Three Authors Speak About the Importance of Keeping the History Alive
On the night of November 9, 1938, and crossing over into the next day, Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels used the murder in Paris of an embassy official, Ernst vom Rath, by Herschel Grynszpan, a Polish Jew, as a pretext to launch what came to be known as Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass, a pogrom against Jews in Germany, Austria and the Sudetenland.
Over the next two days, hundreds of synagogues and prayer rooms were destroyed, thousands of homes and businesses were ruined (including the kosher family restaurant in Frankfurt owned by Strauss’ uncle), Jewish cemeteries were desecrated and tens of thousands of German males were sent to Dachau and Buchenwald, many of them later released when they agreed to sign over all their assets to the government and leave Germany within six months.
Irit Felsen, Tova Rosenberg and Richard Weisberg offer three strong essays about why we must all keep the memory fresh of that fateful night 81 years ago, especially in light of the tragedy last year at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and the many other assaults, large and small, that the Jewish community worldwide has suffered.
They come to their opinions based on a lifelong engagement with the Holocaust and its effects on modern life. Felsen is an adjunct professor at Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology and a clinical psychologist with a special focus on Holocaust survivors and their families. Rosenberg created Names, Not Numbers, a program in its 14th year where students create documentaries based on interviews with Holocaust survivors. Weisberg is Floersheimer Professor of Law at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and founder of the Cardozo Law Institute in Holocaust and Human Rights.
Fighting the Dehumanization of “Othering”
I just got back from an enriching conference dedicated to examining the relationships we each have, as individuals and as therapists, to sameness and differences between ourselves and others.
But I also came back somewhat emotionally discouraged, as the divisive and intolerant tones which have become part of the way differences are discussed in the political arena have been woefully reflected in the intolerance of esteemed colleagues towards each other’s views on political and social matters that occupy us all these days.
As a child of Holocaust survivors and a psychologist dedicated to mitigating the effects of trauma on survivors and on their descendants, the specter of hostility, intolerance and contempt of others turning into discrimination and aggression is never too far removed. The knowledge that “civilized” people can turn into murderous barbarians is deeply engrained in me, and it makes me passionate about the need to be careful about the kinds of environments, leaders and discourse that might gradually create the transformation of average people into a monstrous mob that can commit atrocities such as Kristallnacht.
As a first step, we academics must be very cautious about our own conduct and carefully examine the nature of our discourse with each other, especially about differences and what I would call “Othering.” Sometimes these days, as a Jewish Israeli living in the United States, I feel “othered” by the very same colleagues who are leading the voices against “othering” and against the simplistic duality of “doer” and “done-to.” I want to champion instead a much more nuanced view of the multiplicity of truths that exist in every conflict, interpersonal or political, understanding as I do how the embeddedness of each of us in our own social, cultural and family context, in our personal and collective contexts, our privileges and our traumatic legacies, color our way of perceiving others.
Solorzano (2014), examining everyday racism in academic spaces, states, “We all come to this place with our own racial/ethnic, community, and family histories.” These differences require us to discuss traumatic histories in a manner that will allow for the beneficial engagement of our professional knowledge and skills. The hope for new solutions for the multiple, sometimes mutually inflicted wounds of history depends upon the ability to find a discourse that dignifies the pain of all sides.
Whether in the international arena or the national one, we have to address the differences, grievances and mutual fears that create the ruptures in our social fabric. We must strive to find, model and demand from ourselves and from our leaders a way of addressing differences that will not allow for the kind of hatred and dehumanization of others that was incited in the past and that exploded on Kristallnacht, marking the beginning of one of the darkest times in history.
Dr. Irit Felsen is a clinical psychologist specializing in trauma and traumatic loss, with a special focus on the impact of the Holocaust on survivors and their families.
“Thou Shalt Never Be a Bystander”
Thou shalt not be a victim. Thou shalt not be an oppressor. But thou shalt never be a bystander.”So said the distinguished Holocaust scholar and author Yehuda Bauer to the German Bundestag in 1998. He even suggested that perhaps it was time to add these three mandates to the Ten Commandments. And yet, since that speech two decades ago, human beings all over the world continue to stand by and watch as others are being oppressed and killed.
Remarkably, as we commemorate the 81st anniversary of Kristallnacht, seventy-six years after the end of the darkest chapter in human history — a chapter that prompted so many to pray and to vow “Never Again” — we, in fact, witnessed a historic increase in anti-Semitic incidents across the globe. And, last year, we experienced the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in the history of the United States, according to an Anti-Defamation League report.
In the days following the horrific attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, we often heard the statement, “I can’t believe this could happen in the United States.” Eighty-one years ago, people said, “I can’t believe this could happen in Germany.”
