The duty to learn and the need to remember

Posted on: December 10th, 2021 by Dr. Jorge Grünberg
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Major historical events shape peoples’ cultures and identities in important ways. This is specially true for the Jewish people, with our long and eventful history. Our knowledge and awareness of historical events are grounded in the centrality of remembrance. Speeches and visits to memorials and museums are the main activities marking each year crucial historical events such as the Kristallnacht for example.

However, as important as remembrance surely is, as educators we should reflect and emphasise the duty to learn from historical events. Societies and individuals might might be aware of and remember historical events without having learned its significance and implications. Such shallow understanding of historical developments may lead to an incomplete or inadequate internalisation of the moral lessons of the past. As a consequence, as unfortunately we are witnessing in some countries, high profile remembrance of the Shoah occurs at the same time that some groups of those same societies display anti-Semitic views.

The following article discusses the duty to learn as a complement to the responsibility to remember and its implications for ORT educators and educational institutions.

The 82nd anniversary of the Kristallnacht

Mr. President of Uruguay, Mr. President of the B´nai B´rith Uruguay, Mr. President of the New Israelite Congregation, national authorities, dear friends.

It is an honour and a duty for me to be part of this important commemoration of the tragic events of November 1938. My interest in the subject is very personal. As many of you know, my mother, my uncle, my grandparents, my great-grandparents went through their own Kristallnacht during that tragic time, and many were not able to see the next day. Memory is a challenge in families like ours. The dead cannot remember, and the living cannot forget…

The Kristallnacht anniversary should not just be an occasion to remember. It should be an occasion to question ourselves. An occasion to ask ourselves what we would have done if we had been in one of the many towns and cities in Germany or Austria where houses were being invaded, synagogues burned, elderly men, women and children being pushed into the streets and their belongings being stolen. An occasion to inquire, How could it happen? What did we learn from this tragedy? Why is it important to learn from what happened?

What was the Kristallnacht? The very name Kristallnacht is an example of the Nazi regime perverse use of language and their “death by euphemism” expressions such as the “Final Solution” or “Work sets you free.” The objective of the Kristallnacht was not to attack Jewish properties; that was only its superficial manifestation. Surely Kristallnacht was indeed part of the campaign of dispossession of the belongings of the Jews. But the Nazis had already begun several years earlier to steal the assets of the Jews, stripping them of their jobs, taking away their savings, forcing them to sell their properties and businesses at vile price. They could have continued the robberies and dispossession without burning all synagogues in the country, without involving thousands of non-Jewish neighbours and without imprisoning thousands of Jews.

The Kristallnacht´s objective was much more painful than robbery and physical assault. Kristallnacht was a public ritual of humiliation of the Reich’s Jews. In every city and town of Germany and Austria degrading public acts were organised for Jews of all ages and conditions. It was the next step in the sequence of the dehumanization of Jews that began with the Nazi regime, and it was a necessary step for what would come after. It was also a new step in the dehumanization of non-Jewish Germans whom the Nazi regime sought to make accomplices to its barbarism.

The Nazis prioritized the destruction of the Jews´ self-esteem and dignity far more than the theft and destruction of their property. Kristallnacht was an announcement that the Third Reich had no limits in its actions, and unfortunately, due to the lack of international repercussions it was clear that no one had the capacity or the will to impose those limits.

The impact of Kristallnacht was devastating on the collective psyche of German Jews. Along with windows and crystals, the fantasies of Jews’ acceptance in German society were shattered.

One hundred thousand German Jews served in World War I, twelve thousand were killed in action, and eighteen thousand received the Iron Cross. These are very important symbols in a society like the German society. Decorated war veterans, scientists and artists who had brought international distinction to Germany, families who had lived in its cities and neighbourhoods since the Middle Ages. All without distinction were discriminated, stripped of their belongings, excluded from their jobs and professions, expelled from their homes and finally, for the most part, murdered.

Suddenly, “the unthinkable” was happening. Even after five years of Nazi rule, what happened in the November pogrom was unthinkable for Jews. As German citizens their world was that of a society organized on the basis of the law and the right to the protection of life and property. The Nazis themselves had been voted on a law and order platform.

