It’s seventy-eight years since the Night of Broken Glass, when Goebbels unleashed upon the Jews of Germany the full of violence of Nazi hate. Though he described the subsequent horrors as the unpremeditated and spontaneous expression of the Kochende Volkseele, the boiling public mood, the smashing, burning and killing were co-ordinated across Germany and beyond. Nor was the timing incidental. It’s widely thought that the failure that summer of the rest of the world to increase their quotas for refugees from Nazism gave Goebbels a moral victory, enabling him to claim that nobody else wanted the Jews either, and gave Hitler the green light to act against them as he pleased.
I was in Frankfurt yesterday, where the Jewish Museum hosts an annual evening of study on the day before Kristallnacht. The subject was the rabbis of Frankfurt who fled the Nazis, and their legacy, focusing on my grandfather and his close colleagues. I re-visited his testimony of those terrible years. I read how he preached of his pride in the appellation ‘Israel’ after the Nazis forced all Jews to add it to their name. I stood where the great Boerneplatz Synagogue was burnt to a ruin. My grandfather was outside, summoned by the Gestapo. My father’s uncle’s family were inside; they lived in a flat adjacent to the lady’s gallery. He was arrested and taken to Buchenwald. His pregnant wife and their four children were hastily taken away by relatives, haunted by the sight of the blackened cupola, now visible through the burnt-out doors, of the great house of prayer. The baby died at birth.
Outside, many thousands of memorial tiles line the walls of the ancient Jewish cemetery.
I was shown pictures of the 1930’s, a Sabena aeroplane like that on which my family escaped, the airfield at Croydon where they landed – the very part of London where refugee children have now been arriving.
I sat at length with the director of the Jewish Museum discussing Frankfurt’s Jewish legacy: Ludwig Boerne, ‘the father of modern journalism’, born in the Judengasse, exiled, like Heinrich Heine, to Paris; and Samson Raphael Hirsch the great neo-orthodox rabbi who taught that ‘love your neighbour’ means seeking the same rights and opportunities for every citizen as you want for yourself, irrespective of religion or race. He taught, too, that the moment you abrogate in any way the rights of the stranger, or make the rights we owe each other conditional on any other attributes than the very fact of being human, created in the image of God, you re-open the gates to ‘all the horror of the slavery in Egypt’.
On the train home I passed through the Ardennes, the landscape of Hitler’s bitter last offensive, mercifully thwarted by Allied courage. The route went not far east of the terrible graveyards of the First World War, which we remember this Sunday on Armistice Day.
I followed responses to the US elections on twitter. And, not by any means solely for that reason, I feel afraid. I fear for my children; I fear for the earth. The world, it seems, is reverting to tribalism; maybe fear itself is part of the cause. I don’t know where or why this began, or if it is always thus. My next writing deadline is about the anniversary of the attack on the Bataclan theatre in Paris.
That is why it is essential to say ‘No’ to racism; ‘No’ to anti-Semitism; ‘No’ to the hatred of Muslims, ‘No’ to the denigration of women.; ‘No’ to xenophobia. That is why we must assert the centrality of the commandments, the very core of faith and humanity, to ‘do justly’, to ‘love compassion’, and never denigrate the image of God in anybody, or act with wanton destruction towards this beautiful world, God’s world, the world of which we must continue to say, conducting ourselves accordingly, ‘And God sees that it is good’.