Rabbi Lau: Kristallnacht is a painful reminder of what we have in common

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Rabbi Lau: Kristallnacht is a painful reminder of what we have in common

Holocaust survivor and Former Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, writes why he is supporting the ‘Let There Be Light’ campaign to remember Kristallnacht

L-R: Danny Danon, Former Permanent Representative of Israel to the United Nations, Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I (Archbishop of Constantinople) during March of the Living
L-R: Danny Danon, Former Permanent Representative of Israel to the United Nations, Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I (Archbishop of Constantinople) during March of the Living

82 years later and Kristallnacht – ‘The Night of Broken Glass’ remains a mark of shame and infamy.

9 November 1938 marked the start of a two-day pogrom. Across Germany and Austria, Jewish homes, schools, shops and institutions were attacked. Tens of thousands of Jewish men were arrested and deported to camps, while ninety Jewish people were murdered. Amid the destruction and terror, more than 1,400 synagogues were wantonly destroyed.

The tragic sight of burning, crumbling synagogues has become the iconic image of Kristallnacht pogroms. For good reason. The very deliberate and brazen destruction of synagogues was not simply a case of wild vandalism. It was an all-out attack on identity, an attempt to crush both faith and community. For all religions, houses of worship are sacred spaces, physical and spiritual sanctuaries. Their destruction strikes at the very heart of who we are.

Kristallnacht sends a stark warning to us all. Denigrating human beings because of their religious, ethnic or national identity, is an assault on the foundation of all religions and of every decent society – The basic equality of humankind.  Kristallnacht was such an attack. It ushered in the unimaginable horror of the Holocaust.

Rabbi Lau speaking at March of the Living (Credit: Yossi Zeliger)

Tragically, the echoes of Kristallnacht can still be heard today. Globally in 2019, hundreds of worshippers were killed in houses of prayer – They include the horrific Easter Sunday attacks on churches in Sri Lanka, a deadly gun attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, while worshippers were also murdered at a synagogue in Poway, Southern California.

Now more than ever, humanity must truly learn the lessons of Kristallnacht.

We are living in extremely uncertain times. Too often, these are the conditions under which extremism thrives. Today is no exception. True to form, racists are placing the blame for society’s ills on those who are different. Centuries-old antisemitic conspiracy theories of Jews as spreaders of disease are rearing their ugly head once again. Jews are of course not the only target. Too many Asian-Americans for example have found themselves the object of abuse. Since COVID-19 changed the world we live in, a sharp rise in racist incidents has been reported globally by the World Economic Forum, human rights groups and beyond.

Sadly, if we are to learn the lessons of Kristallnacht, there is much work to be done, with ignorance of the Holocaust far too common among young people. In the United States, a poll suggested that two thirds of millennials are unable to identify what Auschwitz is. In Europe too, the situation is deeply concerning. Research shows that 69 per cent of French youngsters do not know that 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust.


However, where there is darkness, we must always find light. History is filled with examples of human kindness and compassion. Time and again, communities have come to the aid of one another in the sure knowledge that we were all made equal in God’s image. Tens of thousands of people in dozens of countries risked their lives to save Jews from perishing during the Holocaust. They included devout Christians, such as the network of churches, monasteries and convents in Florence, Italy which sheltered and hid Jews. Meanwhile, the population of majority-Muslim Albania displayed similar heroism, by simply refusing to hand over or reveal the whereabouts of the small, local Jewish community, shielding them from danger.

In more recent times, Jewish leaders have been at the forefront in confronting racism and oppression. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was famous for marching alongside Martin Luther King. He was one of many Jews who actively stood shoulder to shoulder with the civil rights movement, often endangering their own safety. During a similar period, prominent Jews such as Helen Suzman were overwhelmingly over-represented in the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa.

Kristallnacht damage in a Berlin synagogue. Credit: Abraham Pisarek via Wikimedia Commons. Source: Hitler’s War Against the Jews (1975) by Lucy Dawidowicz, p. 61.)

These examples and so many more, must be our guiding light today. We are all different and yet at the same time we are all brothers and sisters. While Kristallnacht is a warning to the world, these stories of compassion and heroism must be an inspiration.

Not for the first time, humanity faces a stark choice between light and darkness. On November 9, the anniversary of Kristallnacht, we encourage synagogues, churches, mosques, temples, all places of worship and private homes to leave on a symbolic light, as a powerful statement in support of tolerance, respect and the equality of humanity. As the clouds of extremism gather, we call on people of all faiths and of none, to stand against anti-Semitism, racism and hatred. Now is the time to shine light and hope upon the world. The future of all of us may depend on it. Let this gesture be our starting point.

  • Rabbi Israel Meir Lau is a former Chief Rabbi of Israel and is supporting the ‘Let There Be Light’ campaign to remember Kristallnacht



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