Rabbi Marc Schneier addresses a gathering in Brussels on Nov. 9, 2008 to mark the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht. (Detlev Schilke) BRUSSELS (JTA) – They still hear sounds of breaking glass, still smell the fire, still feel a parent’s hand protectively close over their own. And they still feel fear.
Those who remember the events of Kristallnacht 70 years ago may be ever fewer, but their memories are vivid. At memorial events over the weekend in Brussels and Berlin, the witnesses brought home the details.
Hundreds of ceremonies around the world, large and small, marked the anniversary of what was a turning point leading to the Nazi genocide of European Jewry. In Berlin and Brussels, speakers also focused on current concerns, including rising anti-Semitism and Iran’s threatening posture toward Israel.
It is not enough to merely worry, said Moshe Kantor, the head of the European Jewish Congress who was in Brussels to introduce a project to promote tolerance in Europe.
The project is to include an annual paper on best practices promoting tolerance and a “convention of tolerance” to serve as a model for legislation designed to protect Europeans from discrimination on the basis of “ethnic, cultural, linguistic, sexual or religious identity.”
A draft of the convention, with 39 articles, was distributed Monday at the E.U. Parliament. It includes a list of nine anti-Semitic acts that should be punishable by law, including acts of violence against people and the desecration of religious sites.
Speaking at Berlin’s Rykestrasse Synagogue on Sunday morning, Charlotte Knobloch, the president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, remembered picking her way through shards of glass on the sidewalks of Munich with her father 70 years ago. Knobloch, now 76, urged that Germany’s most active far-right political party today be banned.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel told the gathering that tolerance must not be neutral and passive. She said that Iran and Hezbollah calling for the destruction of Israel must not be tolerated.
In Brussels, standing on the bimah of the 130-year-old Great Synagogue of Europe, Rabbi Arthur Schneier, 78, said he could still recall the sound of “the SS and SA destroying everything in sight” in his home city of Vienna on Nov. 9, 1938.
“I saw and felt glass all over the street, and as I approached my synagogue … I saw that it was set afire—and the fire brigade was standing by, not doing anything,” said Schneier, the spiritual leader of the Park East Synagogue in New York.
“They called it spontaneous, but it was not spontaneous,” said Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, former chief rabbi of Israel. Born in Poland, Lau survived concentration camps but lost most of his family in the Holocaust.
The Nazis thought “that if they touched us at this point, the center of our lives, if they burned our Torahs, we would have no chance,” said Lau, who has been named the new chairman of the Yad Vashem Council.
Few people heeded the warning signs in 1938, but the new warnings – especially threats by Iran – must not be ignored, said Kantor, the Russian-born head of the European Jewish Congress, addressing some 500 guests at the ceremony in Brussels.
Those who fail to respond today are playing into the hands of the Hitlers of tomorrow, said Kantor, whose “week of tolerance” this week includes meetings at the European Parliament followed by a rabbinical gathering in Prague. The goal is to unite American, European and Russian leaders in forging new approaches to fighting xenophobia and anti-Semitism, he said.
The projects represent an unprecedented collaboration between the European Parliament and a Jewish nongovernmental organization, the EJC’s secretary-general, Arie Zuckerman, told JTA.
Among those attending the events in Brussels were representatives of several Arab countries, including Egypt, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Morocco, according to EJC officials.
Among those who spoke at the gathering on tolerance Monday were Aleksander Kwasniewski, the former president of Poland and chairman of the new European Council on Tolerance and Reconciliation; Hans-Gert Poettering, the president of the European Parliament; Spanish Senator Luis Maria de Puig, the president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe; and two Holocaust survivors, Lau and author Samuel Pisar of the United States.
The E.U. commission president, Manuel Durao Barroso, who was unable to attend the event, has drafted a “directive against all forms of discrimination.” Last spring, conservative and leftist members of the European Parliament clashed over whether existing legislation in member states was sufficient to protect minority groups.
The newly proposed convention, observers say, might help overcome different legal approaches in European member states.
At the Brussels remembrance, Kantor called Kristallnacht Adolf Hitler’s “first test” to see whether people would stand up for the Jews. Afterward, Hitler was “completely sure that the German people would not protect the Jews, their neighbors and friends of yesterday,” he said.
Kantor, who also heads the World Holocaust Forum, said U.N. members today fail to protest when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad makes anti-Semitic statements at the General Assembly.
He also noted that even though Iran is developing nuclear weapons, thousands of European companies continue to do $100 billion in business with the Islamic Republic.