Speakers connect the 78th anniversary of Kristallnacht to the issues of today
More than 50 students and faculty members gathered together in Feldberg Lounge on Thursday to commemorate the 78th anniversary of Kristallnacht — the “Night of Broken Glass.” Kristallnacht was a key moment before the Holocaust, when in one night 1,000 synagogues were set alight, 7,000 Jewish businesses were destroyed and more than 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and taken to concentration camps.
The director of The Center for German and European Studies, Prof. Sabine von Mering (GRALL), began the event by noting the ironic proximity of the anniversary of Kristallnacht to this year’s U.S. presidential election. She stated her belief that some of the rhetoric expressed in the recent presidential race echoed rhetoric used by the Nazi party in the 1930s and ‘40s.
The audience turned silent when Hella Hakerem, a Holocaust survivor and witness of the 1938 Kristallnacht violence, began to address the students in the room. “I came [to this gathering] because I was wondering how you interpret what happened, because I happened to live through it,” she said. “It was a long time ago, and many things happened to me, but I live through that now.”
After several deep breaths, she continued, “Before the night of broken glass, a lot of Jews, including myself and my mother, were put on a train to go to Poland, and from there to go to a concentration camp.”
But, she said, “By the time that we came to the Polish border, they decided they had enough Jews in the concentration camp, and they turned the train around and we went back to Frankfurt. It is sheer luck, those of us who survived — luck, or God was with us — whichever you believe.”
Encouraged by the sympathetic nods of students, Hella described the horrors she witnessed: “If you got too close to the soldiers or the [Nazi police], they pushed you into a large hole, and, believe it or not, they started a fire and people just burned. It was terrible … the burning of human beings, just, just horrible,” she said.
“My parents were fortunate; they died from typhoid and not in the concentration camps. And I was thankful for that, because thoughts of a concentration camp were just horrible,” she added.
The floor was then opened up for student comments. Many students shared personal family stories, some read personal journal entries or poems and multiple students expressed their concerns about the recent presidential election outcome.
Agape Niyobuhungiro ’20, a Rwandan native, spoke about the empathy he felt for the Jewish people, having many relatives who perished in the Rwandan Genocide of 1994. “I wanted to tell my story because I think it can very much be applied today,” he said. “The world knew [about the Rwandan Genocide] but no one really cared. … A million people died. [My grandmother’s] parents died, her sister died, my grandfather’s sisters died, my aunts and uncles. Countless people in our family were killed.”
“If we become really accustomed, or if we stop caring and we lose compassion and sensitivity, it becomes so much more dangerous,” he stated.
Ricky Miller ’17 then shared a personal thought that received resounding snaps of agreement from students in the circle. “The one thing that I always felt, for me, was the least productive conversation was when one person was trying to ‘one-up’ someone else’s victimhood,” he said. “When someone tries to draw parallels, you have to recognize that they’re not trying to draw equivalencies. … We must try to recognize the similarities in people’s experiences and move forward based off of that.”
Finally, Oliver Koch ’20 shared his view on Kristallnacht and the Holocaust as a German citizen born and raised in Germany. “I was very privileged to learn a lot about the Holocaust, because my generation learns a lot, and we discuss it a lot,” he said. “You’re confronted with the question, ‘What would you have done if you had lived in this time?’”
He continued with a personal anecdote: “Right in front of the entrance to the main shopping center in my town there is a gold cobblestone. You walk past it and don’t notice it — it’s just, like, there. I must have walked past it thousands of times, until at some point I was 14 or 15, and it was pointed out to me by somebody that this was a so-called ‘tripping stone.’ Tripping stones are all throughout Germany, and they are there to commemorate people who had been deported right at that spot.”
“To this day, whenever I pass by [the cobblestone], I think of it. It is just one small reminder, and I think that we need to have small things … to keep cues for ourselves, and for our peers and for our friends, to remind ourselves that there are things such as the Holocaust that … we do not want to happen again,” he concluded.
The Kristallnacht commemoration service was sponsored by the Center for German and European Studies, the Coalition Against Anti-Semitism in Europe and NETWORK: The American Union of Jewish Students.
—Editor’s note: Agape Niyobuhungiro ’20 is a Justice contributing writer.
This article has been updated to reflect the fact that Prof. Sabine von Mering (GRALL) was acting in her capacity as the director of The Center for German and European Studies. An earlier version of this article stated that Holocaust Survivor Hella Hakerem's story about the Gestapo pushing people into a hole and burning them happened during Kristallnacht. It likely happened at some other point during the Holocaust. Additionally, an earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Brandeis Hillel sponsored the event. This version also did not include the full name for NETWORK: The American Union of Jewish Students.