Susanna Kokkonen from Christian Friends of Yad Vashem talks to Paul Calvert.

Susanna Kokkonen
Susanna Kokkonen

Paul: What is Christian Friends of Yad Vashem?

Susanna: Yad Vashem was established in 1953. The Israeli Knesset passed a special law to establish it and then in 2006 Yad Vashem decided that they needed a special programme to reach out to Christians around the world. They decided to establish the Christian Friends of Yad Vashem and the goal was for Christians who would come to visit would be given a special programme. They would be able to ask questions and have a time of reflection.

We also wanted to connect Christians to the Christian theology that was partly anti-Semitic and is the background of the Holocaust. We wanted to teach about, not just the camps, but also Jewish life in Europe before the war, how the Holocaust came to happen, and even the aftermath of the Holocaust. This is very significant now since we are celebrating the 70th anniversary of the State of Israel this year, which was built by the Holocaust survivors.

Paul: Today we are looking at Kristallnacht, which happened in Germany and Austria. Tell us a little bit about what happened before that event, the history and the story that built up to that terrible night.

Susanna: I think it's very important for us to look at the 1930's. Although the Nazi Party was established in 1919, from the beginning it had this very intense anti-Semitic agenda. They did not see the Jews as just a religious group that they could persecute, but they saw them as a genetic problem. In other words, the racial theories were added to the previously existing forms of anti-Semitism, but the problem then of course was that when you are seen as a genetic problem you cannot change it, so there was nothing they could do about it.

So when Adolph Hitler came to power in January of 1933, already by March all over Germany there were anti-Jewish riots, but at this point the regime was not openly taking responsibility. It looked like they were spontaneous acts of violence, even though we know that they were not spontaneous.

Then in April there was a boycott, a boycott against Jewish owned businesses, which clearly shows how far the regime would go and how much the ordinary German citizens were willing to tolerate. Seeing armed Nazi guards outside Jewish stores who said it was forbidden to go in, very few people were going to have the courage to disobey.

Then Jewish doctors were banned from practising public medicine, and there was a process that had started to de-legitimise the Jews of Germany and make them into lesser citizens. The Jews felt this atmosphere.

In the 30's they felt they were German, and that was the most important part of their identity even before being Jewish. Many Jews called themselves Germans of the Mosaic persuasion, in other words they put the German identity before anything else. But then of course they started to question their identity, when their identity as Germans was taken from them.

In May 1933 there were public book burnings, where books that were considered Jewish, written by Jews, or books that were considered to have a certain kind of democratic spirit or pacifist anti-war spirit were burned. Heinrich Heine, a German Jewish poet, had said less than 100 years earlier that where books were burned, their people would be burned.

By June 1933 there were 27,000 people arrested. These would be potential opponents of the regime like Socialists, Communists or Trade Union leaders. You can see how from the end of January to June there was a remarkable change in the society

The goal was to make it intolerable for the Jews to remain in Germany and to make them feel that they were less than citizens, less than Germans.

Now 1938, many historians actually speak about it as the fateful year. People always try to understand, where comes the point when you can no longer turn back? That is a very important question because I think there could be two ways to look at it. One is when is the first action taken where the regime openly identifies with this very anti-Jewish attitude and where all Jews become targets. I think that the April 1933 boycott of Jewish stores, is where the regime is not hiding, that all Jews are targets and the regime is openly identifying with that action. But 1938 is very important because by 1938 the society has changed very much. First of all the Nazi Party has become the party that controls every aspect of citizen's lives, it's the only party and it's very strong. They didn't have the means that we have today to spy on people so they did everything they could to create an atmosphere of terror. People were too afraid to do anything even if they wanted to.

1938 is also very important in terms of foreign policy because in the case of Czechoslovakia, that little country was sacrificed by the Western powers who believed that they could achieve peace if they appeased Adolf Hitler, which of course was doomed from the beginning.