Speech by minister Kaag at the Kristallnacht Commemoration

Speech by minister Kaag at the Kristallnacht Commemoration on November 9 in Amsterdam

Your excellencies, Speakers of the Senate and House of Representatives, elected representatives, mayors,

Ladies and gentlemen.

My thanks to Chanan, Dave and the other organisers for your invitation to speak here today. Especially now, in this difficult and dark time.

May I also offer my thanks to Mirjam Weitzner-Smuk, for your impressive words. Ambassador Modi Ephraïm, ambassador Shefali Razdan Duggal thank you too for sharing your thoughts with us later on.

As we gather together tonight to reflect on Kristallnacht, we are all no doubt thinking of the victims of the horrifying terror attack by Hamas on 7 October. We think of those who died, of the hostages and their families and friends. The Dutch government condemns this terror attack in the strongest terms. The hostages must be freed unconditionally as soon as possible. As Deputy Prime Minister, I am reiterating our position here today.

Israel’s right to exist and its right to defend itself is self-evident to us. But in these dark times, it is important that acts of war comply with international law and the humanitarian law of war in order to avoid innocent civilian victims and enable adequate humanitarian aid to be provided in time.

The government has serious concerns about the humanitarian tragedy currently unfolding in Gaza. As you know, the Netherlands is providing support where necessary and where it can, always with a view to achieving a permanent and peaceful solution. The Netherlands joins the EU in calling for humanitarian pauses. The ultimate aim remains a two-state solution, with a safe Israel alongside an independent Palestinian state, as the Prime Minister has previously stated.

It is difficult to find the right words to describe my horror at the terror, and the intense suffering on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides. Any death, any person wounded is one too many. What is happening in Israel, in Gaza and on the West Bank is deeply disturbing – raising doubts about humankind and about our own humanity.

Today, we are remembering that it was exactly 85 years ago that the Nazis perpetrated Kristallnacht. They destroyed Jewish possessions and murdered hundreds of innocent civilians. Many were driven from their homes and tens of thousands imprisoned in concentration camps. Because of where they came from. Because they were Jewish.

By remembering Kristallnacht, our thoughts return to that fateful night. Our thoughts go to the victims, to the unimaginable fear, intense grief and trauma that so many suffered at that time and that many are now still feeling or even reliving in the wake of the terror attack in Israel.

In Judith Herzberg’s play entitled Leedvermaak, one of her characters says this: 

‘They always say that forgetting that time is so painful, that the fact that the younger generation simply moves on from it, actually makes it even worse, that sense of isolation…’ End of quote.

By remembering, we are acknowledging the suffering of the victims and their friends and families. It is an act of remembrance. We cast our minds back to it again in order to remember it and never again forget it. So that it may never happen again.

What matters most in this are the stories of the Holocaust survivors, because anyone who has heard the memories of a survivor can never again forget them. I would like to offer my thanks to Mirjam Weitzner-Smuk, and others here today, who continue to tell their stories, however painful.

In her Leedvermaak trilogy, Judith Herzberg paints a poignant picture of the ongoing impact of the Holocaust after the Nazi period, lasting into the second and third generations. The grief for the dead that never fades and the fear that always remains – hidden at times, under the surface, and at other times very much present, as it is today. Last month, in an interview in the NRC newspaper, Chaja Polak referred to it as ‘the fundamental sense of insecurity’.

It is this deep fear – the sense of being unsafe – that outsiders may not fully appreciate, despite their sincere efforts to do so. Even now. The fear of sending your children to the Jewish school or wearing a skullcap in the street. A feeling of unease that is difficult to grasp – and even more difficult to convey to people who do not experience it themselves. But a feeling that is real. And for good reason, unfortunately.

Herzberg’s words gave many survivors, and their descendants, the consolation of recognition. She not only showed that other people also feel the grief and the fear, but also ensured that the memory of the horrors of the Holocaust remained alive.

Unfortunately, the Nazis also understood the power of words. The German philologist Viktor Klemperer wrote this about it:

‘Language does not simply think and write for me, it also governs my feelings for my entire spiritual being the more unquestionably and unconsciously I abandon myself to it.

