Tomorrow evening brings the 81st anniversary of Kristallnacht.
Those who bear the searing memories of Nazi terror, imprisonment and murder in Germany and Austria are now in their eighties or nineties. We wish them every strength.
For them, the date of November 9th will never mean anything other than the Night of Broken Glass. Listening to their testimony at yesterday’s service held by the Association of Jewish Refugees, seeing them stop, weep, and then continue to speak from the soul, was humbling and moving.
Yet time and history impose fresh events on familiar dates. A baby is born on the Jahrzeit of a parent, carrying into new life the name of a grandparent she never knew. A family wedding is planned for a day previously remembered as the birthday of a much-missed relative.
That has been the case with the 9th of November. This year, everyone is talking about thirty years since the dismantling of the Berlin Wall. Many of us recall the hope and fervour which that iconic break-through brought. More than any other specific event, it epitomised the end of the Cold War. East and West could hammer away stones, sing and encounter each other in freedom.
I’ve puzzled over the meaning of the juxtaposition of these two almost opposite events, seemingly brought together by mere coincidence of the calendar.
Many who lived through the rise of Nazism and the horror of Kristallnacht testified to how the absence of physical barriers added to their bewilderment:
The boys next door who used to play with me wouldn’t talk to me anymore.
‘Friends’ with whom we’d been on civil terms walked past us in the street.
I saw the man who was once my friend in Nazi uniform.
Our neighbour gave us away.
Walls are not necessarily made of stone. They can be built from the bricks of bigotry and hate and bound with the mortar of suspicion and fear. They are easily constructed; tyrants, racists, populists and liars readily find co-workers.
When ordinary people who know and like their neighbours, when courageous public figures counter prejudice and take those walls down, shadows often rebuild them in the night. Though more easily passed through than structures with watchtowers and barbed wire, the very intangibility of the barriers of prejudice and contempt make them more elusive to absolute, irrevocable deconstruction.
That is why the task of undoing bigotry remains constant and essential. We are all both empowered and required to engage in it.
It’s as easy as friendship, as simple as caring about people because we are all people. We want our children to be safe in the street, encouraged at school and have opportunities in the workplace. We want to live in a society which is cooperative, diverse, inclusive and creative. We want to care about and for each other.
But it’s also as hard as resisting the temptation in our own minds, often unscrupulously fanned from podiums, pulpits and the press, to blame, fear, label and ‘other’.
In these times of choice and uncertainty, we are all responsible for taking down the barriers of prejudice and hate.