This Sunday is the seventy-sixth anniversary of Kristallnacht, the Reich-wide pogrom that in the minds of many signaled the beginning of the Shoah…or, at the very least, the beginning of the last chapter in the story of European Jewry on the eve of its annihilation. Used to marking the day since most of us were children, it might be interesting to pause for a moment to ask why exactly it is that this specific day has retained its draw on the consciousness of world Jewry. There is, after all, a Holocaust Memorial Day that is observed each spring on the 27th of Nisan, a week or so after Passover. That day, chosen originally to commemorate the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943 but then moved to a date later in the month to avoid conflicting with the observance of Passover, is our annual opportunity to remember the martyrs and pay honor to those who found the courage and had the opportunity to resist. (The actual uprising in Warsaw began on Erev Pesach in 1943, as the Jewish world outside of Europe was preparing to sit down for its traditional seder meals.) So why have we doubled up our observance and added a second Yom Hashoah, as it were, in the fall?
You could say that the question itself is flawed, that Kristallnacht is not really anything like Yom Hashoah. It’s not a real holiday, for one thing, not even in Israel. Everybody goes to work. Schools are open. There are no specific observances, rituals, or prayers that have been developed to assist the Jewish world in its effort to commemorate the day. Nor has there been any effort, as far as I know, even to take note of the day in the context of our daily prayers…and this from a people that reacts liturgically to the weather in Israel. And yet, despite the fact that we have done nothing at all to make Kristallnacht into anything more than a day on the calendar to be noted in passing, the day itself somehow refuses to vanish from our consciousness…and, despite our best efforts to ignore it, remains as a kind of thorn in our side, or perhaps more exactly as a kind of pebble in our collective shoe: something we find irritating and upsetting to have to deal with, yet which we seem unable just to forget about and move past instead of endlessly dwelling on.
The numbers more than justify our obsession. A thousand synagogues destroyed in a single night. More than seven thousand businesses either totally or partially destroyed. Ninety-one Jews murdered. Thirty-one thousand arrested and sent to concentration camps. An uncountable number of Jewish homes, schools, hospitals, cemeteries, and communal offices ransacked. Buildings can only stand if they are set on foundations that can support their weight. In my mind, Kristallnacht—the date marking the open, unabashed descent of Germany into the realm of the truly demonic—Kristallnacht itself is the foundation on which the death camps were built. As we pause to ponder Kristallnacht on this strange year with the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of Treblinka behind us and the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz still to come in January, the seventy-sixth anniversary of the “night of broken glass” takes on its own dismal poignancy.
Among my more guilty reading pleasures are the books of Edgar Rice Burroughs. The author of almost eighty novels and one of America’s bestselling authors of all time with an estimated 100 million books in print, Burroughs is best known today for his series of twenty-five books about Tarzan, the prince of the jungle originally known as John Clayton, the Viscount Greystoke. Somewhere along the way, I think I read them all. (In the 1984 movie, Greystoke, Tarzan was upgraded to earl, presumably on the assumption that most Americans wouldn’t know what a viscount was.)
The basic story, I’m sure we all know at least more or less. Tarzan’s British parents are marooned on the west coast of Africa after surviving a mutiny on board their ship. Soon thereafter, his mother dies of some mysterious illness and his father is killed by Kerchak, the leader of a tribe of super-intelligent, highly socialized apes into which the baby viscount is adopted. And there, among the Mangani (Kerchak’s tribe of apes, one wholly unknown to Western zoologists), the infant, now called Tarzan, is raised by Kerchak himself and his ape-wife, Kala. (Just for the record, it’s taken me this long to realize how funny it is that Kerchak’s bride is named Kala.) Several of the books focus on Tarzan’s unusual adolescence (and to call it unusual is really to say the very least). But then he eventually does grow up, and it is as a young feral man that Tarzan makes the acquaintance of an American woman, Jane Porter, who coincidentally has been marooned on the exact same beach on which Tarzan’s own parents washed up twenty years earlier. Eventually, Jane finds a way to return to the United States and Tarzan, smitten, follows her. One thing leads to another and after some time they marry and, at least in some of the books, move to England, where they have a son, Jack, to whom they also give the ape-name Korak. Things, however, do not work as planned and, unable to stand the hypocrisy of civilization, Tarzan, Jane, and Jack eventually return to Africa to settle there and have even more adventures.
