November 9, 1989. A gloriously sunny day.
A truly unbelievable rumor circulates the streets of West Berlin: the East German government will allow its citizens the freedom to leave East Berlin for the first time in 28 years.
"I'll believe it when I see it," many skeptics utter under their breath.
Ermfried Prochnow, a West Berlin taxi driver, is one such skeptic. However, as he passes a corner near the wall that has separated East from West traffic begins to slow. Is it possible?
Five minutes later Prochnow turns onto a street jammed with confirming evidence: hundreds of revelers approaching the wall.
"A traffic jam!" the cabby proclaims with joy. "A perfect, beautiful traffic jam!"1
The rumor was true. The Berlin Wall -- stretching more than 103 miles, standing some 10 feet high and supplemented by watchtowers, alarms, mines, trenches, dogs and guards with machine guns -- was about to come tumbling down.
"East Berliners ...forced their way into the no man's land that had been closed to the public for decades. West Berliners clambered over the 10-foot wall and dropped into the arms of those below. East German border police watched, first with detached amusement, and then with undisguised glee. A dozen Western TV crews besieged a group of East German policemen. ‘Are you happy?' shouted a reporter. A young guard broke into an enormous grin then turned his back to hide it. Nearby, a young man beat on the wall with a hammer and handed out fragments to the crowd. ‘The wall is gone!' the people chanted deliriously. ‘The wall is gone.'"2
A great throng of humanity streamed across the once immovable border like an unstoppable force.
Throughout the entire day and into the night a great throng of humanity streamed across the once immovable border like an unstoppable force. As midnight approached, young West Germans stood atop the wall, raising bottle after bottle of champagne to shake and spray on the thousands who had gathered to watch and to welcome.
"Remember the ninth of November," shouted a middle-aged man over the roar of the jubilant crowds.3
The ninth of November. Truly a day history was made.
However, 51 years earlier, on November 9, history was also made -- a history that Germany would rather forget.
The Other November 9
Fueled by years of the most grotesque Jew-hatred, emboldened by the weakness of the policy of Appeasement (which saw the Western Powers give Hitler Austria and then half a year later Czechoslovakia, just weeks earlier), frenzied mobs burned more than 250 synagogues across Germany and Austria, many of which had existed for centuries on the night of November 9, 1938.
Dozens of people were killed, more than 7,000 Jewish businesses were ransacked and 30,000 Jews were arrested for no reason and sent to concentration camps (1,000 would die due to mistreatment within a couple of months.). So many stores owned by Jews had their glass fronts shattered that it took Belgium's total plate glass production (Germany did not produce glass at the time) about six months to replace all the windows that were broken. As a result the night became known to posterity as Kristallnacht, the "Night of Broken Glass," took place.
The barbarity of Kristallnacht occurred on a scale so grand that even a world hitherto relatively silent about Nazi treatment of Jews had to take notice. Papers in every Western country reported and even put it on their front pages. The United States withdrew its Ambassador to Berlin days afterward, President Roosevelt stating that he, "could scarcely believe that such things could occur in a twentieth century civilization."
Because the free world did so little in practical terms to respond to it, Kristallnacht only emboldened the Nazis.
Despite public sympathy for the plight of the Jews, the West did virtually nothing practical to help beleaguered Jews. Indeed, with a few exceptions they did not even loosen their immigration policies, which had effectively kept Jews trapped in Nazi lands. The doors to safety remained barred and condemned an entire generation.
Because of its brazenness, and because the free world did so little in practical terms to respond to it, Kristallnacht only emboldened the Nazis. Rightfully, then, many historians mark it as the beginning of the Holocaust.
Anatomy of a Wall
By rights, November 9, 1989 -- the day the Berlin Wall was breached and fell for good -- should have become a National German Holiday. However, Germans celebrate October 3 as the "official date" for this momentous event. Ostensibly, the reason is because it took almost a year of political maneuvering -- until October 3, 1990 -- for East and West Germany to sign agreements officially reuniting them into a single, democratic Germany.
Wouldn't the actual day the Wall was demolished -- November 9 -- be as good as or an even better day to memorialize the event?
After all, the Berlin Wall, more than anything else, had become a symbol of everything rotten that happened to Germany after the war, including the separation of families and friends, brutal oppression by the Soviet secret police and the intensification of the Cold War.
When, on June 12, 1987, President Ronald Reagan delivered his famous speech that helped speed the downfall of the Soviet Union it was his reference to the Wall that became the rallying cry for both East and West: "General Secretary Gorbachev," President Reagan intoned, "if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: ...tear down this Wall!"
The Berlin Wall was an unprecedented symbol of everything the Germans, and the free world, were now repudiating. Why could it not at least have been memorialized along with the October 3 date that united the two Germanys?
However, the stain of national guilt is not easily washed away. Celebrating freedom, peace and unification on a day also marking oppression, murder and genocide does not easily settle in the collective gut of a nation.
Of course, modern Germany today maintains a fiercely anti-Nazi stance, and publicly expresses shame for the reprehensible behavior of an earlier generation of Germans toward Jews. In this topsy-turvy world Germany is a valued and outspoken leader against anti-Semitism; a hedge against the likes of nations who would wipe Jews off the face of the map if they had the chance, God forbid. This is a change of events we should not belittle or take for granted.
The Hidden Hand
Judaism teaches that events large and small are guided by a hidden Hand. They don't just happen randomly; there are no coincidences. If two otherwise seemingly unconnected historical events take place on a common date it should give one pause and evoke questions about a possible deeper meaning.
Kristallnacht and the breaching of the Berlin Wall are at first glance strange historical bedfellows. And who but a true prophet can claim to have deciphered the Divine implications. Nevertheless, perhaps one of them is that the national soul of those who perpetrated the Holocaust -- including Germans, East Berliners and Eastern bloc countries (who often were willing collaborators in the atrocities) -- experienced a small taste of the suffering they inflicted by having to endure long decades of life under the boot of the brutal Soviet Communist regime. Like Jews walled inside ghettos across Europe in the 1940s, they experienced life cut off from freedom with little hope of escape, living in constant fear of arrest, and standing helpless against a stream of humiliations and atrocities that happened to them and their families.
When the Berlin Wall came tumbling down it ended 28 years of imprisonment and thus marked the beginning of a return to normalcy, a return to freedom. Yet by happening on the date it did it served as a reminder that there is a Hidden Hand in events reminding humanity of its responsibility to safeguard freedom, champion the cause of the defenseless and disavow the ideologies and forces that created the likes of a Kristallnacht in the first place.
May this lesson not be lost on this generation and generations to come.
1)The Wall Cracks : November 9, 1989 – by Michael Meyer, Daniel Pedersen and Karen Breslau; Newsweek: November 20, 1989