Remembrance Day- Kristallnacht

November. Just days ago, from the front windows of my home, I marvelled to gaze upon the deep red leaves of a generous maple tree. Now, the starkness of its arms is etched against a grey sky. Barren. Stripped bare. Blasted by winds of change.

I too feel flayed as I contemplate the most joyless month of the year. I know well that my spirits will lift in December as I think ahead to holiday cheer, to festive greenery and lights.  To Christmas trees and Chanukah candles. To gift giving as expressions of love, as expressions of hope for peace on earth, for goodwill toward all forms of sentient life,  even the humble ox and the ass.

November brings nothing but sad memories and sobering thoughts. With each red poppy I see on coats and jackets, I picture my teen-aged grandsons as cannon fodder. In retrospect, we glorify those young boys who sacrificed their all so that we could enjoy the right to vote. I remain appalled by the statistics, by the increasing numbers of those who fail to cast their ballot.

Photo courtesy Yael Heffer

How shall we visualize those young farm boys who rushed to enlist for W.W.I ? Were they motivated to save the world for democracy (or at least for Mother England), or were they gullible young men, manipulated by politicians who lured them into battle with dreams of Gay Paree?   Instead, they found themselves trapped in trenches, shooting at and being fired upon by other youngsters clad in slightly different uniforms.

In the days following the murder of Arch-duke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, it turned out   that the great powers believed in imperialism far more than liberalism, and instead of uniting the world through free and peaceful commerce, they focused on conquering a bigger slice of the globe by brute force.[1]

I find W.W.I so problematic. The liberal dream, the democratic ideal seemingly vanished as quickly as the smoke of the cannons fired upon the enemy. The parameters of liberalism have since been stretched, but they have not yet been fully breached.

In the beginning, the liberal story cared mainly about the liberties and privileges of middle-class European men and seemed blind to the plight of working-class people, women, minorities, and non-Westerners. When in 1918 victorious Britain and France talked excitedly about liberty, they were not thinking about the subjects of their worldwide empires. For example, Indian demands for self-determination were answered y the Amritsar massacre of 1919, in which the British army slaughtered hundreds of unarmed demonstrators.[2]          

Photo courtesy Yael Heffer

November 11, Remembrance Day brings me an additional measure of questions that may not plague other Canadians. My father was born on Sept 15, 1900. The day that he turned 17, like his father and all his older brothers, he was drafted into the army. Not the army of Britain, France, or the U.S., but the army of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. My father, who raised rabbits and never lost his tender love for the smallest of creatures was handed a weapon that he could not possibly have aimed at another human being. That war was a nightmare of which he never spoke. I know of its reality only because of a family photo, the Waldstein men, all in uniform.

Having spent the first sixteen years of life in a village at the north-western edge of Austria, my father would never have even have encountered a speaker of the English language. How could he possibly have imagined an Englishman as “his enemy”? And how was his enemy taught to view him as a creature who needed to be killed?

November.  November 9 in particular. A date that means little to most people, yet remains for me a still bleeding wound. Kristallnacht. In Germany, they now call it Reichsprogromnacht. In English, we euphemistically name it “the night of broken glass.” I call it “the night of shattered glass” because it shattered a world and unleashed a torrent of hatred far more costly than just broken windows.

Incited by a political leader who promised to make the nation great again by providing a job for every willing worker, – provided that his skin was white and he could provide proof not of baptism, but of “real” long-standing Christian origins. On Nov 9, 1938, in a deliberate campaign that swept the nation, over 1,000 Jewish synagogues were torched,  over 7,500 Jewish businesses were destroyed, and approximately 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and taken to concentration camps. We like to call the perpetrators “Nazis,” as if that put them in some special category. I fear the term makes us forget that Nazis were followers of a democratically elected man, and citizens of one of the world’s most highly educated nations.

Historians argue that Hitler did not have a clear majority, and that he subsequently manipulated the system to give himself power far beyond the intentions of those who wrote the constitution. I fail to see how that differs from current realities where gerrymandering plus a possibly out-dated   Electoral College have allowed a president to assume power without the consent of the majority of the population.