And what happens if the cultivated language is made up of poisonous elements or has been made the bearer of poisons?

Words can be like tiny doses of arsenic: they are swallowed unnoticed, appear to have no effect, and then after a little time the toxic reaction sets in after all.’ End of quote.

Klemperer shows how the Nazis used language to poison the German population. By saying something different from what they meant, they gave people the opportunity to look the other way and deny what they actually knew.

In doing so, the Nazis were taking advantage of what I described in my Abel Herzberg lecture in 2018 as ‘the silence of knowing what’s going on’. ‘Of hearing what’s being said, but not talking about it. And not doing anything about it. The silence of not speaking up, for the sake of convenience.’ 

People knew but did nothing. People stayed silent.

Klemperer knew. Two months after Kristallnacht, he wrote about it in his diary. On New Year’s Eve 1938, in a review of that year, he wrote that the ‘decisive blow’ had happened in the night of 9/10 November. What would follow on Kristallnacht was ‘the inferno’, he wrote.

Abel Herzberg – Judith’s father – later said this about it: ‘It wasn’t about the final step. It was about the first one… After that, the atrocities follow naturally.’ End of quote.

Klemperer knew, so others must also have known. But there were too few of them and they had insufficient power to change the course of history. Because the rest remained silent, looked the other way or were indifferent.

Klemperer’s dark suspicions became a reality. The inferno that he feared came to pass. Despite the warnings and the signals. Thanks to the silence.

By remembering, we are also reflecting on how it was able to happen. We are also remembering so that we do recognise the signals and can perhaps prevent it happening again. By making sure that next time, our voice is heard.

After all, Kristallnacht was about much more than what happened on that night. More than the damage inflicted and the fatalities of that night. Tonight, we are also reflecting on the meaning of Kristallnacht as a signal.

As a first step.

As a portent of the Holocaust.

Again today, we are seeing threats and expressions of anti-Semitism and we do not know where they will lead. According to figures from the CIDI, the number of anti-Semitic incidents has increased eightfold since 7 October. Events and meetings are being cancelled. The military police are standing by at synagogues, schools and other Jewish institutions. They are not standing by for nothing. They are not there just because someone shouted, emailed or posted something. Not because of the words. They are there because of the risk that people will put those words into actions. Because the toxic language of hatred is still effective: it spurs people on to take action.

We cannot tolerate this.

We cannot allow people to be fearful of expressing and living their faith or identity.

We cannot tolerate people feeling unsafe because of who they are.

We owe it to all victims of anti-Semitism, exclusion and hatred to learn from the past. We have a moral, social and political duty to take a stand – to voice opposition, especially when the silence becomes ominous. And to act accordingly. So that we never again find ourselves in a situation where we are forced to acknowledge afterwards that we have allowed ourselves to be poisoned by language and failed to recognise the signals as a result.

That we knew but did nothing.

What happened in the Holocaust must never be allowed to happen again. Not here in Europe and nowhere else either. Never.

We know what happened, we recognise the stories, like those of Mirjam Weitzner-Smuk and others here today. Never again can we say that we did not know.

And this is precisely why we cannot and will not tolerate anti-Semitism, exclusion and hatred but must stand up against it. Raise our voices, break the silence and actively fight it.

In the Netherlands, there should be no place for hatred. It can result in dehumanisation, and we have seen where that leads.

Terror and violence elsewhere lead to hatred here. As a society, we have a duty to combat polarisation and take concerted action when intolerance raises its head – especially now. Combating anti-Semitism is a duty we all share. It is part of the democratic rule of law and society as a whole.

Ladies and gentlemen,

In these dark times, we must strive more than ever to see each other first and foremost as fellow humans.

By continuing to search for the things we have in common rather than our differences.

By not taking a stand against each other, but standing side-by-side.

By showing compassion rather than hatred and continuing to believe in good – even if it may be against our better judgement.

We can take inspiration from the words written in the dark days of the Nazis by the anonymous Jew in hiding on the wall of a cellar in Cologne:

I believe in the sun even in the darkness,

I believe in God, even if He is silent,

I believe in compassion, even if it dare not show itself.

Thank you for your kind attention.