Nov. 9 marked 80 years since Kristallnacht, loosely translated as “the Night of the Broken Glass.” On this horrendous night, rampaging Nazis destroyed Jewish businesses, synagogues, homes and other properties in what was then German territory. There were many deaths and arrests of innocent people in this precursor to the Holocaust.
It would nice to believe that this was an isolated incident in another time and place, but it wasn’t. Anti-Semitism was rampant in the world and many saw Kristallnacht as just another pogrom, yet another attack on Jewish people, and went on living their lives.
Many others recognized Kristallnacht as a statement that the Nazis didn’t want Jews living in Germany (which then included Austria) and tried to leave.
The journey of the MS St. Louis illustrates the global sentiment of the time. The ship carrying more than 900 German-Jewish refugees left Hamburg on May 13, 1939, but was refused entry into Cuba, the United States and Canada.
In the end, the ship sailed back to Europe, where the passengers were admitted to Belgium, the Netherlands, France and the United Kingdom. After their new countries were overrun, many eventually died in Nazi death camps.
The refusal of the MS St. Louis was not an isolated incident in Canada. The government of Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King was clearly hostile to Jewish immigration and maintained a “none is too many” policy.
Though immigration policies loosened after the Second World War, it wasn’t until Nov. 7, 2018, that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau finally apologized on behalf of the Canadian government for its racist actions.
And this was only days after anti-Semitism reared its ugly head yet again. On Oct. 27, the deadliest attack on an American Jewish community took place in Pittsburgh at the Tree of Life Synagogue. Eleven people attending religious services were killed by a middle-aged white American gunman.
In the United States, anti-Semitic attacks have been on the rise in recent years, as have attacks on immigrants, minorities and other religious groups. This has unfortunately been a trend in other parts of the world as well.
At times like these, it’s easy to lose hope.
Fortunately, vast numbers of people are standing strong for universal respect, and Trudeau is not the only world leader who reminds us, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Addressing the Bundestag (German parliament) on the anniversary of Kristallnacht, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier stated, “We need to take action any time another person’s dignity is violated. … We cannot allow a situation where some people claim once again to be the sole voice of the ‘true people’ and marginalize others.”
A few days later, with world leaders gathered to commemorate 100 years since the end of the First World War, French President Emmanuel Macron stated, “Patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism. Nationalism is a betrayal of it. By saying our interests first, who cares about the others, we erase what a nation holds dearest, what gives it life, what makes it great and what is essential: its moral values.”
Perhaps the greatest honour we can give to those who suffer under racism and other crimes against humanity is to stand together, listen to their voices and learn from our mistakes. The truth they speak can be threatened but history always brings it to the surface as the moral universe bends toward justice.
Indeed, if we have learned anything in the last century it’s that there’s infinitely more that unites us than divides us. We share a common bond of human dignity. Those who’ve been our greatest moral leaders recognize our oneness and call upon all of us to do what we know is right.
Gerry Chidiac is an award-winning high school teacher specializing in languages, genocide studies and work with at-risk students.