Remembering Kristallnacht

Tomorrow is the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht. That this piece is about how to remember, rather than simply remembering itself, is pretty dismal I suppose. But then, I wasn’t there and I have nothing to connect me to it. As the years go by these memories will need to be propped up by commitment, and the purpose of that commitment will be contested*.

“Why can’t we just remember Kristallnacht?”, David Hirsh asks on Engage in response to Paul Oestreicher’s Guardian piece.

Oestreicher urges us to look beyond Kristallnacht and consider its “legacy” – its contemporary victims. But on the anniversary of the opening salvoes of the genocide of a stateless people, isn’t it phenomenally inappropriate to ask as Oestreicher does “Who are the victims now?” and conclude, incorrectly, asylum seekers (of the British Government) and Palestinians, Muslims and world peace (of the Israelis)? What good can this serve?

In a week where victims and descendants of victims are commemorating their loss, to ask “Who are the victims now?” is businesslike in the extreme. Not so fast, Oestreicher, you might have got over it all wonderfully (I doubt it) but some people are still trying to come to terms with victimisation then. What he encourages in his last paragraph is the opposite of honouring the dead and dispossessed: he leads us to think of the victims as brutal aggressors of the Palestinians. Nothing can diminish this particular insult to the memory of Kristallnacht.

When we commemorate something that is within living memory or living memory of loved ones, we cannot talk past these people to our own agenda. At the 70 year memorial for those who died in the acts of terror on September 11th, will anybody be asking “Who are the victims of the U.S. victims now?” Only the most warped commemorator would insist that the relatives of the victims of Al Quaeda commemorate the victims of the war on terror.

Simply, it isn’t possible to honour the memory of Kristallnacht‘s victims on their anniversary and at the same time treat it as a springboard to asylum seekers and Palestinians. Although the catastrophes of asylum seekers and Palestinians matter a great deal, this is the anniversary of Kristallnacht.  Moreover they are neither very like the Holocaust nor are their particularities the same as those of the Holocaust. Similar to World War 1, the Holocaust was the genocide to end all genocides which didn’t end all genocides.

It isn’t that the question “Who are the victims now?” is indecent – it is Oestreicher’s own answer which is so tragically wrong and degrading. To bring up Palestinians and the world’s asylum seekers and leave it at that misses, as Hirsh points out, the thing that is particular about the Holocaust, the thing that distinguishes the Holocaust from other human acts of inhumanity. What is particular about the Holocaust is that it was a systematic attempt to obliterate a whole people. And when we remember Kristallnacht, we should remember a genocide unmasking itself and laying waste to its earliest victims.

The title of Hirsh’s piece caught me out – I made overmuch of it. What is “just remembering”? It is to commit to memory the sequence of events on the 9th-10th November 1938 and refuse all historiography? Do we need to dutifully listen to the accounts of the victims? Why would it be wrong to make meaning of Kristallnacht with reference to contemporary events?

For those who knew people who lived and died through Kristallnacht, the 9th November is a yahrtzeit which Oestreicher disregarded when he briskly boxed up his personal memories and set out his causes in their place. But I’m not sure that those of us without a connection with Kristallnacht ever do “just remember” Kristallnacht. It is organised remembering we do – we are directed to give the Holocaust consideration for a reason: to prevent another genocide; never again. For all that, organised remembering can be vivid and moving – after all, in order to vow “never again” and mean it you have to be able to put yourself in the shoes of people who are viewed as vermin and subject to attempted obliteration. So I doubt that Hirsh expects us to “just remember”, despite the title of his piece. I think he expects us to pledge against genocide.

The contention that Oestreicher’s piece was actually about Palestine is only Hirsh’s guess. Palestine is indeed one of Oestreicher’s themes and it isn’t far-fetched of Hirsh to read it into this latest piece. A 2006 piece of his – ‘Israel’s policies are feeding the cancer of anti-semitism‘ – reveals a singular tendency to victim-blame where antisemitism is concerned combined with a deep ignorance of antisemitism. We should be wary of Oestreicher on Jews, Israel and Palestinians. But I don’t think that the balance of this particular piece – two thirds account of his own family’s experience and  one-third ideosyncratic meaning-making including only two short paragraphs on the Palestinians – supports the assertion that it was actually about Palestine. Accepting this would require thinking of Ostereicher’s personal account as merely a prelude. Some personal accounts are indeed calculated to entitle their author to obnoxious opinions, but I think the proportions and the way of telling argue against Oestreicher’s being an example of this.

Oestreicher’s piece is moving. It was the first by which I remembered Kristallnacht this year. That the occasion for this remembering was the work of somebody who is also a bad story-teller about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict does not turn out to be particularly significant, so well did those vivid sorrowful paragraphs refresh the memory and significance of Kristallnacht. So when it comes to his own piece Oestreicher is wrong – just remembering is enough.

The memory of Kristallnacht is a lighthouse on rocks. Follow the links above; that’s to become informed – precisely to remember – the first defence. To honour the dead and dispossessed read  accounts of the people who witnessed it. To honour the spirit of those who say “never again” see the Wikipedia category of Genocide and the pledge against genocide.


*Read the comments to Karen Pollock’s New Statesman piece, for example.

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3 thoughts on “Remembering Kristallnacht

  1. Pingback: Busy Times « The New Centrist

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