Australian Human Rights Commission

11/08/2018 | Press release | Distributed by Public on 11/08/2018 03:50

Echoes of breaking glass: reflections on Kristallnacht

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We know the basic facts of Kristallnacht. On the 9th and 10th of November 1938, mobs attacked Jews in Germany and neighbouring states. They did so freely; without restraint. Many Jews were killed, many more were injured, and many more than that were arrested and sent to concentration camps. Jewish businesses were destroyed; schools and cemeteries vandalised.

Over 1000 synagogues - places of worship, like this one - were destroyed. Stained glass filled the streets. In town after town, Torah scrolls were desecrated.

Ruth Rack came to Sydney with her husband in 1950, and is still an active member of our community. In 1938, she was a girl aged ten. In her memoir, she recounted being with her family on the 9th of November, trying to make their way to the Polish Consulate.

She said:

'I do not know how long the journey from our home to the consulate lasted, but what we saw on the way [was] a nightmare… There were wild crowds of jeering people everywhere, among them the woman who ran the local corner grocery store, the one who sold me lollies by the single piece. I liked her ... I had thought we were friends and I was deeply wounded to see the unreasonable hostility in her face and to hear her yelling at us with the rest of the hostile crowd of Germans. There was a venerable old man in a dark suit and coat being dragged by the beard and beaten by the Nazis in black boots ... Shops owned by Jews were smashed in and looted. Windows were empty; glass was everywhere. There were violent crowds growing thicker and there was the smell of smoke. Suddenly, there it was-the synagogue, the centre of our life, where my father was a cantor, in flames.'

It's hard to imagine what goes through a child's mind when she sees the broken glass, the Torah burning, or when she hears pounding at the door.

The importance of remembering

From a place of calm and safety, it can be difficult to imagine our human rights being violated. I'm conscious, however, that I'm talking about events that some here experienced directly. For many of you, it was your relatives.

But all of us are connected to people such as Ruth through our collective humanity, and our commitment that such persecution never be experienced again. On dates like this, it's vital that we tell and re-tell this history.

Some describe Kristallnacht as the beginning of the Shoah. Certainly, on Kristallnacht the gloves came off. However, we should not forget what had already happened.

In 1933, for example, kosher butchering was banned. Laws were passed giving the government power to remove Jews from the civil service. In 1936, Jews were banned from participating in parliamentary elections. By that time, 'Jews not welcome' signs had become common in shops and other public places. From July 1938, all Jewish people had to carry identification cards.

These administrative injustices; minor and major discrimination; the political rhetoric; the targeted policies… With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that, by Kristallnacht, the seeds of the Shoah had already been scattered.

A lesson from the violence of that night is that persecution can take many forms, and we should try to recognise injustice wherever it occurs today. That is, to be vigilant.

When we look at contemporary human rights abuses in the shadow of the Holocaust, we need to be extremely careful. The Holocaust is unique - in scale, scope and effect. To pretend otherwise - to suggest equivalence between human rights abuses that are not the same - is wrong-headed and offensive to the survivors, and those who perished.

But, equally, we cannot confine this history to a glass case and never look at it again.

The nations of the world agreed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. The Universal Declaration responded - consciously and directly - to the recent horrors. Its preamble acknowledges the 'disregard and contempt for human rights' that had 'resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind'.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights offered a very different vision of humanity: one that recognises 'the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family' as the 'foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world'.

Needless to say, we have not always succeeded in living up to this ideal. But the Universal Declaration demands that we respect and protect the inherent dignity of everyone else.

So, what does that mean today?

Anti-Semitism still exists. The recent massacre in a Pittsburgh synagogue tragically shows what unchecked hatred can breed. And so we should be alive to a dangerous rekindling of anti-Semitism in the US, UK, France, Hungary, Poland and elsewhere.

And anti-Semitism has never gone away in Australia either. The Executive Council of Australian Jewry reported a 9.5 per cent increase in anti-Semitic incidents in 2017.

This research is important. It is part of what being vigilant means today.

