Sunday, June 28, 2009

Kristallnacht 2007

Every year, the anniversary of Kristallnacht affects me in a slightly different way. In a certain sense, it barely exists—we don't have special religious services, no one observes it as a fast day, there's no special liturgy, no formal public ceremony (not even in Germany, where the day is still called by its original name: Reichskristallnacht), no particular passages from Scripture to read loud or study. And yet, in a profound and deep way, it is among the most terrifying of all the dates we connect annually with the Shoah, and with the events leading up to it.

I just watched the most amazing documentary on, which I wish to recommend to you all. (You can find it at or, with German narration, at I hadn't realized that there existed actual footage of the synagogues of Germany burning to the ground. I had, of course, seen still photographs (and many of them) of the destruction, but the opening few minutes of this five-minute documentary, featuring actual footage of the great synagogue of Bielefeld burning, then collapsing under the weight of its great, burnt-out dome, is so chilling as almost to defy description in mere words. Go take a look—you'll know what I mean as soon as you do.

I think the power of Kristallnacht lies not so much in contemplating the fate of the Jews of Germany, although the narrator makes the fascinating point that the Nazis themselves understated, no doubt for their own reasons, the extent of the pogrom, claiming fewer than 200 synagogues to have been destroyed, instead of the real number of almost 2000, and insisting that only fewer than 100 Jewish citizens died in the flames, as opposed to the 2550 who really died that evening, some as a result of the violence and others, in despair, at their own hands as they watched their world crumble and burn before their very eyes. Nor did the Nazis correctly report the number of Jews who were arrested that evening sixty-nine years ago and taken to concentration camps, which was something slightly more than 30,000. (The number of Jewish business that were plundered and destroyed, and the number of Jewish homes that were invaded and robbed, has never been accurately determined, but all historians believe the number to have been in the tens of thousands.)

All that, of course, is horrific enough for a lifetime of nightmares, but it is the official nature of the pogrom in which rests its most awful aspect for moderns to contemplate. These were not lynchings carried out by marginal groups within a much larger society, after all. Nor can anyone rationally explain Kristallnacht as a series of random acts of violence perpetrated by criminals. That would be one thing—but, in the end, we would console ourselves with the knowledge that every society has its criminal element, and that all peoples have to live with the poor behavior of their own neighbors at least some of the time. That would be dour truth to accept, but Kristallnacht was undertaken by official, not marginal, Germany: by its policemen and its firemen, by its elected officials and by its civic employees. This was not an example of bad people doing bad things, but of a nation itself rising up to destroy any sense of security or hope in the future that the Jewish population might somehow still have been harboring. That is why this day is so painful to contemplate: because it marks the death of hope, the death of any lurking fantasy that, in the end, decency will always prevail in the street, in public places, in the offices of government.

What Kristallnacht means to me is that there is no bottom line, no form of depraved indifference to others from which people will inevitably turn away before they surrender the last shreds of their humanity, or their morality, or their consciences. It is the day the truth about what it means to be human visits me the most forcefully, and the most painfully. And it is also the day on which I force myself to acknowledge that my patriotism, and the deep pride I take in being a citizen of our great country, do not have to prevent me, nor should they prevent me, from acknowledging truly what it means for a Jew to live in exile in an unredeemed world. (November 9, 2007)

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