U.S. Representative Andy Levin reflects on the lessons we can learn from Kristallnacht and how we can apply them to today’s anti-Semitic incidents.
By Rep. Andy Levin
The night of Nov. 9, 1938, marked the beginning of one of the most horrific anti-Jewish attacks in history. Over two days, mobs across Germany and parts of Austria and Czechoslovakia destroyed synagogues, Jewish-owned businesses, homes, schools and cemeteries. Under instructions from the Gestapo, local authorities did nothing to stop the violence and destruction.
When the pogrom was over, nearly 100 Jews had been murdered and 30,000 Jewish men had been sent to concentration camps. Shards of glass from Jewish-owned storefronts littered the streets of Berlin, Vienna and other cities across the three countries, giving the attacks the name we now remember them by: Kristallnacht, or “the night of broken glass.”
Kurt Messerschmidt, a Holocaust survivor, recalled encountering a crowd of people in the aftermath of Kristallnacht watching an older man who had been ordered by Nazi soldiers to clean up the broken glass outside his store. Messerschmidt, who helped the man, would later say, “I’m sure that some of the people standing there disapproved of what the Nazis did, but their disapproval was only silence, and silence is what did the harm.”
Eighty-one years after Kristallnacht, we would do well to remember Messerschmidt’s poignant words. Silence in the face of anti-Semitism — or any form of bigotry — can still do great harm. And there is much hatred in our world about which we must not be silent.
Last year, the Anti-Defamation League recorded “near-historic levels” of anti-Semitic incidents. There were 1,879 attacks on American Jews and Jewish institutions, and the number of anti-Semitic assaults doubled. We also saw the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in United States history: the mass shooting at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue.
This year has brought more heartbreak and terror. In April, a shooter at the Chabad of Poway in California killed congregant Lori Gilbert-Kaye and injured others celebrating the final day of Passover. Last month, anti-Semitic posters were plastered to the doors of Grand Rapids’ Temple Emanuel.
Incidents like this aren’t just happening close to home. On Yom Kippur, a gunman in Halle, Germany, attempted to storm a synagogue, ultimately killing two. This followed a May warning from Germany’s anti-Semitism commissioner to avoid wearing kippahs in public after an alarming spike in anti-Semitic attacks.
And all of this happens under the specter of an American president who poses a clear and present threat to the Jewish people. It would be horrifying enough had President Donald Trump only referred to neo-Nazis as “very fine people” as he did in the wake of the 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., that killed Heather Heyer and injured dozens more. But he has constantly invoked centuries-old anti-Semitic tropes before Charlottesville and since.
He told a Jewish audience, “You’re not going to support me because I don’t want your money … You want to control your politicians, that’s fine.” He referred to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as “your prime minister” while speaking to a group of Jewish Americans. He claimed American Jews who support Democrats demonstrate “either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty.” This list doesn’t even touch on the numerous Jewish Americans he has repeatedly vilified and blamed for our country’s ills.
Why must we sound the alarm over remarks like these? Why are they dangerous? Again, it is instructive to recall Kristallnacht. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum puts it best: “Kristallnacht was a turning point in the history of the Third Reich, marking the shift from anti-Semitic rhetoric and legislation to the violent, aggressive anti-Jewish measures that would culminate with the Holocaust.”
We cannot afford to wait. The anti-Semitism of this administration should be of unique concern to the Jewish community because it aims to pit us against other communities and each other — to divide us when it’s most critical that we stand together against white supremacy.
We must loudly and consistently call out anti-Semitism in all its forms — whether it comes from our adversaries or our friends, and whether it is promulgated intentionally or unknowingly. We have a responsibility to honor the memories of the victims of Kristallnacht and other atrocities by speaking out, even when it’s not easy. And we must strive to do so in a way that truly fosters understanding.
As a member of Congress, I have worked to encourage these conversations which, while sometimes uncomfortable, ultimately bond us to one another in friendship. On this solemn anniversary, let us recommit ourselves to these responsibilities so that, together, we might build a safer, more compassionate world.
Andy Levin is the U.S. representative for Michigan’s 9th Congressional District.