Eighty-five years ago this week, German and Austrian Jews woke up to widespread destruction. This night of hatred was a culmination of years of increasing antisemitism and the erosion of Jewish people’s rights and freedoms. By 9 November 1938, Hitler had been in power for five years. The Nuremberg Laws had been in place for three years. Jews did not know what was to come, but they knew that they were on their own.
So when a young Jewish man whose parents had been deported from Germany to the Polish border shot diplomat Ernst vom Rath in Paris, his death two days later on 9 November opened the floodgates to the onslaught that followed.
For Jewish people who witnessed the November Pogrom, also known as Kristallnacht, the memories would never fade. Memories of childhood friends turning on them. Memories of watching everything they knew burn to the ground. Memories of fear and intimidation.
At this point there was no masterplan for the so-called “Final Solution” to the “Jewish Question”. Fear and intimidation were the aim. And it could only happen because of hatred. Hatred based on centuries of antisemitism, years of Nazi rule and vicious propaganda. Anti-Jewish hatred that had adapted and morphed to the modern day.
And while Kristallnacht was the first nationwide, coordinated expression of that hatred in Nazi Europe, we know that this is not where it ended. That hatred continued to burn.
The violence of Kristallnacht was just a pinprick in a tapestry of destruction, beatings, starvation, and murder.
And when eventually the remnants of European Jewry were liberated from concentration camps and hiding places, you could be forgiven for believing that the flame of antisemitic hatred had burnt out.
Sadly, 85 years on, we know this is not true. We cannot help but take pause at the imagery of recent weeks — yet again burnt synagogues, Stars of David daubed on Jewish homes in European capitals, desecration of Jewish cemeteries and verbal and physical attacks on Jews. The stabbing of a Jewish woman in France simply for who she was, a swastika daubed on her door. And the unspeakable brutal massacre of 1,400 Israelis by Hamas.
Eighty-five years ago, the Jews of Europe faced this intimidation and fear without hope. Following Kristallnacht, many tried to escape but found no country willing to offer refuge. They were forced to stay within Nazi-controlled Europe, a death sentence for most.
A key difference is that we now have a Jewish state. A country that will always be there to offer refuge and support to world Jewry.
And this weekend, as British Jews mark Armistice Day and Remembrance Day, we will remember those who fought and died in the effort to defeat Nazism. We will remember those who have fallen to keep this country and its citizens safe.
We do this because we can. We know we have allies in our government and in the opposition. We have allies in friends and colleagues.
We will continue to show how proud we are to be Jewish and British and to be strong and resilient, but we will also continue to explain why there is a feeling of anxiety and fragility right now.
This week, as we remember the past, we cannot help but reflect on the present. And we hope that the world keeps its promise of never again.
Karen Pollock CBE is the chief executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust