July 18, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

November 9 is a day that we commemorate every year: the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass. We remember the pogrom against the Jews of Germany and Austria carried out by the Nazi paramilitary forces. Jewish homes, hospitals and schools were ransacked and destroyed; homes and shuls and the like that had stood for generations were broken into, smashed and even set on fire. The pretext for the attacks was the assassination of the German diplomat Ernst vom Rath by Herschel Grynszpan, a German-born Polish Jew living in Paris, but today it is understood that this was a previously conceived plan just waiting to be carried out.

This was the night that represented the beginning of the Final Solution and the start of the Holocaust as we now know it—a night that led to the deaths and torture of millions of Jews. While there were people who did step up to the occasion to rescue those suffering in the Holocaust, most of the world fell silent and did little to prevent the atrocities that ensued.

This year, some of my friends and I were asked to each speak with a different minyan in our school about Kristallnacht after davening. The teacher who gave us this task also gave us a surprising challenge: when we wrote the speech, could we find a way to connect it to modern-day human rights violations and tragedies? At first, we were dubious about doing so: how could we respectfully connect Kristallnacht to, for example, the migrant crisis in Europe? Wouldn’t that mean downplaying what Kristallnacht is and applying a historical event to today in a far-fetched manner?

But after talking with the teacher and amongst ourselves, we realized that some of the themes and details of Kristallnacht, as terrible as they may be, are still evident today in recent and current events. (The following is adapted from what we discovered and presented to our fellow students.)

For example, just think of the infamous attack on the Charlie Hebdo Magazine headquarters that happened earlier this year in Paris. There was a supposed “cause” for that horrific event, the satirical picture of Mohammed that some found offensive, just like there was a supposed “cause” for Kristallnacht, the murder of the diplomat. Yet, it’s obvious that the atrocities were pre-planned—neither “cause,” offensive or harmful as they may have been, were worth an explosion of violence against any group of people. But that the perpetrators waited for the “right timing,” so that they could have a way to justify what they did.

(Worth noting: Later that week there was an attack on a kosher supermarket in France. The two attacks, happening so soon one after the other, seem to have been related—despite the fact that the Charlie Hebdo “cause” should have been no reason to attack a Jewish-owned supermarket.)

Even more recently, as I’ve written about before, Israel has been facing an onslaught of terrorist attacks, with stabbings happening almost daily and with Israelis trying to live normal lives even while besieged by terror. This was all caused by a false rumor that Israel is going to take back the Temple Mount. Despite Israel’s repeated claims that it doesn’t want to change the status quo of the Temple Mount, this rumor was still spread and is being used by the terrorists and inciters as an excuse. See the common ground here again between the events of 1938 and of 2015?

You may have heard about the migrant crisis that began this summer—it seems to intermittently pop in and out of the news, but it is certainly and sadly still going on. There are thousands of refugees from Syria and other countries who are trying to escape to Europe—people without homes or basic necessities. Many countries who might be able to help and to take people in are closing their borders and not doing anything. These migrants are people who faced oppression in their homelands, same as the Jews in Germany and Austria back in 1938, and whom hope to get to a better life. Yet, like the Jews of Germany and Austria, they are being denied that opportunity.

I don’t mean to say that Kristallnacht should only be viewed through the events of today. Doing so takes away from what actually happened, disrespecting its victims’ memories and minimizing the impact it had when it occurred. But nor do I think it should be thought of as a purely historical event. Using the events of today allows us to understand better what happened then and to see how there is still work to be done today.

We need to remember Kristallnacht, mourn what was lost on that night, and understand what it meant for European Jewry at the time. We should not minimize the suffering that happened that night or forget how it began the slippery slope towards the Holocaust. But we also need to learn from Kristallnacht that we cannot stand idly by when we see tragedies and chaos happening. We must act; we must take action to stop tragedy and suffering in the world today by raising awareness and by doing whatever we can, even if that’s only a small bit.

As the saying goes, “Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.”

Special thanks to Adie Present, Aliza Oppenheim, Daniel Cahn, Gabriel Klapholz, and DeeDee Benel (faculty advisor) of the Ramaz Human Rights Club.

Oren Oppenheim, 18, is a senior at Ramaz Upper School in Manhattan and lives in Fair Lawn, NJ. He spends his free time writing and reading, and hopes to become a published novelist and a journalist. You can email him at [email protected] and see his photography at facebook.com/orenphotography.

By Oren Oppenheim

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