Today marks the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht or “Night of Broken Glass.”
On November 9 & 10, 1938, the Nazis in Germany carried out a nationwide pogrom against German Jewry which claimed hundreds of lives, destroyed 267 synagogues, ruined more than 7000 businesses, and lead to the incarceration in concentration camps of more than 30,000 Jews. The destruction during that two day period is known as “Kristallnacht” and represents the true commencement of the Holocaust, which would eventually claim six million Jewish lives.
For Jews, remembering is not a passive act. We are commanded in the Torah that we are “to remember and not forget” those who have arisen to destroy us. It is not enough to simply remember. We must actively not forget. This requires commemoration, conversation, and actions taken to ensure that such hatred never happens again. Knowing that the narrative arc of Jewish history moves toward freedom, or, as the Haggadah requires us to remember in the telling the story of our Exodus each year at Passover, we move from “degradation to rejoicing.” Further, the Torah also commands that after the Israelites escape slavery in Egypt, we are to be “kind to the stranger because we were strangers in a strange land.” Our own oppression and the lessons drawn from it obligate us ethically and morally to alleviate the oppression of others. It is one of Jewish civilization’s most central teachings that bears repeating and is stated 36 times in the Bible, more than any other in the entire tradition. It is that important.
This morning on the BBC, I heard a remarkable interview with a 99 year old German Jewish survivor of Kristallnacht. She said the most important lesson she learned from her family’s calamity in those dark days is that humanity is capable of being united when we remember our similarities to one another more than our differences. The smallest adjustments in our approach to living can redeem the lives of millions. It boggles the mind.
And at this particularly divided and fraught time in our country, it is incumbent upon us to remember, to not forget, and thereby to commemorate, to mark Kristallnacht as an object lesson about what can go horribly wrong when anger, hatred, fear of and violence toward “the other” is left unchecked and veers wildly out of control. Kristallnacht was horrific enough for German Jewry. Did anyone truly imagine the enormity of what was to come and how tragically and shamefully little was done to stop it? Hatred unchecked has a way of building and potentially causing greater catastrophic destruction. This we must also never forget.
In my office at JCP hangs a piece of a Torah scroll given to me by my teacher Rabbi Dr. A. Stanley Dreyfus, of blessed memory, a Brooklyn rabbi whose wife Marianne Baeck Dreyfus was the granddaughter of the great German Liberal rabbi, Dr. Leo Baeck of Berlin. This piece of Torah is a remnant from a synagogue destroyed in Berlin on November 9, 1938 and fortuitously, eerily, the passage from Torah is the story of the Exodus. “If you hearken to Me,” God tells the Jews in a passage that whispers to me each day as I work beneath it, “You will be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” I argue with this text, asking God, “Where were You?” And I find comfort in this text, called upon to absorb life’s cruelest lessons by never forgetting, by refusing to be defeated by hatred, by remembering the stranger, the other, because we were strangers in the land of Egypt. Our similarities to our neighbors have a greater potential for creating peace and love than do our differences: a lesson from a 99 year old survivor of Kristallnacht that resonates, still. Knowing this and realizing it requires work. And that work, so goes the proposition, is what will make us holy.
Is there no more urgent time for this message than today?
I recently had the privilege of returning to my ancestral homeland of Minsk for the 75th anniversary of the Nazi liquidation of the Minsk Ghetto. Before the Nazi invasion in the Second World War there were more than one million Jews in Belarus. Most lived in the shtetls surrounding Minsk. And between 1941-1943, nearly 90% of Belarusian Jewry was destroyed, including 28 members of my grandmother’s family in a town called Kopyl, about a 45 minutes drive from Minsk. I went with my friend Leonard Petlakh, who runs the Kings Bay Y and is himself a refugee from Minsk (his family, with the aid of HIAS, came to New York in the 1980s.) We were also joined by New York State Assemblyman Steven Cymbrowitz, the son of Polish Holocaust survivors. We stood in the pit in in the center of Minsk where thousands of Jews were gathered and murdered. We bore witness. We testified. We remembered. Jews and Gentiles, together.
While in Minsk for the commemoration, it was stunning to see how, for the first time, Belarusian authorities spoke of lessons learned and publicly condemned the Nazi hatred of Jews. For that reason alone it was an historic occasion. Leaders of many nations, most movingly the German ambassador to Belarus and several major Jewish organizations across Europe sent delegations. The words were moving but still not as much as the effort made to stand together, to remember together, to not forget, together. There were talks and tours around the city; art exhibits in museums and galleries; and a sobering, humbling, even chilling sense that hatred continues to lurk in our world. We are not out of Egypt yet. None of us.
Closer to home, soon after returning, a gunman attacked Jews at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh (and Rabbi Dreyfus’s synagogue in Brooklyn, Union Temple, was vandalized with anti-Jewish graffiti.) Our pain and sorrow at this grossly anti-Semitic act has raised alarms for American Jews while also uniting people of good faith from across the religious and ethnic divides, bringing people together as well.
Jill Lepore recently wrote in the New Yorker about Rabbi Jacob Rothschild, whose synagogue in Atlanta, the Hebrew Benevolent Congregation, was bombed for its support of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights movement. Dozens of black churches and integrating schools were bombed during this era. One of every ten was a synagogue. This we cannot forget, either. “Our first duty is not to allow ourselves to be intimidated,” Rabbi Rothschild told his congregation after the bombing. It was stunning to read that as Lepore reported, Rabbi Rothschild grew up in Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh, around the corner from Tree of Life Synagogue. Rabbi Rothschild also told his congregants about the violence wrought against Blacks, Jews and others supporting Civil Rights, “Never did a band of violent men so misjudge the temper of the objects of the act of their intimidation. Out of the gaping hole that laid bare the havoc wrought within, out of the majestic columns that now lay crumbled and broken, out of the tiny bits of brilliant colored glass that had once graced with beauty the sanctuary itself — indeed, out of the twisted and evil hearts of bestial men has come a new courage and a new hope.”
I believe this with all my heart. It is God’s most sacred commandment that I take to heart. We must hope. And hope must be the flame that burns eternally to build a world that is safe and just and radiating with peace for all.
From the shards of broken glass will emerge, always, courage and hope.
One week ago, JCP joined Jewish communities around the world to celebrate Shabbat and the warmth of community. I invite you to join us again next week for our special Shabbat of Thanksgiving. A warm, community Shabbat dinner will follow. You can register here.
In addition, my colleague Dr. Ari Kelman from Stanford University will speak at a special Shabbat dinner on December 14. Dr. Kelman writes about Jewish communities and how they are adapting to the new century. He’s always interesting and frankly, a hell of a guy. You can register for that here.
Meanwhile, see you around the neighborhood.