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Holocaust survivor reflects on antisemitism rise 83 years after Kristallnacht

2020 was the third-highest year for antisemitic incidents against American Jews since the Anti-Defamation League started tracking the data in 1979.

Ruth Zimbler was just 10 years old when she watched the Nazis burn down her synagogue in Austria. As the flames blazed, her great aunt asked the firefighters on the scene why they were just standing there. “We have orders to let the synagogue burn,” they said.

The targeted attacks towards Zimbler’s family that night, just for being Jewish, did not stop there. Her apartment was stripped bare of everything but the furniture and a pair of candlesticks that her family used on Shabbat.

“I think the only way to overcome (antisemitism) is by education. I think that you have to tell the story and you’ll have to make people understand it,” said Ruth Zimbler, 93.
“I think the only way to overcome (antisemitism) is by education. I think that you have to tell the story and you’ll have to make people understand it,” said Ruth Zimbler, 93.NBC News NOW

This horrific day became known as Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass.” It was wave of antisemitic violence coordinated by the Nazi regime that wrecked havoc on Jewish life in Nazi Germany.

Nazis vandalized Jewish homes, burned down hundreds of synagogues and shattered the glass in storefronts of Jewish-owned businesses — hence the name “Kristallnacht.” The Night of Broken Glass was a turning point for Jews in Germany.

Zimbler watched the destruction of the largest synagogue in Vienna from her apartment at just 10 years old on November 10, 1938 during Kristallnacht. Pictured is the synagogue before and after the fire.
Zimbler watched the destruction of the largest synagogue in Vienna from her apartment at just 10 years old on November 10, 1938 during Kristallnacht. Pictured is the synagogue before and after the fire.Ruth Zimbler

In the aftermath of Kristallnact, the Nazi regime ordered police to arrest 30,000 Jewish men. They were sent to concentration camps and many of these men did not make it out alive.

In December of 1938, approximately one month after Kristallnacht, Zimbler’s parents sent Ruth and her 6-year-old brother, Walter, on the first Kindertransport out of Vienna, an organized rescue effort that took place nine months before the outbreak of World War II.

Ruth and her brother, Walter, escaped on a Kindertransport out of Vienna. She's pictured to the right of the nurse in the photograph.
Ruth and her brother, Walter, escaped on a Kindertransport out of Vienna. She's pictured to the right of the nurse in the photograph.Ruth Zimbler

Kristallnacht is commemorated each year on November 9-10 with 2021 marking the 83rd anniversary. To this day, Zimbler says she still feels the glass from the windows crunching under her feet.

As a 93-year-old, Zimbler takes every opportunity to share her story.

“I think the only way to overcome (antisemitism) is by education. I think that you have to tell the story and you’ll have to make people understand it,” she said.

Antisemitism continues to haunt the Jewish community. 2020 was the third-highest year for antisemitic incidents against American Jews since the Anti-Defamation League started tracking the data in 1979. The past three annual reports have included two of its highest tallies.

“What we're seeing is that people aren't even able to identify antisemitism anymore,” says Oren Segal, the vice president of the Center on Extremism at the ADL. “That's when you know it has become so normalized, so much part of our public discussion and online discourse. And that's when it's really dangerous.”

Segal blames social media for the normalization of antisemitism. “The ability of disinformation and conspiracies to animate (antisemitism) has become a real issue.”

Rony Alfandary, author of “Postmemory, Psychoanalysis and Holocaust Ghosts,” believes the rise in antisemitism is especially traumatic for Holocaust survivors and leaves the Jewish community with a collective sense of generational trauma.

Postmemory, as Alfandary defines it, is the revelation that what’s influencing your life is something that happened long before you were born. It can add to the sense of trauma the Jewish community experiences when there is a rise in antisemitic events.

“It's like living a part of a ghost life, a life where you are a participant without having known the other characters in life, but somehow feeling that you are living their lives,” Alfandary said. “Unless you become aware of (postmemory) through therapy, or other creative means, it does turn into pathological symptoms, making you repeat particular patterns of behavior, obsessive behavior or other emotional difficulties.”

Zimbler still has the Shabbat candlesticks that survived the raid of her family's apartment as a young girl.
Zimbler still has the Shabbat candlesticks that survived the raid of her family's apartment as a young girl.NBC News NOW

Alfandary says the Holocaust shows how deeply human evil can penetrate society. “The one thing that I carry with me as a torch is how important it is for us to view one another as equals. ... Whenever we feel threatened by somebody who's different, we need to be able to recognize it, the way that fear motivates us, and transform that fear into an acceptance of the other, rather than rejection,” he shared.

In order to combat modern day antisemitism, Alfandary says it’s important to not be insular. “We need to reach out and go into those dangerous places and talk to the people who feel threatened by our identity and make that effort through education from a very early age.”

“In 2021, on the anniversary of Kristallnacht, when we see that antisemitic tropes and narratives are more easily accessible than arguably in any other time in human history that should give us pause.” Segal says. “It suggests that we have a lot more to learn about the impact of our history, and that there are people who are looking to exploit that.”