Historians also argue that education in Germany was largely the prerogative of the relatively wealthy, and that great stress was laid upon mathematics, science, and the development of skills that were immediately applicable and economically remunerative. As is the case in far too many countries today, moral and ethical issues took a back seat.

I was barely a toddler in 1938, and know of these events only through my readings. My parents could not bear to speak of the terror they experienced that night. Barely a month earlier, the morning after the British Prime Minister had, with the stroke of a pen, surrendered the area of their home to Herr Hitler, my parents had fled with me in their arms. Huddled in  temporary lodgings, they trembled as  homes and nearby shops went up in flames. Like all Jews, they feared the clamour of thugs pounding upon their door.

Photo courtesy Yael Heffer

Tonight we will assemble on the eve of Kristallnacht, with a fresh wound  – last week’s shooting in Pittsburgh. That event will forever remind us that old hatreds seldom die – they merely go underground. There they lurk whenever publicly espousing them is viewed as “politically incorrect,” or as proof of being ignorant and “lower class.”

Tonight, 6 survivors of the Holocaust will light a candle, each candle representing one million of the six million murdered by people who viewed Jews as the source of their personal misery. Murdered because good, sometimes God-fearing Germans placed the blame for their economic or their political woes upon the shoulders of the Jews. Loyal Germans who thought their nation would be not only richer but better in every way if it could rid itself of people that “real” Germans had learned to despise.

Photo courtesy Yael Heffer

Where can I find hope in a world that now throws up the spectre of new enemies, and plans to erect new walls and fresh barriers to those fleeing their homeland?

On top of nuclear war, in the coming decades humankind will face a new existential threat. For thousands of years, Homo Sapiens behaved as an ecological serial killer; now it is morphing into an ecological mass murderer. Unlike nuclear war- which is a future potential- climate change is a present reality. Unless we dramatically cut the emission of greenhouse gases. rising global temperature will disrupt agricultural production, inundate cities, make much of the world uninhabitable, and send hundreds of millions of refugees in search of new homes. Humanity has very little time left to wean itself from fossil fuels. We need to enter rehab today. Not next year or next month, but today.[3]

Have we progressed no further than Marie Antoinette who tossed off an indifferent “Let them eat cake!” when told of starving peasants without so much as a crumb of bread in the larder? Are we no better than Madame de Pompadour, who supposedly tossed off an indifferent Après-nous le deluge!  Who cares about the future? What will it matter after we are dead?

To some of us, what happens in the future matters greatly. I care about the world in which my children and grandchildren will be living. I care deeply about what happens not only to my fellow Canadians, but to all human beings. In this regard, I believe that I am a part of a large contingent. Had the expression not been co-opted to mean something else, I’d even call us a “moral” majority. Far from thinking only of our own pleasure and prosperity, we care about others and  all forms of life on this, our precious planet.

For this reason, I plan to mark this day, November 11, 2018  by attending  Let Peace be Their Memorial, a wreath laying ceremony commemorating civilian victims of war and conflict, including refugees. A century after “the war to end all wars,” this ceremony aims to expand the focus of Remembrance Day by recognizing that both modern warfare and Canadian society have changed.  By highlighting war’s devastating effect on civilians and on the environment, the organizers (and we, the participants in the event) challenge governments to count all the costs before seeking military solutions to complex human problems.[4]

[1] Yuval Noah Harari, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century.  Penguin Random House Canada, 2018, p.9.

[2]  Ibid., p.10.

[3] Ibid., pp.116-8.

[4] Press Release, BC Humanist Association. and Vancouver. Peace Poppies.

1 thought on “Remembrance Day- Kristallnacht

  1. Joke A.M Hilhorst-Klomp

    Thank you Helen for you sharing your honest awareness!
    I pray we all will be aware of what happens in the world, are able to analyze it and put it in perspective of what has happened in the last century so it won’t be happening again!

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