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November 2012 Kristallnacht

What is Kristallnacht and why should we be concerned?


     Kristallnacht was an event that took place in November of 1938. Every year now, all across the world, people participate in Kristallnacht remembrance observances. Why? Well, for one thing, it was a major turning point that launched World War II. In October of 1938, Hitler expelled more than fourteen thousand Jews of Polish heritage that were living in Germany. He did so because the Polish government was just about to require all Polish citizens to validate their passports if they were living outside Poland. Hitler dumped all these Jews at the Polish border, but Poland refused to let them in, so they were sort of “caught in the middle”. When a 17-year old young Pole who was studying in Paris learned that his parents got “caught in the middle” and were treated so harshly, he became enraged and went to the German Embassy in Paris and shot and killed an official. The incident provided Hitler with an excuse to launch violent attacks against the Jews in Germany. As retaliation, Hitler unleashed his storm troopers and Nazi sympathizers and told them to exact revenge against Jews all over Germany and Austria. And on November 9th through November 10th they did, by shattering the glass of Jewish homes, storefronts, businesses and synagogues and beating up and killing any Jews that got in their way. They vandalized and terrorized the community all night long and into the next morning. When morning finally came and the dust settled, 177 homes had been razed, 815 storefronts dismantled, 7500 businesses plundered and 267 synagogues destroyed. Nearly 100 had been killed, numerous cemeteries vandalized, and 30,000 men were arrested and sent to concentration camps. If there had been any doubt before that Hitler was just some crazy politician that wouldn’t last long, that was quickly dispelled and served as a huge wake-up call. En masse, Jews began to leave Germany, in many cases, their homes for generations, for safer places to live. Kristallnacht, in German, means the “night of broken glass,” for many of the stores and homes and synagogues had their windows shattered and glass lie all over the ground.

broken glass.two     That was long ago, though, and World War II is over. Why are we still remembering this event, year after year, all around the world? Scholars tell us there were several components that led to the Holocaust: the economy of Germany, extreme nationalism, eugenics (creating that master race), anti-Semitism and of course the fanatical Adolf Hitler. Others tell us there are steps to enacting genocide as well: marginalization, human rights abuses, dehumanizing tactics, etc. There is already a day in the Jewish calendar to remember the Shoah (Holocaust) every year in the spring, usually in April. Why remember Kristallnacht? Why November? YomHaShoah in the spring remembers the entire event and especially remembers the millions of innocent victims who lost their lives. Kristallnacht remembers the hatred. Kristallnacht remembers anti-Semitism as one of the vilest forms of hatred, for in anti-Semitism, people hate others for no reason other than an accident of birth, or a professed belief in God.

     This is our “Year of Faith”. Pope Benedict called for this year as a way of celebrating the 50th anniversary of Vatican II. In that remarkable council, there was a universal call for holiness. When Pope Benedict wrote his apostolic letter for this year, “Porta Fidei,” or “Door of Faith,” he envisioned a return to that call and a revisiting of the documents and teachings of Vatican II. He wants to dig a little deeper and study the meaning of the teachings of this council. Those of us who are old enough, remember what the Church looked like before the council. This council tipped the Church upside down. It made some tremendous changes, especially in ecumenical and interfaith dialogue. One little tiny document, “Nostra Aetate,” or “In Our Times” was only six paragraphs long, but it was mind-boggling. It was addressing interfaith dialogue and paragraph four spoke about a renewed relationship with our brother and sisters of the Jewish tradition. It stated that: “remembering her common heritage with the Jews and moved not by any political consideration, but solely by the religious motivation of Christian charity, she deplores all hatreds, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism leveled at any time or from any source against the Jews.” Why that little line was so powerful was because it signified a 180 degree turnaround. Early Christian fathers (and mothers) as well as even some passages in Scripture seemed to lay the foundation for centuries of outright, blatant anti-Semitism. After all, the Jews killed Christ, right? The reason that thinking took hold was that the early Christian thinkers could not come to terms with their own guilt, that their sins (and our sins) were responsible for the death of Jesus Christ. That is why he came to earth, to offer sacrifice for our sins. That confrontation with one’s own guilt, however, was too difficult, so early Christians sought a scapegoat. And so, for centuries, Christian bishop after bishop, priest after priest, even some saints after saints as well as lay folks continued to build an edifice of hatred toward one group of people.

     In the last fifty years, however, we’ve come a long way. Today, different Christian denominations are coming together to pray and work together toward Christian unity. Catholics are dialoguing with Hindus and Buddhists and Jews and Moslems to LISTEN to each other and learn from each other. Vatican II in “Nostra Acetate” in 1965 called for an end to anti-Semitism in all its forms, and in the year 2000, the millennium year celebrating 2000 years of Christianity, Pope John Paul II apologized to Jews at the Wailing Wall for all the sins of Church members, past and present, against the Jews.

     That’s why the world remembers Kristallnacht. May we never forget.