The situations may not be entirely analogous, but we wonder how to understand and explain these events as we witness, with bewilderment, the inaction, paralysis and pious proclamations from leaders throughout the world as tragedies like this continue to unfold in one place or another. People ask, “Why hasn’t the world learned anything?” “How do we remain passive as people are attacked or killed for being African Americans?” “How do we stay silent when churches are bombed?” “How do we allow social media and websites to provide a forum to spread hatred, intolerance and anti-Semitism?” But another question perhaps should be, “How can we teach our young people not to be bystanders and thereby change the world through our youth?”
One beacon of hope emerged in 2005, when the United Nations unanimously passed a resolution declaring January 27 as the International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust. The primary significance of this resolution is its call for a remembrance of past crimes with the express purpose of preventing them in the future. It therefore also provided a mandate to educate people about the Holocaust, as the paradigmatic genocide, all over the globe.
However, even here in the United States, only twelve states currently have mandatory Holocaust education. In light of recent history, it should be clear that now is the time to develop serious academic programs that educate our youth about the Holocaust. Studies regarding Holocaust education have found that the most meaningful and effective way to teach about this era is through “one-on-one” conversations with survivors. The opportunity for students to hear first-hand testimonies in response to their own questions is both profound and transformative. When students sit across from victims and watch them recreate their terrible experiences in their minds, they quickly understand the importance of not being a bystander.
We have learned what hatred can do. It can be perpetrated anywhere at any time and against any human being. But our youth can make a difference in preventing future acts of genocide in this world. They can be inspired by and follow in the footsteps of many valiant individuals who not only stood up but also took action against intolerance and oppression. The future of the world is in their hands.
This future will not be a bright one, however, unless our children are properly educated, unless they are taught to appreciate and respect differences, unless they know how to prevent prejudice, hatred, intolerance and injustice. The first step is to mandate Holocaust and genocide education in the other thirty-eight states. Let’s do our part to ensure a brighter future.
Tova Rosenberg serves as the Director of the Hebrew Language Department, Director of the Yeshiva Makor Chaim Student Exchange Program, and creator of the acclaimed “Names, Not Numbers©” Intergenerational Holocaust Oral History Film Project.
Thoughts on Kristallnacht
Every autumn, as the leaves fall away, many Jews sense a sadness that relates to another autumn evening a long time ago. In Berlin in November 1938, synagogues burned, and Jews were murdered in their workplaces and on the streets. Throughout Nazi Germany, Jews found themselves unprotected and unloved. Although many terrible things had already happened under Hitler, including the 1935 Nuremberg laws that deprived them of their rights, Jews now knew that far, far worse lay ahead.
On a fall day last year, anti-Semitic violence much closer to home has evoked the horror of that terrible night. Glass shattered and Jews died in Nazi Germany more than eight decades before. And on October 27, 2018, glass shattered and Jews died in the peaceful and previously harmonious neighborhood of Pittsburgh called Squirrel Hill.
I know the Pittsburgh Jewish community well, having lectured there often in synagogues and having a close relative and dear friends who live in Squirrel Hill, whose Tree of Life Synagogue was and remains a precious mainstay of Jewish communal living in that city. I spoke last year at a synagogue near Pittsburgh where my son and his family are members. No one there was untouched by what the town’s mayor has called Pittsburgh’s greatest historical tragedy.
For the Jews of Pittsburgh, such as my son, questions like the one asked him by my seven-year-old grandson arose for the first time in recent memory: “Why do some people hate us, Daddy?”
How can we explain to our children and grandchildren, to our students, to all who ask why blind hatred of Jews finds its way into the calmest and most reverential of communities? When I teach and write about Kristallnacht, I urge people to find a place in themselves that says “Never Again!” so that this time, even when events like Squirrel Hill overwhelm us, we act immediately to nip the violence in the bud. Tragically, very few in Nazi Germany or eventually the rest of Hitler’s Europe felt such an obligation.
I write and teach about three heroes who resisted Hitler against all odds, and everyone reading these words can locate others, the precious few who knew even then that they simply could not abide hatred, whether expressed violently or—more often—through the polite language of equivocation and collaboration.
These wartime models prove we can stand up for the right, intransigently, in circumstances that cannot be any worse than they were 80 years ago. But their example does not answer my grandson’s question. To fathom anti-Semitic rage, we must also understand the social influences—historical, religious and contemporary—that motivate an individual or a nation to want to destroy the Jewish “other.”
In present-day America, we have rationalizing tweets, spineless politicians and many who are just too enthralled by the 24-hour news cycle to get up and do what they know is the right thing. But it is deep in history and even in theology that a hatred beyond vicious racism was engendered. We must study it and work towards a world in which our grandchildrens’ grandchildren will never again have to ask such a question.
Prof. Richard H. Weisberg is Floersheimer Professor of Law at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and founder there of the Program on Holocaust and Human Rights. He is also the author of Vichy Law and the Holocaust in France and In Praise of Intransigence.