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Remembering Kristallnacht, in the wake of October 7

What was Kristallnacht?

Kristallnacht is the name given to the night of 9 November 1938, when a Nazi-sponsored violent rampage in Germany destroyed Jewish businesses, synagogues, sacred books and human lives.

In the words of one eyewitness:

“Until 1938 my parents never thought of leaving Germany. ‘There's no way the Germans we live with will continue to do these things. It's only an episode.’ That was the atmosphere. It was also the atmosphere on Kristallnacht. They couldn't comprehend it. It came as a blow. I remember my mother standing pale and crying… I remember her phoning her gentile friends – she had more gentile friends than Jewish friends – No answer. No one answered her.”[1]

For most of my life as a Catholic, the anniversary of Kristallnacht came and went unnoticed. It took its place in my consciousness as one of many human tragedies with no direct relevance to me personally. After all, I am not Jewish, I was born in a time and place remote from the events of that fateful night, and there has been plenty of human suffering in the world of the 20th and 21st centuries to occupy my mind and heart.

Over time, however, the memory of Kristallnacht came to strike a deep chord, and specifically as a Christian. Of course, all human suffering should be the concern of the Christian. What the specific memory of 9 November 1938 has helped me to understand is that Kristallnacht is regarded by historians as being a critical step on the path to the implementation of Hitler’s ‘final solution’. In the absence of international outrage, it was a moment when there was still time for good people to speak up, yet too many allowed it to pass in silence.

Further, I learned that one of the factors that allowed the Nazi's ideology to flourish was the influence of anti-Jewish tropes, deeply buried in the social and cultural fabric of European societies. Most days, their poisonous presence could be overlooked; but in a time of crisis they came rushing to the surface, turning neighbours into enemies overnight. Such prejudice had a long history, and had infiltrated Christianity, leading to terrible humiliations and brutalities inflicted upon Jewish communities in Christianised societies over many centuries.

From the standpoint of the Catholic Church, it took the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) for this “teaching of contempt” towards Jews to be decisively and officially repudiated. Vatican II taught that the Church “decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone” (Nostra Aetate, 4). Other Churches took similar steps as they faced into the dark chapters of Christian history.

In more recent years, many Christians have joined with Jewish communities around the world in their annual remembrance of the events of Kristallnacht, on 9 November. The victims are mourned, candles are lit, songs are sung, people stand in sombre silence. Jewish leaders are joined by civic leaders and representatives of other religious and ethnic groups. The words “Never again” are uttered as one voice.

Shockingly, just a month ago, an event reminiscent of Kristallnacht occurred again.

October 7th 2023, Israel

On 7 October 2023, a pogrom took place in southern Israel, including the town of Sderot and the small agricultural communities bordering the Gaza strip. Hamas militants broke through the Israeli security barrier and rampaged throughout the day, pillaging and destroying homes while they murdered, tortured and raped unarmed civilians, and mutilated bodies. Over 200 people were abducted and taken to Gaza as hostages. Some 1400 Israelis - Jews and others among their communities - were murdered in these attacks, including whole families burnt to death in their homes and youth gunned down in the fields of a music festival.

It is important to recount these two dates, as well as some of the details of these two periods of depravity, in order to call out the evil of antisemitism for what it is and to highlight the imperative for Catholics, and all people of faith and goodwill, to speak out against its violent goals and deathly consequences.

We need to be very clear. Nothing justifies what occurred on 7 October. No political narrative or cause justifies premeditated murder, rape, mutilation and abduction. No appeal to the complexities of a geo-political dispute excuses the massacre which took place on 7 October. It was an act of terrorism on a massive scale and a crime against humanity, in the same barbaric vein as ISIS and conducted with the same antisemitic vehemence as Nazism.

Nazi atrocities should have been denounced by the world then. Hamas’ atrocities must be denounced now.

To allow excuses for such a massacre, would be to send a terrible message to the world over and to ignore the lessons learned from the Holocaust. It would sanction antisemitic sentiment and embolden extremists and their sympathisers elsewhere. It would be a betrayal of the Jewish people.

Here in Australia, we have already seen a sharp increase in antisemitic discourse and incidents since the events of 7 October. Following the largest massacre of Jews in a single day since the Holocaust, public antisemitic outbursts occurred on the streets of Sydney, with chants such as “Gas the Jews” - voices we thought belonged to the days of Nazi Germany.

Before 7 October, many of us would have considered such a scenario unthinkable. Yet these outbursts do not come out of nowhere. They remind us that antisemitism has been on the rise, in Australia and globally, emanating from both the right and the left of the political divide, for some time. Of course, there is no suggestion here that our Australian society is anything like Nazi Germany. However, we are reminded that antisemitism has a way of reemerging even in peace-loving societies like our own, in new and insidious guises. The strength of our usually harmonious multicultural community should never be taken for granted. Vigilance against antisemitism must be an ongoing commitment.

A call to action: What can we do?

In view of our history, we Christians have a particular responsibility to speak, act and pray. We are not powerless. Each of us can do something within our sphere of influence. For example:

We can condemn in the strongest terms the unspeakable actions of terror unleashed by Hamas on innocent civilians in Israeli communities in the quiet of a Jewish religious holy day on 7 October 2023.

As one voice we can call for the safe and immediate return of the hostages, and make this our urgent prayer intention.

Catholic social justice organisations can take antisemitism as seriously as other causes for justice.

In view of the antisemitic violence unleashed against women on 7 October 2023, we urge Christians to speak up in support of their Jewish sisters.

We can educate our children and others about antisemitism, including its history within Christianity.

Education about antisemitism is critical in a world where the term is becoming less rather than better understood, where Holocaust-denial thrives on social media and where the memory of the Holocaust is dimming with time.

We can also commemorate Kristallnacht each year.

The legacy of William Cooper

In closing, we can recall the story of William Cooper, a proud Yorta Yorta man and a committed Christian, who lived in Melbourne in the 1930s. When the news of Kristallnacht reached him, he responded by organising a peaceful march to the German Consulate to deliver a petition protesting the treatment of Jewish citizens in Germany.

His petition, of course, was ignored. Yet, he did the right thing. And his action for justice has provided inspiration for generations to come. Cooper is among the “righteous gentiles” honoured by Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Centre. May his legacy, his commitment to a just and peaceful society, where Jews can live without fear of antisemitism, inspire us all and guide our words and actions.


Unite in Prayer Now:

View: A Call to Prayer October 7 Hostages With Julie McCrossin AM and Teresa Pirola

[1] Historian and Holocaust survivor Zvi Bacharach; quoted at the webpage of Yad Vashem, World Holocaust Remembrance Centre.

Text: Teresa Pirola

(c) Teresa Pirola | Light of Torah, 2023

This article may be freely shared for non-commercial use, with appropriate acknowledgement.

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