Community remembers Kristallnacht

November 12, 2012 by Henry Benjamin
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The events of the fateful night in November 1938 which many believe triggered the Holocaust were remembered at a function in Sydney where a survivor gave an eyewitness account and in the city’s Martin Place where the shofar was blown.

Rabbi Jeremy Lawrence blows the Shofar Photo: Henry Benjamin

Rabbi Jeremy Lawrence of Sydney’s The Great Synagogue sounded the Shofar before a lunchtime crowd. The event, organised by the Council of Christians and Jews, featured doleful songs in Yiddish by Fay Sussman and the music of the Emanuel School choir. The audience heard readings by students from the school and from pupils from St Scholastica from Anne Frank’s Diary. Addresses were also delivered by Rabbis Richard Lampert and Jeffrey Kamins. Following two minutes’ silence, a glass was broken by Henry Mendelson.

Harry Rich was 12 years old when Kristallnacht brought chaos to his home city of Vienna….and to his life and the lives of millions of others.

Dr Harry Rich

It was the night when Jews were herded for the first time to the concentration camps of Buchenwald and Dachau.

Rich’s story was unusual as he himself suffered no personal injury at the hands of the Nazis. The more he spoke, the more he remembered and the audience sat in silent concentration as the events of the night unfolded before them.

An emotional Rich was followed on the podium by Federal Labor MP Mark Dreyfus who paralleled the night of November 9-10.

The text of what he said:  “I particularly appreciate the opportunity to reflect on the Kristallnacht, because it represented a tragic turning point in the Nazi persecution of Jewish people that we do well to consider carefully.

The Holocaust did not happen suddenly.  First came words expressing the hatred of Jews, describing Jews as less than other human beings.  Such words were not new: anti-semitism does have a very long history. But Hitler used new and murderous language. In Mein Kampf he wrote this: “… it is the inexorable Jew who struggles for his domination over the nations.  No nation can remove this hand from its throat except by the sword only the assembled and concentrated might of a national passion rearing up in its strength can defy the international enslavement of peoples.  Such a process is and remains a bloody one”.

Mark Dreyfus

And the language grew bloodier and more hateful once the Nazis took over. Next came laws, the Nuremberg laws which stripped Jews of their citizenship and rights.  Then yellow stars.  Then escalating violence.  And then deportation, and the “final solution”.

Kristallnacht marked the move to country-wide public violence against Jews, looting and arson against synagogues, and attacks on Jewish owned businesses.  Life for Jews had been increasingly difficult since Hitler came to power in 1933, but Kristallnacht was a turning point – a transformation from prejudice and discrimination to open violence across Germany.  As Daniel Goldhagen wrote in 1996, “The progressive exclusion of Jews from German society that had been proceeding since the Nazis assumption of power gained greater momentum with Kristallnacht”. 

The Nazis’ pretext for the eruption of violence on Kristallnacht was an event in France.  On 7 November 1938 Herschel Grynszpan, a 17 year old Jew whose parents had been deported by the Nazi Government to Poland (along with fifteen thousand other Polish Jews), purchased a revolver and ammunition and went to the German embassy in Paris.  There he shot a German diplomat three times and waited to be arrested.  In his pocket was a postcard addressed to his parents, on which he had written “May God forgive me.  I must protest so that the whole world hears my protest, and that I will do”.

On 9 November the German diplomat died from his wounds.  That evening, Hitler was attending an event celebrating the anniversary of his 1923 Beer Hall Putsch.  Hitler left the event early, and propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels gave a speech in his place.  Goebbels said the Nazi Party would not organise any demonstrations, but should any demonstrations take place, the party would not interfere.

Within hours SA members and Nazi thugs were smashing Jewish owned businesses with sledgehammers and axes, setting fire to synagogues and assaulting and arresting Jews.

The dawn of 10 November 1938 saw the streets of Germany strewn with broken glass, which led to the name Kristallnacht or “The Night of Broken Glass”.  More than one thousand five hundred synagogues in Germany were damaged; many were destroyed.  Jewish cemeteries were desecrated.  Seven thousand five hundred Jewish owned businesses were vandalised or destroyed.  Around one hundred Jews were killed on 9 and 10 November, hundreds injured, and around thirty thousand taken to concentration camps.  More than two thousand of them died.

A British journalist, Hugh Carleton Green of the Daily Telegraph, described the scenes he observed on 10 November: “Mob law ruled in Berlin throughout the afternoon and evening and hordes of hooligans indulged in an orgy of destruction.  I have seen several anti-Jewish outbreaks in Germany during the last five years, but never anything as nauseating as this.  Racial hatred and hysteria seemed to have taken complete hold of otherwise decent people.  I saw fashionably dressed women clapping their hands and screaming with glee, while respectable middle class mothers held up their babies to see the ‘fun’”.

On Kristallnacht, my father and my father- in-law were both living in Berlin.  My father was 10 years old, my father in law was four.  My father was sent by my grandparents, with his brother, to far-off Australia, arriving on his eleventh birthday, 22 July 1939.  My grandparents followed months later, having failed to persuade their parents to leave Germany.  My father-in-law fled with his family to equally far-off Chile.  More than 115,000 Jews left Germany in the months between Kristallnacht and the start of World War II.  But tragically, as we know, millions more European Jews were unable to escape.

