Remembering Kristallnacht Today

Trinity Long Room Hub in conversation with Lenny Abrahamson and Oliver Sears on the continued relevance of the Holocaust

Each year, November 9th and 10th marks the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the name given to the two nights in 1938 when a systematic hate-crime against Jewish people took place in Germany and Austria. It was the transgression into what was to become the mass-systematic approach of the violent persecution of the Jewish people under Hitler. Over the two nights of Kristallnacht, Nazis burned down hundreds of synagogues (the Jewish house of prayer) and murdered almost one hundred Jews. For the anniversary of Kristallnacht, or The Night of Broken Glass, gallerist and son of a Holocaust survivor Oliver Sears and Academy Award winning director Lenny Abrahamson spoke to Sarah Carey as part of the Trinity Long Room Hub about Kristallnacht, and of why it is important to remember the violent acts of the Holocaust in our chaotic, unstable modern-day society.  

Antisemitism today is ever-present, with Abrahamson saying that “the absurdity of antisemitism is part of its success, and why it has been so long-lived.” Abrahamson explains that in the presence of a Jew, antisemites will project their beliefs by distorting the view of the Jew; undermine them, and contradict them. If the Jew is not present, antisemites will treat them as a “fifth column,” which is a person who poses a threat to a nation, and who undermines a nation’s solidarity. Antisemitism is still widespread and prevalent in today’s modernity. 

“In a world where Donald Trump has just barely been voted out.. learning about the human capabilities of violence is of such importance right now.”

In a world where Donald Trump has just barely been voted out as the President of the United States of America, these guest speakers were adamant that speaking about the Holocaust and learning about the human capability of violence, is of such importance right now. Donald Trump has left the Whitehouse, but his beliefs still exist in the minds of over half of the entire population of America. Abrahamson noted that “if Trump proves anything, it is that being a buffoon doesn’t stop you from doing well.” By putting a Muslim ban in place in his first 100 days in office four years ago Tump’s beliefs in racism and xenophobia were given presidential and therefore global endorsement. He is gone, but his beliefs aren’t. Sears remarked that “Biden and the Democrats need to reverse these institutions and ideas and beliefs.” Sears reiterated once again, that these ideas don’t exist without social media. Literary papers on racism wouldn’t make it very far based on facts and evidence, but social media carries these false opinions and racist ideas widespread. He says that “with freedom of speech comes responsibility” and that Twitter and other social media platforms are enormously big megaphones that make racist ideas contagious. 

When asked why antisemitism is alive today, Oliver Sears answered, unflinchingly, that it is due to social media. He spoke about the idea of applying for a license to use social media so that your opinions have been challenged and fact-checked before they are broadcast on social media sites, mentioning that “social media is the number one factor of antisemitism rising globally.” This would reduce the amount of hate speech on unlicensed accounts on the powerful social media sites today. Both Sears and Abrahamson have been harassed online for being Jewish and for having Jewish roots, with Abrahamson saying that he has been sent horrific images from the holocaust, and received passive-aggressive comments like ‘Lenny isn’t really Irish,’ or claims that his success in Hollywood is only due to underground Jewish connections that he has in the movie industry. 

On the other side of the same coin is the issue of philosemitism, the extreme admiration of Jews that propagates equally insidious positive stereotypes that can be reductive. Both speakers agreed that claiming Jews are “very clever” or “highly intelligent” is just as harmful as claiming that they are “very stupid.” It is dangerous to accept any claims that Jews are “extremely” anything. This labeling of ethnicity or assessment of another group of people creates a degree of separation between that group from others. This practice as a whole is dangerous, it is what creates the “other.” 

“I always refused the idea that being Jewish wasn’t included in being Irish.” 

When asked about his Jewish childhood in Ireland, Abrahamson said that he wasn’t explicitly “othered” while growing up. He admitted that there were jokes made and comments thrown from time to time, but that he never felt victimised or excluded by them. He said that growing up, “I always refused the idea that being Jewish wasn’t included in being Irish.” Today, the exclusion of other religions and ethnicities seems to exist in Ireland more in the underground in comparison to Trump’s overt rhetoric. It is at coffee shops and rural kitchen tables, apparently innocent jokes and assumptions. While this manifestation of xenophobia may be more taboo and less tolerated, its very subtly allows for its denial and continuation. 

Holocaust Literature has become a distinct literary subgenre for understanding atrocities such as Kristallnacht. Sears spoke about there being so many primary sources of Holocaust literature out there that it was unnecessary to settle for secondary sources fiction with underresearched and misleading ideas. He expressed annoyance at John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas due to its impossibility, saying that “the premise of the story could never have happened.” This is problematic as it’s used in schools to educated students on the reality of the Holocaust, remarking on Boyne “I wish he never wrote it.” By promoting fiction that is misleading, it may dangerously eclipse real historical narratives. 

“I am particularly critical of films of the Holocaust.” 

On a similar note, Abrahamson remarked that the Holocaust is an extremely difficult thing to depict in movies and literature. He gave “Son of Saul,” as an example of one that resonated, but stated One ought to be very careful on how a story is told, as stories create a structure of events which in turn create a way of believing in, and making sense of the world. However, if meaning is placed preemptively into a story’s structure like this it can make for an inaccurate, fictional story. For sensitive issues like the Holocaust, it means that movies and literature ought to be dealt with very carefully, or the whole truth in it could be lost. As a film director, Abrahamson believes in a story structure that leaves gaps, leaves questions, and leaves room for reflection. His method, he says, is “breaking the traditional” and creating films where he does not project his own interpretation of reality and meaning into. He remarks that perhaps this is more of an uncomfortable experience for the viewer, but it is in the uneasiness of digesting it that the truth is, and meaning isn’t handed to you on a plate. He is therefore “particularly critical of films of the Holocaust,” as they can offer comfort and resolution.

The consensus of the Long Room Hub talk was that when teaching or talking about the Holocaust, it is important to highlight that these patterns of behavior in human history are possible again. Abrahamson stressed that the Holocaust ought not to be viewed as a “one-off bad event,” but as an example of what can go wrong in humanity. Kristallnacht was a significant event in the midst of what would become a mass genocide, and in a world where hate-crimes occur often, we ought to keep a close eye on our own human behavior and be aware of what it could lead to in the future. The Holocaust is not a modern-day impossibility like some might believe it to be. There was a definite tone throughout the talk of a connection between the past and our future, one that must be addressed by continued discourse about the Holocaust today. 

Lisa Jean O’Reilly

Lisa Jean O'Reilly is an English Literature and Philosophy graduate and a former Online Editor of Trinity News.