But if we are really to honour the memory of Kristallnacht we cannot stop there. For me, the great 'rememberer' of the Shoah was Elie Wiesel. Somehow, Wiesel endured the horrors of Auschwitz at age 15, and later survived Buchenwald.

In awarding him the Nobel Peace Prize, Wiesel was described as a 'messenger to mankind'.

His book, Night, presents a vivid picture of the all-consuming fire that spread after Kristallnacht - and which reached its apotheosis in the concentration camps.

Wiesel described his first day in Auschwitz:

'Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky. Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes. Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God himself. Never.'

In accepting the Nobel Prize in 1986, Elie Wiesel spoke personally about why being Jewish meant caring about the rights of all humanity.

He said:

'Since I am a Jew profoundly rooted in my people's memory and tradition, my first response is to Jewish fears, Jewish needs, Jewish crises... But there are others as important to me. Apartheid is, in my view, as abhorrent as antisemitism... As long as one dissident is in prison, our freedom will not be true. As long as one child is hungry, our lives will be filled with anguish and shame... [T]he quality of our freedom depends on theirs.'

Wiesel emphasised humanity's interconnectedness. This suggests that not only Jews who should care about anti-Semitism. Everyone should.

More broadly, we should actively protect the human rights of those around us - regardless of whether we share the same ethnicity, religion, gender or worldview.

In other words, Wiesel challenges us to care for all members of our community - not because everyone experiences the same threats to their basic rights, but because we all deserve to have our dignity respected.

So, what are the sorts of threats we see in the Australia of 2018?

  • Four years ago, an Islamophobia Register was established where Muslim Australians could report incidents of violence and abuse based on their Islamic identity. In its first 15 months, 243 incidents were logged, ranging from physical attacks to graffiti and intimidation. A Muslim woman who had been verbally assaulted and pelted with eggs said: 'I'm shocked, saddened, angry and just heartbroken right now.'
  • A 2016 report found that six in ten LGBTI Australians experience verbal homophobic abuse in the workplace, and almost half hide their sexual identity at work.
  • On average, a woman is murdered each week in Australia by a current or former partner.

The quality of our freedom depends on theirs.

I'd like to point to one more place we should be looking.

My job as Human Rights Commissioner includes leading the Commission's work on refugee and asylum seeker issues. In recent months, we have heard increasingly alarming reports about the declining health and wellbeing of the refugees and asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island-particularly the children.

For instance, the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, reported on the case of a pre-teenage girl on Nauru who had been pulling chunks of hair from her head before dousing herself in petrol and attempting to set herself alight. The Federal Court heard the case of a ten-year-old boy who was hospitalised after attempting suicide using paracetamol and antibiotics. While in hospital, he tried again to kill himself, this time by strangling himself with a curtain. This boy had been living on Nauru with his parents since 2013-half of his life.

Under international human rights law, Australia and Nauru share joint responsibility for protecting the human rights of children and adults subject to third country processing.

On several occasions this year, the Federal Court has ordered the Australian Government to bring critically unwell children, including that boy, from Nauru to Australia for medical treatment. UNHCR, UNICEF and Australia's peak medical bodies have called for urgent action.

In September this year, we at the Australian Human Rights Commission called on the Australian Government urgently to transfer any seriously unwell asylum seeker children, and their families, from Nauru to Australia.

Since then, more than half of the children on Nauru have been brought to Australia with their families. This is an improvement, but the evidence is clear that the health and wellbeing of the remaining young asylum seekers cannot be ensured on Nauru. We should bring them and their families to Australia without further delay. Our compassion should be our strength.

Conclusion

As I said before, Kristallnacht and the Shoah cannot be compared with anything that has happened before or since. But in remembering those events, we can reject other forms of cruelty wherever they persist. Our humanity means noticing the persecuted racial or religious minority; the bullied gay teenager; the woman trapped in a violent relationship; the person with disability shut out from an offer of employment.

In other words, to be vigilant.

As Elie Wiesel said: 'Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion or political views, that place must-at that moment-become the centre of the universe.'

I thank the Jewish Board of Deputies and the Great Synagogue for inviting me to mark 80 years since Kristallnacht. And I thank each of you for honouring, with me, those who were swept up in that defining and terrible moment in human history.