Originally published in the San Antonio Express-News, November 7, 2004
by Susan Ives
By 1938 the Nazis had been in power for five years and were steadily working on their vile vision of a Germany that was Judenfrei, free of Jews.
On Oct. 28, 1938, the Gestapo rounded up 17,000 of the 50,000 Polish Jews in Germany, shoved them into boxcars and dumped them on the Polish side of the border. The Poles refused them entry, and the Jews were trapped in a no-man’s land between the two countries. Without food, water, clothing and shelter, many died in the bitter Polish winter.
On Nov. 7, 1938, a Jewish teenager, distraught at the plight of his deported parents, shot Ernst vom Rath, the third secretary in the German Embassy in Paris. When vom Rath died two days later, German propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels called for retaliation. The German people responded. They were looking for an excuse, and now they had one.
On the night of Nov. 9, Germans stormed through Jewish neighborhoods while police turned a blind eye. The Gestapo order read, “Actions against Jews, especially against their synagogues, will take place throughout the Reich shortly. They are not to be interfered with.”
All over Germany, Austria and other Nazi-controlled areas, Jewish shops had their windows smashed and wares destroyed. Hundreds of synagogues were systematically burned.
A few days later, SS leader Reinhard Heydrich reported that 7,500 businesses had been destroyed, 267 synagogues burned (with 177 destroyed) and 91 Jews killed. Immediately afterward, 26,000 Jews, mostly able-bodied men, were deported to concentration camps. The Holocaust had begun.
The night of Nov. 9 is remembered as Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass. All over the world Jews remember. And the world says, “Never again.”
In Germany they are more likely to call the night by the more prosaic Pogromnacht. Kristall is just too pretty a word, too festive and sparkling. Pogrom is a Russian word meaning “to wreak havoc,” denoting an organized, often government-sanctioned, attack on a minority group, usually Jews.
But not always Jews. I have on my desk a booklet called “1984: Sikhs’ Kristallnacht.” The 20th anniversary of the atrocity is this week. The name for the booklet was chosen well. The circumstances are an eerie echo of the Jew’s Kristallnacht.
The 15 million Sikhs in India have longed for their own homeland. In 1982 they started a campaign of nonviolent resistance: protests, boycotts, roadblocks. Between 1982 and 1884, 300,000 were arrested and jailed. Thousands were tortured, according to Amnesty International. Hundreds died in custody.
In May 1984, Sikh leaders blocked grain shipments from the Panjab, the breadbasket of India. The Indian government retaliated with Operation Blue Star, another pretty name for a brutal atrocity.
“The whole of Panjab,” reported the Christian Science Monitor, “was turned into a concentration camp.” Prime Minister Indira Gandhi sent 150,000 troops into the region, explaining she needed to flush militants out of the Golden Temple at Amristar, the Sikh’s national shrine. In a week of carnage, more than a thousand Sikh civilians were killed.
On Oct. 31, 1984, Gandhi was assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards. The Indian people responded. They were looking for an excuse, and now they had one.
Goaded and financed by the government, Indian mobs attacked Sikhs. “Sikhs were beaten, stabbed, doused in kerosene and burnt alive by mobs, tens of thousands of Sikh homes and businesses were burnt,” according to a report by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties.
The government reported that 2,733 Sikhs were killed. Affidavits collected from families in Delhi alone, however, count 5,015 dead. Sikhs suspect the number may be as high as 10,000.
Those who participated in the pogrom and the government officials who provoked them have never been punished. Just this May, three such officials were given ministerial positions in the Indian government.
I’m sure I read about the massacre 20 years ago. But I don’t remember it. Not one charred body, not one crushed skull. We say we will never forget, but we do. And so it happens again and again and again.
Rawanda. Kosovo. Darfur. Will these be forgotten, too? George Santayana said, “Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.”
In this bleak November, as our Jewish and Sikh neighbors gather to remember their pogroms, their holocausts, their genocides, their tragedies, we must remember with them. Suffer with them. And repeat with them, “Never again!”