On becoming the enemy

Jason Stanley writing in the Boston review:

On July 24, 1939, a few months before my father turned seven, he boarded a plane at Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport. After arriving in Southampton, England, he and his mother, Ilse Stanley, joined many others on the New York City–bound SS Deutschland. As I write this I look at a picture of him sitting at dinner with his mother on that ship. He is smiling but also shrinking into his chair. He had been in hiding since November 8, 1938, Kristallnacht, when he witnessed the burning of the synagogue where his grandfather, Magnus Davidsohn, had been the chief cantor for twenty-seven years.

Davidson had been close with the parents of Ernst vom Rath, the German diplomat who was assassinated in Paris by a Jewish man furious about the treatment of the Jewish people in Germany. On the evening of Kristallnacht, my great-grandfather and his wife visited with their friends, who assured them that they did not blame the Jews for their son’s murder.

Despite the good intentions of my great-grandparents’ friends, though, what Joseph Goebbels called the “righteous indignation” of the German people led to an orgy of violence directed at the synagogues of Germany. After that point, Jews were no longer safe on the streets of Berlin. The Nazis used the pretext of vom Rath’s death to permanently exclude the Jewish people from the German people. From then on, “us” did not include us. After Kristallnacht, we had been removed permanently from public view, thereby masking our fate from our fellow Germans.

Kristallnacht is often represented as a radical break with what came before. In fact it was not. Since 1936 many thousands of Jewish citizens of Germany had been taken to secret prisons, such as Sachsenhausen, under the pretext of treason against the German people. As my grandmother, Ilse, recounts in her 1957 memoir The Unforgotten, few even in the Jewish community realized what was really occurring. The open anti-Semitic provocations became ever more intense during these periods, with the clear intention of goading some German citizen of Jewish faith to act out in despair and violence. Vom Rath’s murder became that excuse for violent reprisal, an incident that would be used to permanently remove Germans of Jewish faith from public spaces and ultimately to exile or death.

Read the rest of the piece here.

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