Days of Tolerance in Europe, November 9-16, 2008
Address by Samuel Pisar at the Special Event Promoting Tolerance Throughout the European Continent
Presidents Kantor, De Puig and Kwasniewski,
Chief Rabbi Lau,
Excellencies and Eminences,
Ladies and Gentlemen;
By granting me the immense honor to address this illustrious assembly on the soul-wrenching subject of kristallnacht, you have not invited the international lawyer or author, but the living eye witness of the shoah who, at a tender age, experienced its fury in auschwitz, maidanek, dachau and other european infernos, where eichmann’s and mengele’s gruesome reality eclipsed dante’s wildest imagination. It is in the register of that skeletal adolescent, with shaved head and sunken eyes that i will allow myself to speak tonight.
A european by birth, an american by adoption – and in other incarnations a national of poland, a captive of russia, a slave in germany – redeemed and educated in the english and french-speaking universe – my twisted destiny has made me a citizen of the world. Yet this continent – a blessed land of enlightenment and culture, a cursed land of bigotry and violence, the source of mankind’s greatest achievements and worst disasters – has always remained for me a place of impenatrable mystery and profound concern.
The pogroms of kristallnacht-the night of broken glass- unleashed by the nazis across germany and austria on november 9, 2008. That fatal event resulted in the burning of more than a thousand synagogues, the ransacking of countless jewish shops, offices and homes, the killing of close to 100 people and the internment in concentration camps of 25000 others. This was only the beginning, but a sufficiently clear one to signal that hitler was prepared not just to persecute, but to destroy the jews.
You will therefore appreciate how moving and surreal it feels 70 years later, to share the rostrum of a democratic european parliament with its distinguished german president, so many other dignitaries from the eu’s 27 member states, the president of the european jewish congress and the chief rabbi of israel.
This is a measure of how far europe’s political convalescence has progressed since the somber moment of history we are commemorating in this capitol of a free and peaceful europe. Pray that europe never relapses into its old fraticidal and suicidal ways.
We, the last survivors of the greatest catastrophe ever perpetrated by man against man, are now disappearing one by one. After us history will speak, at best, with the impersonal voice of researchers and novelists, at worst, with the malevolent voice of revisionists and falsifiers. This process has already begun. But as long as we are alive, we have an important legacy to transmit to our fellow men; an obligation to warn that in the current, newly destabilized and inflamed world, the unthinkable is again possible – a leap toward a radiant future, as much as a return to a sinister past.
If that past is not to become prologue, we must learn its lessons – first and foremost that continent-wide tolerance and reconciliation are the sine qua non of our salvation.
The world of the 1930’s into which i was born, was overwhelmed by a burgeoning financial and economic crisis, vaguely similar to the one that is currently upon us. A crisis which created the political conditions for the carnage of world war ii and the near collapse of a proud civilization.
The forces of darkness that led this assault have not only decimated a peaceful and unarmed people in their midst. They have also maimed their own people, as well as many other european nations.
I will spare you my personal horrors, except to say that they have also exterminated my entire family, and all the 500 children of my school, along with one and a half million other jewish children.
All those children who have hardly lived, those students who have never studied, those teachers who have never taught, those artists, those musicians, who have never played, those scientist who have never invented – and who would have so enriched our world, if they had been spared.
At the root of that bloodbath, there was hate, violence, and most of all fear. People everywhere were afraid for their jobs, their pensions, their security, their families. Everyone was afraid. And when fear drowned reason, folly recruited a savior, in uniform and with a mustache. This is how democracies perish.
Economic upheavals, rampant unemployment and spreading misery always call for scapegoats. And the first among the scapegoats are always the jews, soon followed by foreigners, gipsies, cripples, homosexuals, political dissidents and all kinds of other vulnerable minorities, until entire societies become morally and physically permeated by the poisons of prejudice, cruelty or indifference.
As someone who has had a thousand reasons to meditate on the causes which brought to power fascism and bolshevism, and who has had the priviledge of sitting at the feet of jean monet and john kennedy, when policies and institutions to prevent a repetition of such disasters were being planned, nothing seems to me more urgent than to alert the youth of europe – where nationalism, xenophobia and anti-semitism are again on the rise – against a return to the blindness, abdication and inertia that could destroy their universe as it once destroyed mine.
In the past, the enemies of freedom and tolerance were clearly identifiable, as were their outlandish designs. What needed to be done was to stand shoulder to shoulder and be counted. But europe’s political elite were also paralysed by fear. The appeasement of munich, the dismemberment of czechoslovakia, the annexation of austria – in the face of all that the continent remained divided and submissive. Its conventional leadership understood nothing and did nothing, as a rising murderous tide swept away millions of innocents.
Today the democracies, threatened with economic and geopolitical upheavals, are again confronted with hatred, violence and fear. Fear of enemies and fear of lies; fear of unassimilated minorities at home and fanaticized extremists abroad; fear of europe and fear for europe. Lest it’s quest for integration and fraternity is derailed once more.
Younger generations who have not experienced the torments of the 20th century may not know, to this day, what kind of a europe they want. But they must think very carefully about the europe they don’t want ever again. The europe that tore itself repeatedly apart by bloody revolutions, civil wars, religious massacres, ethnic cleansings and ruthless tyrants.
For the time being we still contemplate our future with growing apprehension and lingering hesitation, like sleepwalkers at the end of an abyss. But the irrevocable has not happened. Our chances are still intact. And so are our dreams.
Your lofty commitment to tolerance and reconciliation throughout this, now united continent, promises security for, and solidarity with, all races, creeds and colors. A similar, and even stronger wind of tolerance is sweeping the hearts and minds of a united america, and far beyond. Together, these two continents can – yes they can – help make those dreams a universal reality.