(photo credit: AP)
Kristallnacht, the paroxysm of violence that subsumed Germany on the night of November 9-10, 1938, is considered by many to have been the first sign of the unfolding Holocaust. It is true that it occurred well before the Nazi policy of mass systematic murder of Jews - the "Final Solution" - coalesced, but, in retrospect, this expression of mass violence contained many of the seeds that would blossom into the Holocaust.
Nearly seven decades since that fateful night, and over six decades since the end of the Second World War, the events of Kristallnacht and the Holocaust can be seen to be resonating farther and deeper than ever before.
Peoples and agencies that only a few years ago shied away from confronting the Holocaust and its terrible repercussions have opened their hearts and their minds to it in an unprecedented way. There is a paradox in that the more removed we become from the period of the Holocaust, the more interest it seems to generate. Along with omnipresent shallow usage of the Holocaust, recently there appears to be a growing tendency to delve into the underlying issues raised by the Shoah, and move beyond the superficial. A number of examples illustrate this, cutting across borders and cultures, and including places that were only indirectly touched by the events of the Holocaust.
Because of the role many Frenchmen played in collaborating with the Nazi regime and even initiating steps against Jews living in France, France has often been reluctant to address its past during the Holocaust years. Significant early efforts to confront that past, such as trials of war criminals, chief among them those of Klaus Barbie and Maurice Papon, did much to raise consciousness about French complicity during the Holocaust even if they did not always yield pure justice. Hundreds of books and articles about the Holocaust in France have been published in the last decade, frequently pulling no punches when discussing French society's responsibility.
In many ways the granting of the Legion of Honor to Yad Vashem's chairman, Avner Shalev, two weeks ago, personally by President Nicolas Sarkozy, constitutes an important milestone in this ongoing process in France.
THE UN is often regarded as a bastion of Israel-bashing tainted with anti-Semitism. But the adoption by that agency more than two years ago of January 27 as Holocaust Remembrance Day is an important sign that things appear to be changing. The resolution to commemorate the Holocaust has led to the creation of a special program within the UN system promoting Holocaust commemoration and education. Through UN auspices, a permanent exhibit about the Holocaust will soon open to the public at UN headquarters in New York City.
UN field representatives are busy learning about the Holocaust in order to facilitate commemoration on January 27 in many countries throughout the world. Some of those information officers have just completed a week-long course at the International School for Holocaust Education at Yad Vashem. Others will take courses at other venues.
The bestowing of the highly-esteemed Prince of Asturias Award for Concord to Yad Vashem in Spain last week is also indicative of how people in countries that were not directly touched by the Holocaust now feel that confronting it has real significance for them as well. When Holocaust survivors and Yad Vashem personnel from the official delegation met local Spaniards, they encountered people who expressed great warmth and empathy. In Oviedo, the venue for the ceremony, and several other communities, overtures have already begun toward establishing sites of Holocaust remembrance. Repercussions from the ceremony have been felt throughout the Spanish-speaking world - a world that was geographically removed from the events of the Holocaust.
In Madrid, just a few weeks before the award was given, for the first time a group of Spanish scholars met with scholars from Yad Vashem's International Institute for Holocaust Research to discuss history. History, commemoration and education - these are the pillars upon which our discourse about the Holocaust rests.
OF COURSE all this is happening at a time when anti-Semitism is still alive and kicking, when Holocaust denial remains a significant problem, and when neo-Nazism has even reached the Land of Israel itself. It is happening at a time when the head of a sovereign nation has threatened the existence of the Jewish state and is building weapons that may allow him to carry out that threat. Like so many things in our world, our dialogue on the Holocaust is bound up with many contradictions.
Yet there appears to be a universality to the Holocaust that strikes a chord in people from diverse places. The ideology of hate that lay at the heart of the Holocaust, the unbridled brutality that was part and parcel of the murder process, the bureaucratic apparatus that treated people as non-entities, the apathy of much of the world to the unfolding catastrophe, the occasional acts of extraordinary kindness and courage - all are integral to modern human experience.
That the Holocaust is so well documented, that it has such a high profile in the arts and literature, and that it is ultimately the story of individuals, families and communities, have undoubtedly contributed to making it a touchstone for understanding our world.
The writer is director of the Yad Vashem Libraries, author of Approaching the Holocaust, Texts and Contexts, and co-editor of The Holocaust - Frequently Asked Questions.