I loved those books as a teenager, even preferring them to the series of twelve movies featuring Johnny Weismuller made between 1932 and 1948 but shown endlessly on television when I was growing up. But their recurring theme—just how paper-thin the veneer of civilization, and particularly Western civilization, really is—now feels ominous to me, and particularly as we prepare to take note yet again of the anniversary of Kristallnacht. It was Burroughs himself who made up the phrase “the thin veneer of civilization,” in fact, and he used it repeatedly in his books, beginning with The Return of Tarzan in 1912. But it could not apply more aptly here, as we contemplate not just any country, but one of the most supremely civilized, cultured nations of the world—a nation that gave birth to the finest composers and philosophers, to linguists and poets, to scientists and to artists—turning almost overnight not just to anti-Semitism, but to a barbaric version of racial hatred so intensely brutal as to be almost unimaginable even in retrospect.
There is no better place to begin reading about Kristallnacht than Martin Gilbert’s Kristallnacht: Prelude to Destruction, published by HarperCollins in 2006. It is, to say the least, grim reading as the author chronicles the destruction, the murder of elderly Jews, the degradation of Jewish women in particular, and the rest of the horrors that occurred on that one evil night. But somehow the contemporary accounts, written by reporters and others present on the ground in Germany who even then could not possibly have imagined Treblinka, are chilling in an especially unsettling way. Hugh C. Greene, for example, published an account of his own experiences in Berlin on Kristallnacht in the Daily Telegraph just two days after the fact: “Mob law ruled in Berlin throughout the afternoon and evening and hordes of hooligans indulged in an orgy of destruction. I have seen several anti-Jewish outbreaks in Germany during the last five years, but never anything as nauseating as this. Racial hatred and hysteria seemed to have taken complete hold of otherwise decent people. I saw fashionably dressed women clapping their hands and screaming with glee, while respectable middle-class mothers held up their babies to see the ‘fun.’” It’s hard to know how to respond to a paragraph like that. Or rather, it’s not that hard at all.
At least for me personally, watching over all of this is Tarzan himself, dressed up like a member of the landed gentry but never forgetting that he personally has come to symbolize what he learned in the jungle before he met Jane: that it’s all a façade, all the thinnest of patinas…that civilization itself is the flimsiest of cloth covers masking the demonic potential that lies buried in the darkest recesses of the human soul….and that that thinnest of cloths can fall to the ground and reveal the beast within as soon as society lets down its guard even slightly.
You can see signs of this truth almost everywhere if you find the courage to look straight on without turning away. You could easily have seen it in the streets of Paris last summer, when what was billed as a pro-Palestinian march degenerated almost without warning into a frenzied mob of anti-Semitic thugs chasing Jews off the street, attacking a local synagogue, and calling—not for a revision of this or that Israeli policy vis-à-vis Gaza—but for blood, the blood of the Jews of France. You can see it when patrons line up to buy tickets for an opera featuring Nazi-style invective against Jews so they can “decide for themselves” whether the production has merit instead of being, as civilized people would and should be, repulsed by the idea even of contributing to the success of such a production. And you can certainly see it for yourself on the campuses of American universities, where the demonization of Israel and the portrayal of the Palestinians as the victims of Israeli imperialism regularly spills over into rank, undiluted anti-Semitism directed at Jewish students regardless of their personal politics. (I was shocked—truly shocked—just recently to read a recent piece by Melanie Phillips, a columnist for the Times of London called “As I See It: The Academic Intifada,” which sketches out the extent to which America’s campuses have become infected with overt anti-Semitism in a way that even a decade ago would have seemed somewhere between implausible and impossible. If you are reading this electronically, click here to read her essay.) So, in the end, Tarzan really did have it right: it’s all the thinnest of patinas behind which we pretend to be safe…and, slightly paradoxically, the degree to which we own up to that unpalatable truth is the degree to which we will be able to withstand the onslaught when the patina dissolves, as it occasionally must and does, and we are left staring at what lies exposed behind its no-longer-existent opacity.
And that, I think, is why the Tarzan stories are so appealing, because in a sense they are just book-length midrashic elaborations of this one specific idea: that the thin veneer of civilization can crack at any moment, that the demonic is never that far from the surface, that there is no point of diminishing returns when it comes to being on guard for signs that the veil is slipping, the patina dissolving, or the veneer cracking. Kristallnacht is that midrash set to history…and I believe that it is precisely for that reason that we find it so impossible to look away…or not to pause on the awful night to remember what happened seventy-odd years earlier to people who, just like ourselves, thought of themselves as citizens not of Tarzan’s jungle, but of the most sophisticated, civilized, cultured country ever to exist.