November 9th: Infamous Past, Disturbing Present

When I checked my departmental mailbox this week there was a postcard from the UMN administration that couldn’t be more timely: it showed two students wearing maroon and gold, hugging — one blonde and Caucasian and the other black and Somali — and a very simple phrase: “You are here. We like that.”

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One might wonder why such an obvious message would be at all necessary at a major American public University. The political reality that has unfolded in this country over the last months — reaching its culmination on Tuesday — has sadly shown that this reminder is more necessary than ever. Basic democratic norms, pluralism and willingness to coexist peacefully with people of different religions, languages and origins, has proven not to be a given for millions of Americans.

This chilling eye-opener comes on a fateful date. The night of November 9th marks the 78th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s state-sponsored riots known as Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass), a turning point in Hitler’s anti-Jewish policy. Before I read about Kristallnacht in books I had heard about that infamous night from my father, who remembers to this day how the police came to his home in Pirmasens, a small town in the Palatinate region, and arrested his father. By fortune, and unlike so many other Jewish families, they were able to leave Germany in time.

The Kristallnacht commemoration teaches that democratic institutions and values are not automatically sustained and that a modern society can become numbed to the fate of its minorities. This day reminds us what occurs when a community based on mutual acceptance has been destroyed. This day urges us to be mindful that the path that leads from verbal incitement to discriminatory policy and murderous action can be very short.

The Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies November/December newsletter is devoted to this historical event and features a number of educational resources (bibliographies, testimonies, artwork, newspaper articles). In this newsletter we ask our readers to teach the lessons of the past to wind back the divisive rhetoric that has been unleashed.

 Alejandro Baer is the Stephen C. Feinstein Chair and Director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies.

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