Kristallnacht, Stolen Art and the Presence of Memory

Huffington Post
Deidre Berger
November 22, 2013

 

Seventy-five years after the German government organized two days of gruesome pogroms against the country’s Jewish population, a seemingly overnight descent into depravity continues to suspend credibility. In the heart of the country that brought forth Goethe and Beethoven, thousands of Jews were snatched from the streets and from their homes, arrested, beaten and murdered. Synagogues were set ablaze – not just by Nazis but by ordinary citizens. Jewish citizens were hunted and publicly humiliated, with thousands sent to concentration camps. Buildings and businesses under Jewish ownership were attacked, smashed and plundered.

What was the consequence of this two-day orgy of hatred?The Nazi government sent the bill for property damages to the Jewish community.

The largely unchallenged events of Kristallnacht unleashed forces of hatred that resulted in grimly successful plans to exterminate European Jewry and decimate other ethnic and national groups, including the Sinti and Roma population.

From today’s perspective, the question is understanding the lessons for today. The large number of commemorative events throughout Germany, as well as ample reporting in national media, is testimony to the ongoing confrontation with the Nazi past.Nonetheless, there is a perceptible change in atmosphere. Disappointingly, there was no central ceremony organized by the German government or the German parliament to mark 75 years of the terrifying November Nazi pogroms.

The question is whether this should be understood as an oversight or as a sign of creeping commemoration fatigue to confront an uncomfortable history. The one government agency dedicated to an examination of the Holocaust and Nazi crimes, the Foundation Remembrance Responsibility Future, marked the Kristallnacht events by sponsoring a two-day international conference on anti-Semitism, co-organized by the Berlin Jewish Museum and the Berlin Technical University’s renowned Center for Research on Anti-Semitism.As such, the conference was a welcome event to examine contemporary problems of anti-Semitism, underscored by the release of an EU poll noting that one-third of European Jews are considering leaving their countries due to anti-Semitism.

Nonetheless, this conference transported a highly ambivalent message by featuring a philosophical keynote speech on definitions of anti-Semitism by Dr. Brian Klug, a British scholar and co-founder of “Jews for Justice in Palestine” known for contesting theories that Israel criticism can cross boundaries of anti-Semitism. True to form, Mr. Klug defended the right to criticize Israel without being labeled anti-Semitic.

Thrusting the debate about Israel criticism as a form of anti-Semitism into discussion on the anniversary of Kristallnacht deflected attention from issues more pertinent to the anniversary, including ways in which Germany came to grips with the Holocaust after WWII, the permutations of present-day anti-Semitism and the quality of engagement in Germany today to counter anti-Semitism. Furthermore, given that this was in all probability the last major anniversary where a number of survivors remain to recall the horrifying events of the two days of November pogroms in 1938, the absence of survivors on the podium was a lost opportunity to help a younger generation grasp first-hand the momentous events of Kristallnacht.

Indeed, the relevance of Germany’s ongoing confrontation with the past was poignantly expressed in the revelation several days prior to the conference of the discovery of a cache of stolen Nazi art. There could be no better illustration of the degree to which the legacy of the past maintains its grip on German society. Just days before the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the German magazine Focus revealed a spectacular discovery by Munich law enforcement officials of more than 1400 works of art seized or confiscated by the Nazis from their rightful owners, many of them Jewish. Survivors with long abandoned hopes of finding their recovery were speechless to learn that the cache was kept secret for nearly two years and only became public due to investigation by the media. Even more disconcerting were explanations by law enforcement officials that as Nazi law still stands regarding stolen art, there is little that can be done to restitute the property.

Such outrageous justifications of Nazi injustice 75 years after Kristallnacht underscore the need to reexamine legislation to ensure full restitution and compensation to survivors and their heirs of the crimes of the Nazi.After suggestions by AJC and other Jewish and non-Jewish organizations that a special task force was necessary to address issues of art stolen by the Nazis, an expert working group was instituted by the German government.The dimensions of such largely unaddressed chapters of the Nazi era demonstrates the importance of refocusing attention in German schools on the Holocaust and the many areas in which younger generations can and should address the unfinished business of confronting Nazi injustice.At a time of an increasingly diverse German school population, with growing numbers of pupils who have no link to German history, curriculum addressing the Holocaust needs to be reviewed and rewritten.A new focus on Jewish life and culture as part of German history is important, as is a better understanding of modern Israel and the importance of Germany’s alliance with Israel.

There is no question that the Federal Republic of Germany has taken major steps to address the crimes of the Nazi government, including compensation and restitution. Nonetheless, much remains to be done. Aging Holocaust survivors, many of whom live in poverty, often do not receive adequate resources to live out their last years with sufficient medical help and assistance. Due to the lack of implementation of existing legislation, survivors who were imprisoned in ghettos continue to be shut out of pension payments.

The German government needs to fund the current half-hearted attempts by museums to research the provenance of works in their collections and restitute art stolen by the Nazis to its rightful owners. Allied occupation authorities deemed the large-scale thievery to be a crime against humanity, nonetheless, much of the stolen art remains hanging in German museums or is stored in warehouses under wrongful possession.

