Volksgemeinschaft: Unraveling the Meaning of Kristallnacht in our Age

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, November 10, 2017 / 21 Cheshvan 5778

Summary: Rabbi Kosak reflects on the 79th anniversary of Kristallnacht and what it can teach us about how we ought to evaluate risks in our lives.

It happened on November 7th, 1938. In France. Ernst vom Rath, a German diplomat stationed in Paris, was assassinated by a German Jewish teenager, Herschel Feibel Grynszpan. Grynszpan’s motives are still unknown to this day. Either this was a lovers’ quarrel at a time when homosexuals were routinely killed by the Nazi party, or Grynszpan killed him as revenge for the expulsion of Polish Jews from Germany. His parents were among those expelled and although it ultimately saved their lives, this is the ostensible reason he himself gave to justify his act of murder.

Whatever precipitated his act of murder, it quickly became the pretext for the events of November 9th. On that day, and after rapid planning by Nazi chiefs, the Gestapo and Storm troopers were ordered to incite mob violence against the German Jewish community. Throughout the evening, more than 1100 synagogues were torched along with over 7500 Jewish-owned businesses. The night of broken glass. The beginning of the Holocaust.

It is essential to remember that Kristallnacht was liable to happen one way or another. After all, a number of anti-semitic laws were already on the books by then. In 1920, the Nazi party had put forth a twenty five point party platform in which they declared their intent to abrogate Jews civil, legal and political rights and to segregate Jews from the Aryan pure. As they gained power, their plans came to fruition.

In 1933, Jews were prohibited from occupying positions as civil servants. By April of that year, new quotas sharply curtailed Jewish enrollment in universities and Jewish doctors could not be paid from state funds. In 1934, a ban was extended to Jewish actors.

The infamous Nuremberg laws of 1935 enshrined Nazi racial ideology. Jewish patients would not be seen, treated or admitted to municipal hospitals and judges could not refer to any legal opinions or precedents that had been penned by Jewish lawyers or legal scholars. The pace of anti-semitic legislation only gathered steam. By 1937, laws were put in place to impoverish Jews and Jewish-owned or run businesses were sold at fire-sale prices to Aryans.

Ernst vom Rath himself commented on these laws. While the suffering these changes caused the Jews was unfortunate, he noted, they were necessary for the “Volksgemeinschaft,” or “people’s community.” This concept of the people’s community clothed racist beliefs in mystical garb: there exists a single racial soul of pure Aryan Germans that is connected to the land itself. This notion was expressed by the term “blood and soil;” in recent weeks we have heard that phrase uttered again here in America.

And that brings us to the lessons of Kristallnacht–and the challenge in discerning when to apply those gleanings today.

One of the basic tenets that the Jewish world culled from the events leading up to Kristallnacht and the Holocaust that followed it was that even the faintest whiff of anti-semitism has to be resisted and responded to immediately. It was the Nazi’s diabolical genius, after all, that slowly and methodically demonized the Jew and turned us into a subhuman Other. Therefore, whenever we or any other people suffers prejudice, our rather remarkable institutional structures jump into action to prevent momentum.

“Nip it in the bud” has become our organizational and philosophical stance. It wasn’t that long ago, during the solar eclipse, when a bad actor hung a banner over one of our highways with anti-semitic slogans. “UNJEW Humanity,” read one. Communal leadership contacted the authorities the moment they learned of a similar, earlier incident.

There’s much to be said for this zero-tolerance approach. For one thing, it seems to have been rather successful and cost-effective. An ounce of prevention, after all, is worth more than a pound of cure. If we set our smoke alarms to the highest sensitivity, we ought to be able to extinguish the smallest spark before it becomes an Eagle Creek sized conflagration of hatred.

That said, not everything bad–and certainly not everything said in bad taste–is a threat.

One danger of this approach to minimal threats is how it can lead to a suppression of free speech such as we are witnessing on some of our college campuses. It is understandable to be concerned about words that demean us or others. Yet when freedom of speech is squelched, tyranny is never far behind. As a minority people, we’ve never done well when the tyrants take control. So to prevent a greater hatred, a healthy society must permit some amount of hate speech and expose itself to ideas it believes are noxious.

There are other dangers when our judicious response slips into overreaction. It foments paranoia when there is no real danger. That encourages communities to don the mantle of victimhood, which is itself disempowering. In other words, our approach to assure our safety can cause us to feel unsafe. Timidity in turn can shrink our vision of what is possible.

Have you noticed how we can use the word security in two ways? Security can be the actions we take to physically protect us, or it can be the sense of safety we experience. 

The two are not synonymous. We can be physically safe and still feel under threat. Or we can feel quite secure when real dangers loom. Knowing the difference isn’t always easy. But it’s essential that we make an effort to discern what are genuine threats to our freedom and well-being.

The remainder of our too-human fears would better be addressed with the caring help of a therapist or spiritual counselor.


Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

  1. Describe a time when you were racked with worry about something over which you had no control and that in the end never came to pass.
  2. Think back to a time when you successfully addressed a genuine risk and thus defused it. What helped you identify the threat and defend against it?
  3. What are real issues that you need to plan for but avoid? Retirement funds? Health concerns? What is preventing you from taking action?

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