Rivlin: The virus of antisemitism is tougher than coronavirus

President Reuven Rivlin hosts event marking 82 years since Kristallnacht.

Hezki Baruch ,

Participants at event in President's Residence
Participants at event in President's Residence
Kobi Gideon/GPO

President Reuven Rivlin on Monday held an event at the President’s Residence marking 82 years since Kristallnacht. This year, like in previous years, the President’s Synagogue was illuminated to mark the pogrom. President Frank-Walter Steinmeier of Germany and President Alexander Van der Bellen of Austria, outgoing Chair of Yad Vashem Avner Shalev and Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau also delivered remarks at the event.

As part of the event, the President’s Residence hosted the installation “Towers in the Air” by artist Shuli Bornstein Wolf. The work immortalizes the personal story of the artist’s mother, along with the collective Jewish story. Bornstein Wolf creates totem poles from shards of glass and crystal from lightshades, plates, vases and other glass objects that she connects to create shapes reminiscent of Judaica items. Her ‘candlesticks’ channel the fragility of the glass from which they are made but also carry the power of beauty, healing and rebirth.

On the night of 9-10 November 1938, the earth trembled in Germany and Austria. In a matter of hours, dozens of Jews were killed. Hundreds of others were beaten and humiliated. Jewish-owned shops and businesses were looted and destroyed. Synagogues were torched, burned to the ground. There is scarcely a remnant of the synagogues of Germany and Austria since then. In the shadow of these outrages, 30,000 Jewish men were sent to the concentration camps at Buchenwald, Dachau and Sachsenhausen. That black night was the opening shot in the Nazi’s cruel plan. Kristallnacht was the term coined by the Nazis who wanted to minimize the event as a night when some shop windows were smashed.

Testimony from Kristallnacht was screened during the event, with Uri Ben Ari, who experienced Kristallnacht in Germany saying, “We came to the synagogue where I had my Bar Mitzvah, and stood there on two paving stones in front of the synagogue and saw its dome collapse into the building. The synagogue burned and the Nazis brought out the Torah scrolls and burned them in a pile and my father and I stood there on the pavement and we watched it and when it was over, we left.”

“We remember its victims and remind ourselves how extremist hate propaganda, when it reaches the heights of divisiveness, can shatter the very foundations of society – of humanity and human rights – into a thousand fragments. To sow destruction, catastrophe, to allow the descent into the darkest recesses, beyond any imagination,” said the president in his remarks.

“Nearly a year ago, last January, we stood here together in Jerusalem. Dozens of monarchs, leaders, heads of states, and we promised to remember. To remember and to take responsibility. Responsibility to act, and not to stand by in the face of antisemitism and racism, in the face of radical forces that sow chaos and destruction, hatred and fear. In the months since then, the whole world has been dealing with the deadly coronavirus. Even dealing with the new virus, which demands solidarity and collaboration, has not managed to obliterate the old plague, the plague of antisemitism. The virus of antisemitism, racism and xenophobia is tougher than coronavirus. It changes shape, takes cover and threatens to break out through any crack. But there can and there must be a vaccine for it, too. Education, explanation, learning and taking responsibility. Like scientists in laboratories and research institutes, we the leaders of the world, bear the responsibility for working in our social laboratories to mount a determined and uncompromising attack on any expressions of antisemitism, racism and xenophobia,” he added.

“We bear the duty to remember. To remember and to ensure – never again. It is in our hands. This is our watch,” he said in conclusion.

President Frank-Walter Steinmeier of Germany said, “The November Pogroms did not mark the beginning of the persecutions of German Jews. They were a nauseating outburst of violence following on from many years of discrimination, harassment and hostility. They foreshadowed the unspeakable crimes of the Shoah committed by my compatriots a few years later. And they offer a stark warning for our times. I am grateful that Jewish life is again flourishing in Germany. But I am ashamed that Jews do not feel safe wearing a kippah on the streets. I am ashamed that Jewish places of worship need protection. I am ashamed that only a heavy wooden door prevented a deadly attack on the synagogue in Halle on Yom Kippur last year.”

“This evening. I want to renew the pledge I gave to you at Yad Vashem: We are fighting antisemitism! We are protecting Jewish life! We are standing with Israel! I am humbled by the strong ties of friendship our countries have forged over the years. And I am proud to call President Rivlin a friend. Thank you, dear Ruvi, for your trust and for your invitation to join tonight’s ceremony.”

“The miracle of our shared German-Israeli friendship will continue to flourish if we stand together as we remember the lessons of the past. Remembrance carries the seeds of hope for a better future. Yes: we can find hope, even when we remember the dark nights and days of November 1938.”

President Alexander Van der Bellen of Austria said, “The Pogrom in the night of November 9th, 1938, was the first cruel climax of the growing anti-Jewish violence of National Socialism. The racist ideology of the Nazis reached a new, terrifying intensity. And it rendered clear, in the most surreal and heartbreaking way, the degree to which Jewish Austrians, our fellow citizens, had been robbed of their most basic civil rights and freedoms. In Vienna alone, 42 synagogues were burnt down or destroyed. Thousands of shops and flats were looted. Over 6500 Jewish Austrians were incarcerated, 4000 of them sent to Dachau concentration camp. Austrians are remembering these crimes today in remorse and shame. We, who were born after the Shoah, confess: Austria shares responsibility for the Shoah. Many Austrians, too many, were among the perpetrators. Acknowledging our responsibility means, above all, to decidedly and courageously prevent any form of racism, discrimination and antisemitism – wherever we encounter it. This is a matter of great personal importance to me. It is our duty, our wish and intention to not only protect Jewish communities, but to ensure that Jewish life can thrive again – be it in Europe, Israel, or elsewhere.”

Avner Shalev, Chairman of the Yad Vashem Board, said, “The Kristallnacht pogrom showed the calumny of the Nazi regime’s organized policy at the end of 1938. It was a policy which aimed to persecute, corner, humiliate and strip the assets of all Jews in the Third Reich. The violent antisemitic hatred that was incited and fanned on the 9th -11th November 1938 across Germany and Austria quashed any illusions that they could ‘get along’ with the Nazis. We remember the victims and intensify our commitment to strengthen the Jewish identity, culture and belief of those who the Nazis intended to destroy.”

Rabbi Israel Meir Lau thanked the president for marking out this important day, and stressed that its significance is that on Kristallnacht the Germans understood that “the heart of the Jewish people is the synagogue. If you want to deal a blow to the morale of the Jewish people, to degrade it more than by harming its communal leadership, you must attack its synagogues, which identify it with its national spirit.”

Accompanied by “Our Town is Burning” played on the violin, pictures of the illuminated President’s Synagogue were screened, ending the event.