Baer col­umn

Richmond Times-Dispatch - - FRONT PAGE - Tommy P. Tommy P. Baer is a for­mer in­ter­na­tional pres­i­dent of B’nai B’rith. Con­tact him at tbaer@baer­la­wof­

To­day’s events mir­ror those of 1938.

Han­nah Arendt called it the ba­nal­ity of evil. Au­thor Mar­tin Gilbert called it the col­lapse of moral­ity, “an in­di­ca­tion of what hap­pens when a so­ci­ety falls vic­tim to its baser in­stincts.” The name given to it was “Kristall­nacht,” the Night of Bro­ken Glass.

To­day marks the 80th an­niver­sary of the 24hour ram­page in 1938 Ger­many and Aus­tria which some say was the be­gin­ning of the Holo­caust. There was on that night, upon the di­rect or­ders of the Third Re­ich, a vi­o­lent and sys­tem­atic at­tack upon Jews and Jewish in­sti­tu­tions per­pe­trated by Ger­man se­cu­rity forces, joined by a fren­zied pop­u­lace given free rein to ter­ror­ize and de­stroy, with­out in­ter­fer­ence by po­lice or fire­fight­ers. On that night the Ger­man na­tion fell vic­tim to its baser in­stincts.

Hun­dreds of syn­a­gogues were set ablaze and de­stroyed, To­rah scrolls torn to pieces, prayer books des­e­crated. Thou­sands of Jewish shops, homes, hospi­tals, and schools were smashed and looted. Nearly 100 Jews were killed and 30,000 Jewish men, in­clud­ing my mother’s fa­ther, were ar­rested and sent to con­cen­tra­tion camps, where they were bru­tal­ized.

On that night my mother heard the sounds of shat­ter­ing glass from the win­dow of her hos­pi­tal room in Ber­lin where she was be­ing treated for a se­ri­ous breast in­fec­tion. I was 3 months old.

The events of that night and the next day shat­tered not only glass, but the hopes of Eu­ro­pean Jews who be­lieved that they would sur­vive the tyran­ni­cal Nazi regime and its di­a­bol­i­cal scheme to cre­ate a pure Aryan race. It was made clear be­yond all doubt that the ob­jec­tive of the Nazis was to rid Ger­many and Eu­rope of the Jewish peo­ple, thus erad­i­cat­ing the 1,000year his­tory of Jewish life and cul­ture in Ger­many.

The geno­cide had be­gun. Never had mankind seen such evil on so grand a scale. The lives, hopes, as­pi­ra­tions, dreams, and con­tri­bu­tions of 6 mil­lion Jews (1,500,000 chil­dren), onethird of world Jewry, were oblit­er­ated. Num­bers so large and vast that they are dif­fi­cult for the mind to process. Yet they must be pro­cessed if there is any hope that such mad­ness will never again be al­lowed to oc­cur.

Among Jews, and oth­ers, the ques­tion is of­ten asked: Could it hap­pen here? I al­ways an­swered in the neg­a­tive, not in this coun­try. Our in­sti­tu­tions are too strong, our law too set­tled, our sense of de­cency too great. While I re­main op­ti­mistic, I am no longer so san­guine about our im­mu­nity from the ex­er­cise of our baser in­stincts.

A re­cent poll of mil­len­ni­als dis­closed that 66 per­cent had never heard of Auschwitz. It is trou­bling that this place, this Nazi death camp where more than 1 mil­lion Jews were mur­dered, this hell on earth, could not be iden­ti­fied by so many of those upon whom the fu­ture of our na­tion de­pends.

To­day’s ex­pres­sions of in­tol­er­ance and re­pres­sion of free speech and assem­bly in pub­lic fo­rums, on many col­lege cam­puses, and in other venues is a wor­ri­some de­vel­op­ment.

The alarm­ing rise of an­tiSemitism in our coun­try, along with move­ments that delig­itimize, not merely crit­i­cize, the State of Is­rael, is a cause of in­creas­ing con­cern.

Holo­caust de­nial, a form of anti-Semitism and hate speech, is cause for anx­i­ety.

The lin­ger­ing specter of neoNazi mobs in Char­lottesville chant­ing “Jews will not re­place us,” evok­ing the Third Re­ich, and the most re­cent hor­rific mass mur­der of Jews by a crazed anti-Semite at a syn­a­gogue ser­vice in Pitts­burgh while scream­ing “All Jews must die,” shock the con­science and re­mind Jews of a for­mer time, caus­ing ap­pre­hen­sion and fore­bod­ing. We should have learned long ago that words and ac­tions have con­se­quences.

All of th­ese, in­di­vid­u­ally and in the ag­gre­gate, pose a clear and present dan­ger to those pre­cepts en­shrined in our Con­sti­tu­tion and re­garded by most as in­alien­able.

But per­haps most of all, it is com­pla­cency that fright­ens me. If we can­not or will not iden­tify evil and the pur­vey­ors of ha­tred in or­der to prevent their in­sid­i­ous spread to toxic lev­els, we shall be over­come and con­sumed by it. Though I am com­forted by the post­hu­mous mes­sage of Sen. John McCain, who re­minded us that “We are cit­i­zens of the world’s great­est repub­lic, a na­tion of ideals,

not blood and soil,” we have be­come a na­tion vul­ner­a­ble to ex­cesses — in our po­lit­i­cal dis­course, in our ci­vil­ity to one an­other, and in the break­down of val­ues we once cher­ished. The re­sis­tance of th­ese neg­a­tive im­pulses will re­quire a strong Amer­ica, one in which our lead­er­ship must speak out with mo­ral clar­ity.

So, Kristall­nacht must be re­mem­bered to prevent the sav­age beast in man from pre­vail­ing. Not here, not any­where. Into that abyss we must not de­scend. Mem­ory al­lows us to as­sess our his­tory and our­selves, to en­sure that we learn its les­sons, so that we do not suc­cumb to our baser in­stincts.

The words from a me­mo­rial plaque to the mur­dered Jewish chil­dren at the for­mer con­cen­tra­tion camp at Neuengamme, Ger­many, come to mind. They read: “When you stand here, be silent. When you leave here, be not silent.”

So let us re­mem­ber; for if ha­tred pre­vails, we are all at risk.


A pedes­trian looks at the wreck­age of a Jewish shop in Ber­lin af­ter the “Night of Bro­ken Glass.”


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