November 9-10, 2008
Seventy years ago on November 9th and 10th, Germany’s Jews watched in horror as the society around them descended into savagery. It was Kristallnacht, a night when Germans destroyed and looted Jewish owned stores and synagogues. At this point, there was already an atmosphere of racial tension. The assassination of a German diplomat to France by a Jew was the final straw. From this night on, things would only get worse. One could only imagine what it must have felt like to watch helplessly as the world that you had previously felt so safe turned against you for simply being of a different race.
In order to commemorate this tragic turn of history, I went with a group of LGS scholars to the 70th Anniversary Observance of Kristallnacht Pogrom, which was held at the United Nations. The panel included five individuals, and the whole presentation, plus the question an answer session, all amounted to around two and a half hours.
The first panelist was Professor David Engel of NYU. He discussed what was going on at the time, what happened in Germany that caused this event, and what happened after the pogrom due to the politics of the situation. He explained that even though Jews were leaving Germany because of the Nazi rise to power, they were not leaving as fast as the Nazis wanted them to. Nazis aspired to invade more land, all of which was inhabited by Jews as well. He also pointed out that Poland was also looking to rid their country of their Jewish population and that at a certain point, Polish Jews living in Germany had their Polish citizenship revoked to assure that they could not try to come back.
Although antisemitism was a factor in implementing immigration quotas on Jews, nations were reluctant to take in Jewish refugees because they feared that their admittance would become an incentive for nations such as Germany and Poland to continue mistreating Jews. Israel was founded, in part, so that there would be a nation-state that could protect the Jews, and so that other countries could no longer play “hot potato” with them.
Then spoke Mr. Gary Phillips, a witness to the events of Kristallnacht. He told us of how a young Jewish man was chased by a German mob, and pushed on to the tracks of an oncoming train. He told us his story of being a prisoner at the time, and running away to marry a Jewish woman who was also a runaway.
After him spoke Professor Pan Guang of the Shanghai Centre of International Studies. He told us about the Jews who were granted refuge in Shanghai. They had come from all the way across the continent, and were fortunately taken in. Then, when Japan invaded Shanghai, the Jews were put in detention camps along with the Chinese. Even though the conditions in these camps were rather substandard, the mood was optimistic as Chinese and Jews mingled and lived in harmony with each other. They enjoyed each other’s culture until the war ended. Jewish refugees were resettled in other places, mostly in Australia, the United States, and Israel. Yet, they were not left alone even in China. During their stay in Shanghai, the Nazis proposed that the Japanese exterminate the Jews, and even offered to teach them how to do so. The Japanese did not seem all that interested, however, and the idea was never implemented.
Professor Elizabeth Newman spoke next. She is an immigration attorney, and she spoke about refugee law today. Basically, refugees cannot be turned away in a life or death situation. However, they must prove they are fleeing from such a distress (which is not always so easy). They can also be deported if they pose a threat to American society. In the 1930s, the Allies feared that Germans would pose as Jews in order to be given asylum. This is a big problem in immigration law today as well; how can we tell the real refugees from the imposters?
Finally, H.E. Gabriella Shalev spoke. She is a permanent representative of Israel to the UN. Her grandparents lived in Germany during the Holocaust. She said that Israel and the UN were both founded during the same time under the same guiding principle: “Never Again.” This common heritage was important to emphasize considering the UN’s more recent tendency of trying to cater to the antisemitic sphere, largely composed of Israel’s neighbors. She discussed the relevancy of Kristallnacht today, as world leaders such as Akmadinajad deny that the Holocaust ever happened. If we cannot learn from the past and apply its lessons to today, what is the point of educating today’s youth about history?
Then came the question and answer session, where the audience got the opportunity to express their gripes with the presentation. Need I even say that the room was full of strong opinions? One person expressed her frustration that today’s youth were not being educated enough about the Holocaust, and that it is all too relevant today, particularly because of the crisis in Darfur. The consensus seemed to be that today’s youth does not care all that much about history. H.E. Gabriela Shalev said that growing up in Israel, it was emotionally difficult for Jews to conceive of their own kind being butchered and it was difficult for survivors to talk about it. Another person felt that the panel downplayed the role of antisemitism in refusing refugees, for which Professor David Engel replied that what happened had more to do with politics. One person was concerned about the level of antisemitism in the Arab world.
I was satisfied with the program. Being a descendant of German Jews, and having family who died in the Holocaust, I thought it was important for me to attend this event. I also think it was important for the UN to host such an event to show its solidarity with the Jewish community. I think that it is shameful that events like Kristallnacht have unfolded numerous times in other parts of the world, and that people continue to suffer under similar circumstances. I appreciated all the things that the Chinese had done for the Jews, but I was waiting for Professor Pan Guang to explain why the same courtesy was not being extended to Tibetans. I did not feel that the program was too political at all. It is important to call out people who deny the Holocaust, and ethnic tension in the Middle East may really lead to a holocaust of any kind. One cannot rule out the Holocaust as a founding factor of both the UN and Israel. So why does genocide continue? Why, even in our native land, do Jews continue to be murdered by antisemites?
Written by Clifton Demeco ‘11