We remember Kristallnacht, we repeat the story of Kristallnacht, and we analyse the events of Kristallnacht because this helps us lessen the chance that events like this will ever happen again.  As Yehuda Bauer has pointed out in Rethinking the Holocaust, “The Holocaust happened to a particular people for particular reasons at a particular time” and yet, “what happened before can happen again”.  By remembering Kristallnacht, we may be able to focus more clearly on what we can do, now, in our nation, to make sure that we can truly say “never again”.

One of the aspects of the Kristallnacht that I was drawn to think about is the way in which hate speech played a significant role in the events that lead to the ultimate tragedy, the Shoah.

I want to focus on two particular contemporary examples. One is a domestic and legal example – the importance of an established legal safeguard against hate speech within our nation. The other is an international example – the strong stance our Government has taken against hate speech internationally.

The part of our national law which Kristallnacht prompts me to reflect on is section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. This is the provision which makes it unlawful to do any act which “is reasonably likely, in all the circumstances, to offend, insult or intimidate another person or a group of people” and “is done because of the race, colour, or national or ethnic origin of the other person or of some or all of the people in the group”. The provision became part of our national law in 1995 when the Labor Government enacted the Racial Hatred Act 1995.  The legislation provides a series of defences which protect artistic expression, academic and scientific work, and public discussion.  In other words, freedom of speech is protected, within limits.

Over the last twelve months, following on from a Federal Court finding that a notorious commentator had contravened s.18C by falsely denigrating several indigenous people, there have been numerous calls for the repeal of s.18C.  These calls have come from diverse sources including the Institute of Public Affairs, News Ltd journalists, leaders of the Liberal Party, and Julian Assange – all of them expressing concern about the restriction on free speech, but almost none of them showing any understanding of the careful balance struck by s.18C, and none of them recognising the series of Federal Court decisions which have dealt with anti-Semitic Holocaust denial hate speech.

Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act is a good law.  It has been used by Jeremy Jones, on behalf of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, in a series of cases including proceedings against Holocaust denier Dr Frederick Toben.

Those cases established that Holocaust denial is anti-semitism, and that victims of hate speech have legal redress.  The section stands ready to be used to prevent hate speech being directed against Jews or any other group in Australian Society.   As Dr Helen Szoke, the Racial Discrimination Commissioner, said at the National Press Club earlier this year about Jones v Toben, “This case concerned material published on the internet which cast doubt on the occurrence of the Holocaust and the existence of homicidal gas chambers at Auschwitz, and implied that Jewish people who were offended by such denials were of limited intelligence or were driven by financial gain. The Australian Jewish community has the highest percentage of Holocaust survivors of any Jewish community outside Israel.  The judge concluded that such material would make Jewish Australians feel treated contemptuously disrespectfully and offensively.  This type of hate speech has no place in modern Australia.  The use of the Racial Discrimination Act provisions to condemn its expression is perfectly reasonable”.

Section 18C is a good law because hate speech is the first step to discrimination and violence.  Scrapping this good law could give a green light to bigoted groups to inflict their hatred on ethnic communities in Australia.

The aspect of our international relations on which Kristallnacht prompts me to reflect is our response to the hate speech of the current government of Iran against Israel and the Jewish people.  The hateful statements by Iranian leaders in recent years, have included President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s calls for Israel to be “wiped off the map”, and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s reference to “the cancerous tumour called Israel.” On other occasions Ahmadinejad has referred to “the filthy Zionist entity”, “the black and dirty microbe named the Zionist regime” “the stinking corpse of the usurping and fake Israeli regime” and “removing the Zionist black stain from human society”.  At the UN General Assembly in September this year Ahmadinejad said that Israel would be “eliminated”.

Our Government has strongly condemned the hateful stance that Iran takes towards Israel and the Jewish people, and also Iran’s very concerning attempts to develop nuclear weaponry.

The Prime Minister has pressed Iran to change its course, in her address to the UN General Assembly on 26 September this year, and remarked that “a nuclear armed Iran would be a major threat to regional and global security, especially given the shocking and aggressive statements about Israel by Iran’s leadership.”

 

On 22 August this year the Foreign Minister, Bob Carr, announced that Australia would implement further sanctions against Iran that prohibit trade and investment in Iran’s oil, gas and petrochemical sectors, cooperation with Iranian financial institutions, and trade with Iranian government entities.

 

These sanctions are in addition to stringent international sanctions, first required by the United Nations Security Council in December 2006, and subsequently imposed by Australia, and they are having an effect – destabilising the exchange rate, making it more difficult for the Iranian Government to carry out financial transactions and prompting a withdrawal in international investment.

 

Yesterday in Indonesia the Prime Minister reaffirmed our position on Iran, emphasising that “we are engaged in sanctions, as is the world, on Iran. And we have also made very clear our disgust at the statements made threatening the future of Israel.”

 

The Australian Government has unequivocally condemned hate speech – whether international or local – and will continue to do so.

 

At the national level we are fortunate enough to have a robust legal framework which provides both clear defence of freedom of speech while ensuring that hate speech is never tolerated. We must resist misguided or ideologically driven attempts to wind back good laws like this.

 

Internationally we are fortunate to have a Prime Minister and a Government that will not tolerate hate speech and which will use the diplomatic and economic tools at our disposal to make this clear.

 

Use of hate speech, whether by individuals, political parties or nations, is not only a tragedy in itself – it can be the precursor to violence.  This is one of the clearest lessons of the Kristallnacht and the events which lead to it, and we should continue to heed that lesson.

 

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