Seventy years after the terror and cruelty of Kristallnacht, the event should not be simply consigned to our history books writes Karen Pollock of the Holocaust Educational Trust
Can you imagine your neighbours being attacked and dragged away – and you doing nothing? Seeing their houses looted and torched – and you saying nothing?
Seventy years ago on Sunday 9th November the Nazi government sanctioned widespread destruction of property and wanton terror and violence against the Jewish communities of Germany and Austria. In the space of a few hours more than 1000 synagogues were torched, tens and thousands of Jewish businesses and homes ransacked and destroyed, 91 people murdered and more than 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and sent to concentration camps.
The name given to this night of terror was Kristallnacht or Night of Broken Glass in reference to the shattered glass that carpeted the streets – a testimony – even a trophy to the perpetrators ‘achievement’ in causing widespread destruction.
In the years that followed Kristallnacht, it came to mean so much more than mere broken glass. Kristallnacht came to represent broken lives, broken families, the collapse of civilisation and humanity. It signalled the prelude to the annihilation of six million Jewish people and millions of others, including from the Roma and gay community, disabled people and political opponents. It signalled the prelude to the Holocaust.
Dr Arthur Flehinger, a German eyewitness to Kristallnacht claimed that during that night of state-sponsored violence, many people privately wept behind their curtains at the destruction – full of sorrow at the tide of racial violence, but powerless to stop it. Indeed this was not dissimilar to the world’s reaction to what was the most publicised event at the time in the history of the fate of European Jewry. If this glimpse into the future horrified so many people worldwide, why was their outrage not translated into action?
If we are to learn anything from Kristallnacht it is a reminder to us all of where unchecked racism and intolerance can lead and underscores our responsibility as human beings to ensure that such evil is always confronted whenever and wherever it occurs. The Holocaust did not begin with the gas chambers at Auschwitz, it did not even begin with Kristallnacht – it began with words and was reacted to with silence. The extermination of European Jewry took place at the end of a long road, a long history marked by centuries of age-old antisemitism and prejudice dating back to the middle ages and most significantly it was a long road marked by indifference. Nor was the Holocaust a mere symptom of the time; the era. As we have seen repeatedly in the years that have followed the Holocaust genocide and atrocities have plagued every corner of the globe and continue to do so.
We cannot and must not consign the terror and cruelty of that night to our history books or fool ourselves into believing that it was a history belonging to a different era. To remove ourselves in this way is to remove our own responsibility in fighting racism and intolerance today.
This year, many of us have no doubt felt helpless as far-right parties continue to gain a foothold in local councils, and even in the London Assembly – the body representing one of the most diverse cities in the world. And make no mistake about it - these are politicians who exploit community divisions, and whose ideology is based on the same racism and prejudice exhibited during the Holocaust.
But we do have the ability to halt racism in its tracks. This is a belief that goes right to the heart of our work at the Holocaust Educational Trust. Founded by Lord Greville Janner and the late Lord Merlyn Rees in 1988, we work in schools and local communities across the UK to ensure the Holocaust is not only learnt for its own sake, but also that its vital lessons for today are learnt, disseminated and acted upon. We believe that if we are to ever achieve a future free from antisemitism, racism and discrimination, if we are to say ‘never again’ and actually mean it – we must ensure that future generations are equipped with the knowledge and confidence to face such evils head on.
Through our piloted Think Equal Project which we plan to take nationwide we have reached disaffected young people in communities which are experiencing problems of racial tensions and which are also being targeted by the far-right . By working within the Citizenship Curriculum and helping them to understand the importance of their role in society, and the responsibility that they have as citizens to actively oppose hatred and prejudice they literally become ambassadors for conveying the lessons of the past; ambassadors for a better future. Not bystanders but agents of change.
This Sunday – seventy years since that night of brutality; that night where millions of lives were forever changed and soon to be wiped out, let us not shed tears behind drawn curtains but instead let us all become agents of change. Let us commit ourselves to ensuring that no one anywhere should ever face the fear or discrimination experienced by those during Kristallnacht; let us commit ourselves to ensuring we stop the far-right from gaining a foothold in our political system before it is too late; let us commit ourselves to ensuring a future we can be proud of free from genocide and crimes against humanity.
Karen Pollock is the Chief Executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust. More information about the work of the Holocaust Educational Trust is available at http://www.het.org.uk.