I’m writing on Thursday evening 9th November, shortly before dark on the night which 79 years ago became Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass. In her outstanding book Between Dignity and Despair, Jewish Life in Nazi Germany, Marion Kaplan documents unsparingly the anguish which followed. Thus, Lisa Brauer was forced to sell her home for a pittance:
It was so terribly difficult to destroy… what one had created with so much love. My children had played and laughed here and romped in the grass with the dogs…
Others suffered worse… as we well know.
What is less familiar is Kaplan’s frequent reference to what so many (though not all) non-Jewish Germans increasingly did not, or chose not, to see. Jews became invisible to former friends; children were ignored by their playmates, as if they had never existed. This was of course better than the attention of the Gestapo and their many supporters. But it hurt.
The issue of what people fail to see, of how oblivious they are capable of being to the realities which define the lives of those next door, disturbs Kaplan deeply.
It should disturb us too, and not solely because of the past. I am profoundly troubled by what we manage not to know about those around us today and what we choose not to see.
Many of the reasons are as ordinary as everyday life itself.
We don’t see because we’re too preoccupied with our own lives. If we turned to look too often at the challenging realities facing so many others, who knows if we would complete one single day’s worth of our plans for ourselves and our families.
We don’t see because we simply lack the relevant experience to have the insight.
We don’t see because we’re afraid to look. I often think of George Elliot’s remarkable observation that ‘if we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence’. Were all the anguish within a single square mile from our home suddenly to become audible, we would scarcely be able to bear the onslaught.
These matters are facts of daily life. The truth is that, while it is wrong to be persistently indifferent, we cannot possibly respond to everything which hurts those around us. We have to filter out most suffering if we are to respond in a meaningful way to any of it. That’s the best, often a very good best, which all but the most exceptional individuals can manage. And we need the resources of music, joy, friendship, and beauty to enable us to achieve that much.
What worries me more deeply, terrifies me at times, is the wilful incitement not to care. It’s what hatemongers do with such success.
It generally becomes evident first in the abuse of language. It is through words that we begin to ‘other’ the other, diminishing their dignity, marginalising and then deriding their right to our concern. Contempt for refugees, attacks on ‘foreigners’, resurgent white supremacism in the USA, anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim rhetoric and literature, – these are all key phases in process by which we become blind to the lives, and, in the worst case, eventually deaths, of those around us.
Spreading contempt for others is often the beginning of a profound crime, not only against those whose dignity and rights we thus deny, but also against ourselves. It’s betrayal of our own humanity too.
I’m writing these words partly because I love life and aspire to care about people, yet am increasingly aware of my ignorance of the realities of what so many not far from me, refugees, people who stop you in the street to ask for 20p towards a sandwich, face.
I’m writing them, too, because fear and hatred are on the rise in our world and on this inauspicious date history provides us with a severe and searching warning.