Thanks to Guy Verhofstadt for posting about Kristallnacht yesterday. Known, too, as the Night of Broken Glass and the November Pogrom(s), it was a pogrom against Jews and civilians throughout Nazi Germany on 9–10 November 1938, carried out by the Sturmabteilung, the Nazi party’s original paramilitary wing. The German authorities looked on without intervening. The name Kristallnacht (“Crystal Night”) comes from the shards of broken glass that littered the streets after the windows of Jewish-owned stores, buildings and synagogues were smashed. The pretext for the attacks was the assassination of the German diplomat by Herschel Grynszpan, a 17-year-old German-born Polish Jew living in Paris.
Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday spoke of Germany’s shame over the events of Kristallnacht and recognised that the blight of Nazism is still with us.
It is ironic – or perhaps appropriate – that we hold Remembrance Day observations on the day after this anniversary. We remember the fallen in WWI and every conflict thereafter, but do we think deeply enough about the causes of war and what has actually happened since 1918? Concentration camps were not restricted to WWII; they were a horrific aspect of the war between Croatia and Serbia when concentration and extermination camps were run in Srebrenica, Omarsk, Jasenovak and others. We, in Britain, knew it was happening then, just as we knew it was happening in WWII and chose not to see it until many had lost their lives in the most inhuman of circumstances. Shamefully, it was the British who instigated the practice of concentration camps in which 48,000 people died during the Second Boer War, 1899-1902.
Within 2 months of Kristallnacht, the first German Jewish children arrived in Britain in what was termed Kindertransport. It was a humanitarian welcome of which the British should be justly proud – a stark contrast to the current Tory government’s edicts on refugees, some of whose ministers are even the descendants of them. By extension, the outgoing US President, so admired by our Prime Minister, separated children from their families and even had them incarcerated in cages. It is unknown how many still await reuniting with their families. While many NGOs and humanitarian groups support refugees, the political world, with the notable exception of Germany, does not seem to have moved on far enough.
When I was writing my last novel, I researched the condition of refugees in the Greek Islands and met private and professional people who gave their time and care, in addition to material generosity, to the rescue and support of displaced people who journeyed to their shores. Here in Britain, I have been in touch with Aegean Solidarity Network UK (which I first encountered in Symi through one of its founders, Andrew Davies), and Refugee Support Devon, which offers support from education to legal assistance. Through the latter, I met Alaa, a young Syrian who has become a friend, and whose real life story appears at the end of Jigsaw Island.
Through him, and the people I met in Symi and Leros, I have a better understanding of the wretchedness and fear so many refugees endure. I have also conducted drama workshops in an Immigration Return Centre. It was a dour place. One of the exercises I did was for participants, one by one, to describe a room that was very special to them – and then invite another person to share the space. It was a moving experience for us all, with happier memories and significant experiences evoked. Some of the brief conversations I was able to have with detainees described a more harrowing past. I particularly remember a young man, almost dull with acceptance at the terrifying reception awaiting him on his return to Gaza by Hamas for evading conscription to their force. Another man had been in the centre for three years waiting for legal processes to grind to a resolution. When I hear people in the UK complaining about acceptance and support of refugees, I am utterly sickened and ashamed. All I can think to say is ‘Walk a mile in another man’s shoes’.
This is a photograph I took of a refugee child awaiting processing with his family in the ‘hotspot’ on Leros. It doesn’t say it all – but it says a lot.