Rabbi Alexandra Wright – 9 November 2018
This Shabbat, many Liberal Judaism communities will combine the 100th commemoration of the signing of the Armistice in a railway carriage in Compiègne on 11 November 1918, with the 80th anniversary of the November Pogrom of 1938 – Kristallnacht.
A week after the end of the First World War, the first Rabbi of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue, Dr Israel Mattuck, breathed a sigh of relief that the war was over: ‘After more than four years of a war unequalled in the sacrifices it demanded, in the desolations it wrought, in the sufferings and sorrows it inflicted, we have come unto peace with the victory we yearned and prayed for,’ he said. There were times when ‘hope drooped and darkness threatened the soul,’ but now there is light and thank God, ‘there is Victory and Peace.’ Not the victory of mighty and military force, but the victory of righteousness, the triumph of democracy over autocracy, the conquest of the human spirit over arms and war, over violence and self-aggrandisement.
Germany, however, was broken – the humiliating terms of the Versailles Treaty outraged the population. The country was defeated and dishonoured and it was in the years that followed the end of the war that anti-Semitism ‘metastisized’, says David Cesarani in his magisterial volume ‘Final Solution.’ No longer on the margins of German society, it moved into the mainstream until the Jews were blamed for Germany’s defeat.
For German Jews – and particularly for the generation who had fought in the war – bewilderment and disbelief took hold as they were stripped of their assets and found it increasingly impossible and dangerous to leave the country. Their children were ostracised and forced to move to overcrowded Jewish schools to continue their education. Cesarani reports that Austrian Jews, ex-soldiers, put on their medals when they ventured into the streets in the belief that decorations for valour would offer a degree of protection from the anti-Semitic mobs, only to be mocked and abused. German citizens, whose families had resided in Germany for generations, who had gone to war to fight for the ‘Fatherland’, discovered their loyalty betrayed.
The brutality and violence unleashed against Jews on Kristallnacht was not unique. In Austria, the Anschluss in March 1938 had led to boycotts, the wrecking of Jewish shops and stores, and the humiliation of women and men, with ‘jeering storm troopers over them and taunting crowds around them on their hands and knees’ scrubbing signs off the sidewalks or forced to clean the conveniences of their synagogues in their tefillin. Many Jews took their own lives.
The news that Vom Rath had died – shot on November 7th in the German Embassy in Paris by seventeen year old Herschel Grynzpan, whose parents and sister were among the Polish Jews who had been abandoned by Germany at the Polish border, triggered disturbances in Dessau. Jewish shops were looted and the synagogue burned.
But what followed was neither the spontaneous ‘rage’ of the people, says Cesarani, ‘but nor was it a well-planned, centrally executed operation, either. Hitler and Goebbels triggered a nationwide pogrom without any clear goals and no thought for the methods that were to be employed’ (p. 183). It was a rushed and improvised affair, there was miscommunication and messiness and the result was ‘murder, rape, looting, destruction of property, and terror on an unprecedented scale.’
One thousand synagogues and prayer rooms were destroyed – gutted, burnt or smashed up. Approximately 7,500 shops were wrecked – windows shattered, shop fittings ripped out, stock looted or scattered in the streets outside. Over ninety Jews were killed and several women raped or abused.
After the November Pogrom, the Nazis would find new ways to deal with the Jews in Germany – not on the streets; instead, the violence would be removed to the east and hidden.
Less than two weeks later, Britain became the only country to change its immigration rules as a direct response to the unfolding tragedy. On 21 November, Sir Samuel Hoare, in the House of Commons, announced that Britain would admit 9,000 unaccompanied minors, under the age of seventeen on special chartered trains known as the Kindertransport. Between the first arrival at Liverpool Street on December 2, 1938 and the last train just before the outbreak of war in August 1939, around 10,000 children from Berlin, Vienna and Prague, were transported to the Netherlands, where they transferred on to ferries that were to bring them to the UK.
As we commemorate these significant anniversaries this coming weekend, we do so in profound sorrow, aware of the need to learn about the past and to remember. But with remembrance – the biblical command zachor – comes the obligation to re-organise the world, to be the architects of a world in which all human beings are valued and respected, where there is no incitement to hatred or discrimination. To remember means not to stand idly by when we see others who are persecuted or oppressed because of who they are. To remember means to nurture the belief that all human beings are created in the image of God, and to remember means actively to pursue the religious values of holiness and truth, justice, compassion and peace.
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