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Germany Confronts Its Dark Past

5 minute read
Andrew Purvis / Berlin

Seventy years ago on Nov. 9, the Jews of Germany — and perhaps most of Europe — had their fate revealed to them on one frightening night. Kristallnacht, or “Night of Broken Glass,” saw the ruling Nazi party unleash bands of thugs on Jewish communities throughout Germany and Austria, ostensibly to avenge an attack on a German diplomat in Paris by a young German Jew whose family had been forced to flee Hitler’s regime. By dawn on Nov. 10, 92 Jews lay dead, among the 400 beaten, shot or driven to suicide by the abuse. Some 267 synagogues had been torched and hundreds of Jewish businesses destroyed, and 30,000 Jews had been rounded up and dispatched to concentration camps. It was, most historians believe, the pogrom that portended the systematic murder of 6 million European Jews by Hitler’s regime. (See pictures of Hitler’s rise to power.)

Germany will commemorate the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht on Sunday through a series of events aimed at ensuring that a new generation of Germans, too young to have known anyone connected with those events, learn about the horrors that flowed from the racism of Germany’s past, in the hope of guarding against any future recurrence.

Chancellor Angela Merkel plans to mark the anniversary by speaking alongside the head of Germany’s Jewish community, Charlotte Knobloch, at the Ryke Street synagogue in the old eastern part of Berlin. Although the synagogue was torched on Kristallnacht (or Reichspogromnacht, as some German Jews now prefer to call it), its structure remained intact, and it was reopened last year for the first time since World War II. The ceremony will include the screening of a documentary on the infamous night and another on the Jewish community in Germany today. (See pictures of Kristallnacht.)

Elsewhere in Berlin, a Mozart requiem and concert for violin by Felix Mendelssohn will be performed by the philharmonic chamber orchestra. The mayor will accompany a ceremonial procession from the old city hall in Alexanderplatz in former East Berlin to the so-called new synagogue in the center of the city, where an exhibit of rare photographs of the event entitled “Fire! Anti-Jewish Terror on Kristallnacht” is being shown.

“The questions that these exhibits continue to raise is, How was this possible in a democracy? Why didn’t the fire department put out the fires?” says Andreas Nachama, director of the Topography of Terror Foundation, an independent research foundation that is sponsoring the Kristallnacht exhibit. The mass-circulation Bild newspaper set aside its usual fare of crime and sports to show one of Berlin’s largest synagogues in flames under the headline “The Night that the Synagogues Burned!” while German TV is carrying documentaries about the pogrom.

The German parliament this week resolved to continue “intensively supporting and protecting Jewish life in Germany in all forms,” to expand teaching in schools on Jewish life and on Israel, and to establish a panel of experts tasked with issuing a regular report on anti-Semitism in the country. “With this crime, Germany robbed itself of one of its major cultural roots,” Hans-Peter Uhl, a member of parliament with Chancellor Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union told the legislature. He said the revival of Jewish life that has taken place in recent years, thanks mainly to immigration from the Soviet Union, “borders on a miracle.” (See pictures of East Germany making light of its dark past.)

The mayor of Berlin, Klaus Wowereit, used the coming anniversary to repeat calls for the far-right National Democratic Party, which holds seats in several local parliaments, to be banned from German public life, as politicians across the country urge heightened vigilance against anti-Semitism. Some 800 anti-Semitic incidents have been recorded so far this year, resulting in injuries to more than two dozen people.

The commemorations are part of a broader effort by organizations and by the governments in Germany and elsewhere in Central Europe to maintain the memory of the Holocaust in the minds of a new generation of Germans by personalizing the events rather than relying on cold statistics. Schools in Germany, for example, have experimented with a cartoon depiction of a young Jewish girl caught in the Nazi terror to bring the experience to life for students. And an extensive online archive featuring thousands of photographs and more than 1,350 interviews with elderly Jews still living in Central Europe, recently unveiled by a Vienna-based organization known as Centropa, is being used as a teaching aid in Austrian-German, Hungarian and some U.S. schools.

“For a long time, we would put the perpetrator into the center, show pictures of horror and try to shock with numbers. It only recently occurred to me that if you don’t look at the individual, you make him or her a victim a second time,” one teacher in Berlin said after reviewing the archive. Foundation director Nachama agrees. “The commemoration of these events is no longer just about abstract history,” he says. “It’s about concrete events; the history of your street, the history of your neighborhood.”

One of the most successful new projects involves lying small plaques in the ground in front of the former homes of Jewish Holocaust victims, each inscribed with a small biography and the circumstance of the victim’s arrest and deportation. The plaques are called stolpersteine, or “stumbling blocks,” and you see them all over Berlin. Some 17,000 have been placed across Europe. So while many of the survivors of Kristallnacht and the Holocaust that followed may not be alive for much longer, their suffering is not likely to be forgotten.

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