Many stories of the survivors remain to be told but time is running out.Just days ago, on November 8, Saul Kagan, Founding Director of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, passed away. Mr. Kagan, himself a survivor, dedicated his life to obtaining compensation from the German government for Holocaust survivors. Stuart Eizenstadt, a former deputy secretary of state under President Bill Clinton, said Mr. Kagan for 50 years was “the heart, mind and soul of the search for justice for survivors of the Holocaust.” With his death, yet another witness and advocate for survivors has passed away.

The loss of such a personality makes even more immediate a resolution passed in June 2013 by the German parliament on fighting anti-Semitism calling for a wide-scale expansion of programs bringing together Holocaust survivors and young volunteers. Funds for such a program must be allotted immediately before this final living link is a lost opportunity. In fact, none of the many programs proposed in the resolution have to date been implemented, nor is it certain they will be included in the coalition agreement currently being forged, raising questions about the gravity of government efforts to fight anti-Semitism.

There are countless other stories to be told, about perpetrators, bystanders and resisters. While there are stumbling stones throughout Germany in the memory of the victims, why is no one stumbling on the names of the perpetrators? One answer can be found in a book written by German sociologist Harald Welzer, “Grandfather was Not a Nazi,” demonstrating metamorphoses of WWII narratives within families that resulted in the absolution of beloved family members from guilt.

Indeed, there were tremendous moral complexities to life in an authoritarian system. Nonetheless, the unspeakable crimes committed by large numbers of Germans with the aid of willing helpers in German-occupied territory must be the point of departure for examining the context. The stories of the perpetrators and their helpers are understandably difficult to tell but of critical importance in understanding the ease with which the veneer of civilization can crack.

Of great importance as well are the stories about the lack of recognition in post-war Germany of those who refused complicity with the Nazis. Why is the name of Fritz Kolbe, the German diplomat whose moral integrity and abhorrence of the Nazis led him to become the U.S.’s most important source of information on Nazi Germany, unknown today in Germany? The single biography to date written about Fritz Kolbe is only available second-hand while an emerging genre of voyeuristic literature and film profiles from and about the struggles of children and grandchildren of prominent Nazis to come to terms with their past receive a high level of media attention.

As the survivor generation passes away, the historical sites that bear silent witness to the enormity of the crimes require increased attention. In a united Germany, where many lived under communist rule, memorial sites face dilemmas of an adequate presentation of two totalitarian systems, while maintaining the uniqueness of the Holocaust.Pressure to draw comparisons between National Socialism and communism can be seen in growing controversy about the institution at an EU level of a national day of commemoration for the Hitler-Stalin Pact, which supporters view as a day of commemoration for victims of both the Nazis and of communist leaders.

The enormous number of concentration camp sites makes them costly to maintain as memorials. The German government has made a major contribution to a foundation dedicated to the maintenance of the memorial site of Auschwitz. Other major sites, however, have outdated exhibitions and crumbling infrastructures. The issue of the largely untended graves of Holocaust victims murdered by SS killing squads in towns and villages throughout Eastern Europe looms large. The German government is funding a pilot project in the western Ukraine, coordinated by the American Jewish Committee, to launch a process of protecting Holocaust mass grave sites and creating historical and educational material to recapture the memory of those lives cruelly extinguished.

As this brief enumeration of Holocaust-related projects demonstrates, the task of understanding the Holocaust grows instead of diminishing. There can in fact never be a finished account regarding the Holocaust as each generation defines anew the meaning of the horrific rule of the Nazi regime. There are streets, army barracks, and public institutions to be renamed as the complicity of ordinary citizens in the Nazi regime comes into ever clearer focus. There are lost degrees to be granted to those who were thrown out of school and robbed of the opportunity as young people to obtain an education.

While 75 years is a long passage of time, the events of Kristallnacht remain as relevant as ever, admonishing us to hold precious democracy, the best guarantor we have to protect civil rights, human rights and the dignity of man. As a Berlin survivor once said to me, “As I watched the flames engulfing our synagogue, I thought that those flames would burn higher and eventually engulf Germany.”

The astonishing fact that decades after the Holocaust, a considerable portion of Jews in Europe – also in Germany - fear ongoing anti-Semitism, while right-wing parties are flourishing, gives pause for reflection. Much remains for each of us to do to combat anti-Semitism, racism and xenophobia in order to secure the post-war democratic order for which the European Union was rightfully honored with the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize. Jews and non-Jews must work together to promulgate the core values and constitutional protections of rights that make possible freedom and democracy.

The vivid remembrances evoked by the anniversary of Kristallnacht remind us above all that there can be no expiration of memory. The still long list of unfinished business confronting the crimes of the Nazi era gives ample opportunity for current generations to take active part in redressing outstanding injustices. We can learn from the example of the city of Goslar, whose city council just recently, in October 2013, rescinded its honorary citizenship bestowed on Adolf Hitler. It is never too late for justice to be served.

Deidre Berger is Director, AJC Berlin Ramer Institute for German-Jewish Relations

Date: 12/13/2013 12:00:00 AM

Media Inquiries

212-891-6771 / bandlerk@ajc.org