Suddenly, the German Jews found themselves faced with an unthinkable fusion of civilization and barbarism. Paramilitary gangs attacked homes, synagogues and businesses with impunity, while thousands of residents participated in the aggression and looting, and others watched passively. Like Ray Bradbury’s fire fighters in the novel Fahrenheit 451, the German fire fighters didn’t put out the fire, they just took care that neighbouring non-Jewish buildings didn’t catch fire. The police did not arrest the vandals, the police only made sure that the Jews could not escape.

All the indicators of a civilized society suddenly went off at the same time. Kristallnacht was the great blackout of civilization. Kristallnacht aimed to make Jews and non-Jews understand that they were no longer part of the same world.

The “broken glass,” an expression possibly coined by Joseph Goebbels, projects intense symbolism. It symbolizes the decline of buildings, and metaphorically, the decline of human communities. Broken glass refracts light and refraction produces two images, one on each side of the refractory surface. One was the view of non-Jewish Germans and the other that of Jews. The ominous message of the Kristallnacht was that it was no longer possible to belong to both categories; it was no longer possible to be Jewish and German, to be German and Jewish. Kristallnacht was the beginning of the end of Jewish life in Germany, first of civic life, then community life, and finally physical life. The Nazis were not only seeking the death of the Jews, they were seeking the death of Judaism, and the eternal life of the Reich at the same time.

How could Kristallnacht happen? These are difficult questions to answer and painful to ask. How could a pogrom with tens of thousands of victims and perpetrators occur in the twentieth century, in one of the most educated countries in the world? How could neighbours passively observe and some participate in the looting? How could most countries not offer refuge? Could countries like ours have helped more? What would we do if we see our lifelong neighbours dragged into the streets by paramilitary gangs and their house destroyed? This ethical introspection has to help us internalize the moral hazard of inaction.

Learn and remember

Why is it important to learn from what happened? The duty to learn is as important as the need to remember. You cannot learn without remembering, but you can remember without learning. As the eminent historian Saul Friedländer put it: “the ritual ceremony that does not challenge, does not teach, is not a real tribute to the victims and it is not a moral censure to the perpetrators”. Ritual recollection amounts to an “act of exorcism”, as if the Kristallnacht or the Shoah were supernatural acts without human culprits or accomplices. Learning about what happened is necessary, although not enough to prevent similar tragedies. It is necessary to understand how far cruelty can go when it is not confronted, it is necessary to recognize and prepare for the consequences of helplessness.

Learning about Kristallnacht is important because it alerts us to how prejudice can evolve into persecution, persecution to massacre and massacre to genocide. It is important because it alerts us to the importance of recognizing and stopping these processes in early stages. Not all prejudice ends in genocide, but all genocide began with prejudice.

To conceive of Kristallnacht as an event from the past, disconnected from our time, is a mistake. Although each historical situation is unique, the forces that drive them are among us. Intolerance, discrimination, dispossession, indifference, organized killings, reached an inconceivable proportion in Nazi Germany, but they also exist in our time.

AIMA Memorial Poster

Poster in front of the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association, which commemorates the victims of the attack of 07/18/1994 demanding justice and memory. Matias Profeta, 2015 (CC SA 4.0)

Take for instance, close to us, the AMIA attack in Argentina in 1994. It was a barbaric attack against Jews in their most emblematic building. More Jews died in that attack in proportion to the population than in Kristallnacht. According to Argentinian justice, it was organized by a State as the Kristallnacht was. Unlike Kristallnacht, for which 7,000 people were prosecuted, the AMIA crime continues unpunished.

What happened after Kristallnacht? The United States withdrew its ambassador in Berlin but did not sever relations. No country took diplomatic measures or increased their immigration visas despite the fact that all diplomats accredited in Germany and Austria graphically described the excesses occurred. Since Kristallnacht it became clear that the Jews had no means of defence, no allies, and no place of refuge. After November 1938 Jews were no longer looking for the best place to relocate, they were looking for any place to go. As Haim Weizmann said: “For German Jews the world was divided after Kristallnacht, into countries that wanted to expel them and countries that did not want to receive them.”

We have a duty to learn from Kristallnacht and what came after: Wannsee, deportations, ghettos, concentration camps, death camps, like Dante’s circles. We must learn that we cannot be indifferent to the fate of others. We must learn that all humans are part of a common fabric and we must learn that we must never allow something like this to happen again. Never more helpless, never more alone, never more disunited.

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