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Kristallnacht: Broken Glass Memories

Nov 8, 2018 by

Tomorrow is the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht when synagogues throughout  Germany were torched by order of the legally elected Nazi regime.  Many Jews were humiliated and killed.   There was little empathy in Germany or indeed around the world.  In fact it was hardly considered news “fit to print.”   My parents sat it out in Berlin on that night.  Until their deaths, they assumed that the world had learned a lesson and would never again sit by as atrocities were committed against Jews or anyone else.   Times have changed.  Loathing of Jews and violence against them has made that group the most vulnerable for hate crimes among all religious groups by far. In Europe it is dangerous to be readily identifiable as Jewish for the first time since 1945.   Tomorrow, the 9th, what will be taught about Kristallnacht in our schools?  Indeed, the  singular and unique Holocaust has become somewhat passe’ as  a topic of conversation or unit of history instruction. Or it’s been generalized and sanitized with ambiguity.   There should be global awareness not only of the mass exterminations, mostly of Jews, during World War II, but also of subsequent “ethnic cleansing” atrocities from Cambodia to Bosnia, and their timeless and universal implications for all humanity, including the minority faiths being driven out of some Middle Eastern nations and Africa.

Nobel Prize-winning author Elie Wiesel vividly chronicled the anguish of Hungarian Jews transported to death factories. The logistics of this gruesome “resettlement” were masterminded by Adolf Eichmann, who after the war found safe haven in Argentina, from where he was later abducted by Israeli agents to receive a scrupulously fair trial in the Jewish state that honored similar democratic principles to those followed at the Nuremberg Trials around 15 years earlier.

Eichmann was the only prisoner in the nation’s history to be executed. Most countries of the world and their media agreed with the punishment, except for some which called Eichmann a “martyr”, according to Attorney General Gideon Hausner, in office during the Eichmann trial.

Wiesel’s book”Night” is often taught to “gifted” high school students. “Gifted” is a quality that cannot be defined or measured and is as arbitrary as is the former DOE classifications of “grade level.” Knowing that, I picked “Night” to study with my seventh grade students. They fathomed the unfathomable. None of its dimensions escaped them.

This was years ago. Today, my career could be at risk if any parents, students or administrators took exception for any reason to the book or the discomforting facts that might stir their biases.

Brilliantly loaded questions were posed by my culturally diverse classes. They wanted to know how  Adolf Eichmann and Josef Mengele,  ( the “Angel of Death”) two mass killers linked to mass torture and sadism on a scale unpreceded in history, were able to escape capture, sometimes with identities intact, left alone, or actually protected by certain governments.

It is essential that the questions be asked but potential career suicidal to answer them because the truth may implicate some people who want it suppressed for one reason or another. The bitter truth is that some of the most notorious mass slaughterers of all time were spirited out of Europe after the war, sometimes with the knowing assistance of priests, and given citizenship and sometimes received with royal hospitality by sovereign nations.. Documents were secured and emigration arranged on their behalf.

Upon arrival they were granted new passports and identities. Some of these nations were, at the time, led by fascist-sympathizing dictators like Juan Peron. Adolf Eichmann’s assistant, Alois Brunner, was lionized in Syria as recently as around 20 years ago.

Should a teacher share unpalatable history with students even if they may be traumatized by it?  What is the student draws an intended inference that their descendants may have been guilty in some way and they feel they must bear burden because of their cultural extraction? 

Suppose a student or his parents interprets an allusion to the Vatican-secured passports or the South American nations who offered Nazi’s citizenship as an attack on his Catholic faith or Brazilian German or Argentinian lineage?

Of course a teacher must be extremely wary not to attack the Catholic Church or any nation, or to alienate any child. Not only would that be unconscionable from a psychological standpoint, but from a historical one as well.

What if, though, assuming that all the details of  complicity were presented with consummate tact, the teacher is targeted for disciplinary action by an administrator, ignorant of history or out to hurt the teacher over past unrelated conflicts, or to mollify an irate parents or student, emptily but passionately alleging bias?

That kind of thing could easily happen in the current climate.

The Office of Special Investigation (OSI) would launch an exhaustive and protracted inquiry. The teacher could lose their license or be fined thousands of dollars. Even if exonerated, the teacher might lose his regular assignment and be forced into becoming an substitute teacher indefinitely.

Should teachers play it safe and avoid controversy even when the lesson is  faithful to the truths of history?  Or should they be the voice of the voiceless victims of mankind’s inhumanity echoing through the ages? One of the chief Nazi war criminals who was hanged at Nuremberg after the trials in 1946 predicted that Kristallnacht would be forgotten within a few decades. Not in New York City schools?  Prove it!   Will Kristallnacht make the cut on November 9th?

Ron Isaac

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