Kristallnacht’s anniversary is a good reminder

The calendar reminds us that it was exactly 80 years ago tomorrow evening when Hitler unleashed the event marking the beginning of the end of Europe’s Jewish communities.
Kristallnacht, on the Friday evening of Nov. 9 and continuing throughout Saturday, Nov. 10, was the Jewish introduction to unbridled, undiluted venom and hate. Whatever had been lurking about quietly up until that time was suddenly not quiet any longer, because not only existing anti-Semites, but all who were not Jewish, were encouraged to rise up and destroy something that belonged to their Jewish neighbors.
Hitler, as chancellor, had already begun taking anti-Jewish actions that he, himself, made legal in Germany. But who had ever seen, or experienced, anything as huge and organized as this? His new laws had severely regulated Jewish life, but suddenly everyone who was not Jewish was actually invited and encouraged to join in the physical destruction of anything of value — spiritually as well as monetarily — to his or her Jewish neighbors.
This is what happened on that single date: More than 1,000 synagogues were burned, more than 7,500 Jewish-owned businesses were destroyed and some 30,000 Jewish men were arrested on no charges at all and removed to the first concentration camps. Jews, like other ethnic groups in Germany and elsewhere, had often lived in identifiable neighborhoods. But the ghettos that followed Kristallnacht concentrated Jews and no others, squeezing the life out of them and amassing enough of them to make their transition to death camps an integral part of Hitler’s “Jewish solution.”
So, what did German Jews do during and after Kristallnacht? They were not foretellers of the future, and so they did what our people have always done when faced with any problem: They took care of it as best they could. They saved whatever they were able to carry to safety from their burning synagogues; they swept up the plate glass window shards covering the streets where their shops and offices had been. And then, for the most part, they went back to living as they had lived before.
Looking back, we must acknowledge how little else they could do and not speculate after-the-fact about what else they should have done. It’s too easy for us who were not there to ask why they didn’t leave immediately. But — where could they go? The Nazis wanted to get rid of Jews physically, not just encourage them to move out of Germany, so they were in fact making departures difficult or impossible. Forms of transportation and exit visas were scarce and expensive.
And of course, there was then — as there always is now — the usual reaction of hope: This madness had to be a one-time thing, didn’t it? Surely it wouldn’t happen again. And yet, it did happen, again and again, until millions of our people had been murdered.
This hope, this impossible dream, was the “new normal” for many Jews of that place and time, even as fury escalated against them, taking new, sinister forms that also took lives. So now: What do we learn from that past, after the recent horrendous Pittsburgh synagogue attack? My son there also uses the phrase “new normal” for Jews of his city. The only difference is this: Today, we acknowledge that vile things may happen again — and again — and we know we must try to prepare for them by securing ourselves, our homes and our institutions.
This may work for us because we do not live in a place where government policy is against us. Still, there are anti-Semites everywhere, some heavily armed, and we can’t anticipate their next moves. We can only take precautions that are possible. And hope.
Our broken America is certainly not Germany, but it no longer resembles those bucolic Norman Rockwell paintings of freedom for all. May God help us as we go forward to — we know not what. And may we learn from the past that we must help ourselves.

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