Today, Nov. 9, is the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Seen by some historians as the moment when the Nazis’ legalized discrimination against Jews turned irreversibly toward genocide, the date has been marked by the Vancouver Jewish community for several decades.
Jews view the present and the future through a lens of the past. This has its advantages and disadvantages. Unable to see the future clearly, a keen awareness of the past can lead us to reasonably project expectations. But the memory of Kristallnacht and what came after it instils a rightful and necessary caution in interpreting current events. History tells us that vigilance is crucial and that complacency can be fatal.
Of course, no two moments in history are identical. Are we overreacting by drawing too instructive an historical parallel when we experience traumas like the mass murder at the Tree of Life synagogue on Oct. 27? We can’t be certain. It is probably wise to err on the side of caution and respond with vigilance.
The reaction from so many faith groups and other allies, including at a “solidarity Shabbat” last weekend that filled synagogue seats throughout Metro Vancouver and across North America, is not only a reassuring phenomenon. These demonstrations of intercommunal friendship are underpinned by the awareness that, while some might dismiss the events in Pittsburgh as the deranged act of a single madman, historical consciousness places the terrible act within a larger context.
History is important, too, because we live busy lives and a lot of things are slammed into our consciousness every day. Stepping back and placing contemporary events in a larger context helps us assimilate our place in society, individually and collectively. This is being demonstrated particularly well this week, as Remembrance Day (Nov. 11) approaches.
The Government of Canada’s apology for the 1939 refusal to accept the imperiled Jewish refugees aboard the MS St. Louis comes as part of a long line of apologies for historic wrongs. A cynic could look at the litany of regret and see political expediency. We prefer to look at it as a progressive, healthy way of not only addressing the past but of improving the future.
The journey of the MS St. Louis saw just 29 of the 937 passengers allowed to disembark in Cuba, the intended destination and presumed final refuge for the passengers fleeing the imminent Holocaust. The ship then sailed to the United States and on to Canada, where, in both places, xenophobic and antisemitic attitudes among the general public and the governing elites prevented the asylum-seekers from disembarking. Forced to return to Europe, 254 of the passengers would be murdered in the ensuing genocide.
At a time when many Jews are looking at the news with trepidation, the prime minister’s statement represents the voice of a country facing the antisemitism of its past and, more importantly, committing to face and combat similar sentiments today and in future.
Presaging the prime minister’s formal apology this week, Canada’s ambassador to Israel, Deborah Lyons, speaking at the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America last month (see “Interdependent communities” and “GA pitches softballs at Bibi”) spoke movingly about the importance of applying historical knowledge to the present. She quoted a 17-year-old from Hamilton, Ont., who, after completing the March of the Living, observed that, “as our hearts were breaking, our hearts were also growing.”
Said Lyons: “We need to acknowledge these difficulties, we need to acknowledge these injustices. It may break our hearts, but it will teach our hearts to love again and to grow.”