OŚWIĘCIM, Poland — A delegation of European lawmakers and Jewish communal figures commemorated the 83rd anniversary of Kristallnacht during a ceremony at Auschwitz on Tuesday, calling for enduring memory and education to counter the forces of hatred.
Capping off a conference on antisemitism organized by the European Jewish Association, the delegation — including representatives of more than two dozen countries — held a short candelighting ceremony at the Birkenau section of the notorious concentration camp, before laying wreaths at the “death wall” where thousands of Auschwitz inmates were killed by firing squad.
“On this day exactly 83 years ago, hundreds of Jews were murdered, fathers, mothers, children, by my countrymen, in my country,” said Stefanie Hubig, the education minister for the German state of Rhineland-Palatinate, during the ceremony. “Synagogues and prayer houses were set on fire, Jewish cemeteries were devastated. Countless people were arrested and deported to Nazi concentration camps.”
Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass, is seen as one of the key events heralding the outbreak of the Holocaust. In Jewish communities across Germany, Nazi forces as well as German civilians attacked synagogues and other Jewish-owned buildings, smashing their windows, burning them to the ground, killing hundreds of Jews and arresting thousands more.
The events of Kristallnacht, said Hubig, “showed the world the depths to which Germany was sinking.” And ever since, “from generation to generation, we must counter those who try to deny or to distort what happened here, or those who call for an end to remembrance. Germans cannot cease to remember. Because the facts of history leave no doubt whatsoever.”
Hubig noted that even today, “there is still antisemitism in Germany, and I am ashamed of it, deeply.” Any such actions or sentiments, she added, “demand a powerful response from the German state and from our society. This is what we have learned from our history. We must not tolerate any kind of antisemitism whatsoever — and we won’t.”
Igor Zorčič, the president of the Slovenian National Assembly, also referenced more recent atrocities in his remarks.
“Unfortunately, present times do not always prove that our promises of ‘never again’ are entirely sincere,” said Zorčič. “Remember Srebrenica — and don’t underestimate the seriousness of the current political friction over genocide.” The assembly president was referencing the 1992 massacre at Srebrenica in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where 7,000 Bosnian Muslim boys and men were slaughtered by Serbian forces.
Netherlands Chief Rabbi Binyomin Jacobs recited the memorial Kaddish prayer at Auschwitz.
“We’re here together to commemorate and to honor those Jews and gentiles who were killed without any reason,” said Jacobs. “We are here together to commemorate all those who were part of the Jewish nation, and all those who were brutally killed in the terrible years of the Second World War.”
Ministers, parliamentarians and diplomats from across Europe took part in the ceremony and the subsequent tour of Auschwitz, including representatives from the UK, France, Spain, Montenegro, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Poland and many other countries.
Addressing the delegation in Krakow a night earlier, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, the chairman of Yad Vashem and a Holocaust survivor, said Kristallnacht underlined how much the world is willing to turn the other cheek to human suffering.
“[Kristallnacht] was a test to humanity, to all the nations, to all the globe, how would they react,” said Lau, a former chief rabbi of Israel. “In my eyes it was a test,” he said, noting how little international outcry followed. “Ask in your cities, in the archives, for the newspapers of November 10, 11 and 12, 1938: What is written in the newspapers about Kristallnacht? Almost nothing.”
Alex Benjamin, the director of EJA, told The Times of Israel that commemorating the events of Kristallnacht that unfolded in Germany while at Auschwitz in Poland was fitting.
“When you come to Auschwitz, you can see a living, breathing manifestation of what smashing windows and burning synagogues led to,” said Benjamin, noting that in Germany, “most of the windows and everything else are repaired, there are very few traces left of Kristallnacht.”
A visit to Auschwitz on the anniversary of Kristallnacht, added Benjamin, is a warning of how quickly hatred and bigotry can escalate into murder and genocide.
“Kristallnacht is a warning, and antisemitism is a warning, of how quickly things can move in a space of a couple of years,” he said. “From smashed windows and burned synagogues to shattered Jewish lives and 6 million dead — all in the space of three or four years.”
The writer was a guest of the European Jewish Association.