By Harriet Wolman.
Kristallnacht, literally, “Night of Crystal,” is often referred to as the “Night of Broken Glass.” The name refers to the wave of violent anti-Jewish pogroms which took place on November 9 and 10, 1938, throughout Germany, annexed Austria, and in areas of the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia recently occupied by German troops.
Instigated primarily by Nazi Party officials and members of the SA (Sturmabteilungen: literally Assault Detachments, but commonly known as Storm Troopers) and Hitler Youth, Kristallnacht owes its name to the shards of shattered glass that lined German streets in the wake of the pogrom—broken glass from the windows of synagogues, homes, and Jewish-owned businesses plundered and destroyed during the violence. Many Jews in Germany lost their lives as a result of this atrocity.
Today, we remember this beginning of the Nazi instigated horrors of the Second World War by our annual observance of Holocaust Education Week. We focus on the genocide of that War as well we should, and Germany and Austria have taken serious steps to take responsibility for what occurred.
For example, Berlin has publicly acknowledged their personal and frightening history by street signs that commemorate the passing of legislation that finally labelled German Jews as persona non grata, not entitled to education, home ownership, and, finally, citizenship in Germany.
The Austrian Holocaust Memorial Service (Gedenkdienst) is an independent alternative to Austria’s compulsory national military service. Its participants serve at major Holocaust institutions. The first participant started in 1992 at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum. Since then, over 400 Austrian Holocaust Memorial Servants have been working with major Holocaust memorial institutions in 23 countries worldwide. The intent of the AHMS is to recognize Austria’s part of the collective responsibility for the Holocaust.
I grew up in the aftermath of Kristallnacht and the Holocaust and as a young teenager had the privilege of meeting European children who had been saved from the camps, or freed from them still alive, and who came to Toronto as adopted children of many Jewish families.
Today there seems to be a resurgence of films and documentaries to bring attention to not only the destructive forces of the Holocaust, but also to those heroes and heroines who risked their own lives to save the victims. A recent documentary tells the story of one such couple, Eleanor and Gilbert Kraus of Philadelphia. This young lawyer and his wife went to Nazi Germany in 1939 and arranged through legal channels to obtain the release of 50 Jewish children who were subsequently adopted by American families. Most of these children lost the rest of their families during the war. This was the largest group of Jews allowed into America. One and a half million Jewish children perished in the Holocaust.
As an adult, I live by the credo of “never again”, a phrase struck after the war and at the end of the Holocaust. Unfortunately, long before, and since those terrible times, the people of this world paid have paid little attention to this credo. The definition of Genocide is the deliberate and systematic destruction of a racial, political, or cultural group. Past genocides and atrocities illustrate the accuracy of this definition. In the past 150 years, tens of millions of men, women and children have lost their lives in genocide or mass atrocities. Torture, rape, expulsion from homes and country, and ethnic cleansing is a familiar news item.
There are many genocides other than the Holocaust. Here is a list of the most heinous incidents that come to mind. The list is not necessarily in a particular order, nor is the number of persons killed an indicator of whether or not the event can be considered a genocide. This list is definitely not complete.
- Beginning in 1915 over a million ethnic Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks living in the Ottoman Empire were rounded up, deported and executed on orders of the government.
- After 1933, the Nazis developed and implemented a highly organized strategy of persecution and annihilation of Jews, Slavs, Roma, the disabled or mentally challenged, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals and political and religious dissidents. Six million Jews and another five million people were killed by 1945.
- Between 1.7 million and 2 million Cambodians, including doctors, teachers and political dissidents died in the Khmer Rouge’s “Killing Fields” in 1975.
- In 1991, when Yugoslavia began to break up along ethnic lines and civil war broke out, nationalism became the excuse for what we now know as ethnic cleansing. There was fighting between Serbs, Croats, Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) – ethnic mixed marriages became the reason for brothers killing sisters and for the children of those marriages to be persecuted or killed. Massacres were widespread and rape, torture, or forcible displacement became the order of the day. The United Nations created the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia in 1993 and offenders have been prosecuted even to this day as they are apprehended.
- In Rwanda, civil war erupted and Tutzis and Hutus were pitted against one another. Despite the efforts of United Nations peacekeepers, extremist Hutu groups killed between 800,000 and 1 million people across the country in only 100 days. Darfur is an ongoing example of disregard for the human condition.
- Christians have been slaughtered in Iraq and Iran; Sunnis slaughter Shi’ia and vice versa.
- Today, we need only to look at the Middle East countries to see the violence and unrest that pervades and leads to the killing of thousands of innocent civilians. Arab countries call for the death of homosexuals and Israel is the only country in the Middle East where you can be openly gay.
What can we do today?
It has been said that there is a past, and a present but no future. At least not one that we can see and understand. Therefore, it is in the present that we must take steps to try to stop ongoing murders of innocents and eliminate persecution. We cannot continue to permit violence to continue right under our very noses. We must learn from past experiences and what we know of the world and take concerted action to eliminate such atrocities. It is not enough to continue to hear of the experiences of survivors of genocide – although I do not diminish the importance of this – but we must join together to work to eliminate the persecution of others wherever they may live.
There are organizations that exist today that try to eliminate discrimination and persecution, whether it is through physical violence or psychological pressure. Let’s join these groups, donate funds to help, or personally volunteer. Only then will our remembrance of the horrors of the past and the Holocaust have real meaning.
Harriet Wolman is a former Member of the Immigration and Refugee Board and a member of Holy Blossom Temple.