Shattering past — and present — intolerance

For Germany, Nov. 9 carries momentous meaning, both negative and positive.

In 1938, it was the date of Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, so called because of the many shattered windows of Jewish homes, businesses and synagogues. Some Jews were killed, many were imprisoned in Dachau and Buchenwald. The Jewish community was forced to pay compensation for the damage to its own buildings.

This government-ordered pogrom marked the beginning of open, large-scale persecution of Germany’s Jews by the Nazis. For 6 million Jews, this day was the beginning of the end.

The terrible series of events set off on that date taught the world that intolerance and hatred must be confronted early. Today, as the passage of time dims memories and fewer survivors are with us to give personal testimony, it is vital to educate young people about how the mass murder of a people was allowed to happen, and about the individual victims, who must never be forgotten.

Fast forward 51 years to Nov. 9, 1989. Most Germans can tell you what they were doing that day at the moment they heard the news that the Berlin Wall had fallen. The Wall had not just been a physical barrier between West and East Berlin, but also the symbolic boundary between democracy and communism during the Cold War.

Erected in 1961 by the communist East German regime, the Wall divided Berlin for 28 years. It cut right through the heart of the city, separating families and friends. Minefields and border police with shoot-to-kill orders thwarted attempts by East Germans to find a better future in the West. As the communists tightened their grip on people’s lives east of the Wall, the western part of the city remained an outpost of freedom and democracy.

The lesson of Nov. 9, 1989, is that it is possible to bring down a dictatorship without bloodshed. Today, Berlin is once again Germany’s vibrant capital, embedded in a unified Europe and determined to strive, with its neighbors, for peace, justice and international understanding.

A quarter-century after the fall of the Wall, its vestiges remind us that freedom is precious. We celebrate this 25th anniversary with deep gratitude and a yearning to express the vision of hope, unity and freedom.

Yet today — 76 years after Kristallnacht — the past remains with us. In several European countries, including Germany, there have been shocking expressions of anti-Semitism, physical assaults on Jews and defiance of police efforts to restore order. The statistics are alarming: 21 percent of European Jews experienced at least one anti-Semitic “verbal insult or harassment and/or a physical attack,” according to a European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights survey released a year ago. This anti-Semitism comes from a variety of sources — xenophobia, populism, neo-Nazism, Islamist extremism and anti-Zionism. Europe’s Jews are fearful of the future.

Fortunately, Germany is heeding the lessons of Nov. 9 and the Holocaust, as its government and civil society combat intolerance, group hatred and Holocaust denial. After the spectacle of large crowds marching in the streets of Berlin and other major cities chanting anti-Semitic slogans during the summer, Chancellor Angela Merkel denounced the Jew-hatred at a recent Berlin rally against anti-Semitism. “Anyone who hits someone wearing a skullcap is hitting us all. Anyone who damages a Jewish gravestone is disgracing our culture. Anyone who attacks a synagogue is attacking the foundations of our free society,” Merkel declared, with the message that there is no place for anti-Semitism in Germany.

Germany’s leadership on this issue is essential if Europe is to address this reassertion of anti-Semitism. After all, if Europe cannot protect its Jews, it cannot protect its core values of equality and freedom.

This Nov. 9, the two of us, a German and a Jew, unite in remembrance of the victims and in our resolve of “never again.” We accept the responsibility of preserving the memory of the past and building a more humane future.

Seventy years after the end of World War II and 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, we are glad to see Germany regarded as a moral leader. With such leadership comes responsibility for past, present and future — a future of dialogue instead of confrontation, cooperation instead of intransigence, and the responsible use of power and of freedom.

Brian d. Siegal is director of the American Jewish Committee’s Greater Miami and Broward Regional Office, and Juergen T. Borsch is the German consul general in Miami.