Brandenburg Gate a few weeks later, conducting Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. Of course, it was a wonderful moment, a triumph for freedom – and an occasion for ‘joy’, freude, the theme of the 4th Movement of Beethoven’s 9th – but has Germany, and the world at large, since forgotten Kristallnacht? As we commemorate the 75th anniversary, let us resolve to do what we can to ensure that Germany and the world remember.