Monday, November 10, 2008

Remembering a Monstrous Evil

Yesterday was the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night that Hitler launched a massive attack against Jews throughout the German Reich. We, about 100 of us from the Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation and neighboring St. Thomas a Becket Catholic Church, met in the Jewish sanctuary last night to try to help make sure that Kristallnacht is not forgotten.

“Kristallnacht,” the Night of Broken Glass, is a feeble term for the unbelievable horrors that occurred all through the night of November 9, 1938, and the following day. In a massive outburst of Nazi-provoked violence and terror in Germany and Austria, Jews found themselves attacked by many of their own neighbors, their homes wrecked, their synagogues destroyed, while police stood by. It was the beginning of the Holocaust.

Two panelists--Nicole Rubloff, a member of the Hebrew congregation, and Father John Langan, S.J.. Georgetown University professor of philosophy and Catholic social thought--reviewed Kristallnacht and its causes and effects..

What they did not satisfactorily answer—at least not for me—is how this “monstrous evil” (Father Langan’s term) could have happened in Germany, one of the most advanced societies in the world. The panelists tried their best, of course, and so did some audience members, but they were really trying to explain the unexplainable.

For me, the discussion left unshaken my long held fear that what happened in Germany could happen anywhere, though not necessarily in the same form against the same victims. No country should feel so great, so smug, to think that it is completely safe from the possibility of a massive outburst of virulent hate.

That fear is based partly on what I know of myself. Had I been a German living in Germany at the time, would I have joined in the Kristallnacht horrors? I feel fairly certain I wouldn’t have. Would I have publicly expressed outrage? I feel less certain about that.

Would I have been among the millions who saluted and cheered Hitler at Nazi rallies? I hope not. More important, would I have dared to help organize people to oppose the Nazis and their madness? No, I’m afraid not.

It could be that I am too harsh on myself in my introspections, and that I am overgeneralizing. I hope so.

The event last night was the 26th annual “Interfaith Dialogue” sponsored by my parish and our neighboring Hebrew Congregation. Last night’s crowd of 100 was one of the largest of the five or six that I lave attended. As usual, almost every one there was above 40, most of us well above 40.

For information about Kristallnach, see the website of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

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