July 13, 2024
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Berenbaum On Kristallancht: Speech to Survivors Offers New Persepctives

Henderson, NV—More than 500 child survivors of the Holocaust, survivor descendants and guests gathered in a ballroom in the Nevada desert to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. They listened raptly as Holocaust scholar and JLBC contributor, Dr. Michael Berenbaum addressed a joint convention of the World Federation of Jewish Child Survivors, Second Generation and their Descendants and the group, Generations of the Shoah International.

In offering perspectives on Kristallnacht that are often overlooked, Berenbaum chose a style he usually reserves for the classroom, engaging his audience by making them think. At one point, he told them, “To understand the Holocaust, you need to understand three words: definition, expropriation and concentration.” Definitions were used to separate the Jews from the mainstream, expropriation was a form of dis-emancipation, and concentration— it was pretty clear what he meant by that. He addressed many issues and offered many historical facts, but the major theme was that the night of November 9-10, 1938 was about much more than broken glass and history. It was really about the synagogues, their role in the Jewish community, and the purpose behind their destruction.

Berenbaum began by examining the word Kristall—nacht. “You know that language is deceptive and many of you were deceived by the language of the Shoah. You know what resettlement to the East meant. It did not mean resettlement to the East. You also understood the various ways in which people spoke when they said one thing and meant another.

“In Germany, over the last 30 years, the label of that night is more commonly referred to as the Reichspogrom of November 1938. Crystal is beautiful, Crystal is lovely, Crystal has a certain sound to it and a certain delicacy to it and Reichspogrom tells a much deeper truth.”

When most American Jews think about Kristallnacht, they think about the broken storefronts, 7,000 of them, that were shattered that night—and the One billion Reichsmarks they had to pay, and the insurance they were forbidden to collect. We think about the burning of the synagogues almost as an afterthought. Berenbaum’s talk showed how the burning of the synagogues of Germany was really what the destruction of that night was about.

He began by describing a nine-hour conversation with a man in Milwaukee, as they looked at a collection of pictures of synagogues in Germany before the war. This man convinced Berenbaum that to understand the real meaning of Kristallnacht you had to understand the role of the synagogue in German national life. “Then you can begin to understand the elements reflected in the burning of the synagogues. For a community of 525,000 Jews, there were 2,200 synagogues. Think about that. I come from Los Angeles which has 600,000 Jews, and may not have 200 synagogues. So the 525,000 Jews in Germany had two thousand two hundred synagogues and those synagogues became part of the public expression of the role of Jews in German society.

“They were often built in triangulation with the cathedral and the Catholic church, to indicate that Germany was a pluralistic, multi-religious community. The synagogues that were built were an expression of the great progress that the Jews had made within Germany—they had built buildings of significance.”

In order to contrast that with America, Berenbaum drew distinctions of what happened when the Jews arrived in New Amsterdam in the 15th century, and Peter Stuyvesant forbade the building of synagogues. “It took a very long time before Jews were able to have an expression of Jewish presence in the community by building houses of worship, to become part of the fabric of the community.” He followed by describing how one of the synagogues in Cincinnati was designed to integrate into the community and reflect the Jewish presence there.

“What Germany was doing by destroying the synagogues showed, in the most essential, physical way imaginable, how much they were willing to do—what price they were willing to pay—to tear the Jewish community out of the fabric of life in Germany. Think of that as you begin to think about what happened on Kristallnacht, on the night of the Reichspogrom of 1938.”

Berenbaum then established a principle: Just because Jews were powerless, that did not mean they were passive. He repeated it twice and said. “Look around here at all the child survivors of the Holocaust, and you will see that the reason that almost all of them survived is because despite the limited power they had or their parents had, their parents were absolutely anything but passive. They tried any way, manner or form to save their children, in order to give them the possibility of life. That is a form of activism that you have to understand.” He then applied that principle to the role of synagogues in the German-Jewish community.

“What is a synagogue? A synagogue on Friday night, on Shabbat, became a place in which you had services. On Monday it became a theatre, on Tuesday it became a symphony hall and on Wednesday it became an opera house. On Monday morning it became the place for the distribution of welfare. On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, they were teaching Jews mobile professions because the best way to survive, the best way to leave, was if you had a mobile profession.

“What is a mobile profession? Plumbers, electricians, and agriculture are mobile professions. Even nursing is a mobile profession. Doctors and lawyers are not. Doctors are not because the licensing requirements are enormously severe…. In the synagogues, they were training a generation to live life elsewhere, while they were trying to find ways to get out of Germany. One of the deepest problems is not that the Jews didn’t want to leave. There was nowhere for Jews to go that was sufficient to accept the numbers that had to leave.”

Berenbaum continued, “The synagogue was also a place to teach the tradition to people who didn’t know what it really was to be Jewish. Martin Buber stayed until 1938, until almost the very end, because he had founded an institute for adult Jewish studies to try to give people inner resources with which to face extreme degradation and humiliation. He tried to give them an attitude to wear the Jewish star with pride instead of the disdain with which the Nazis were forcing them to wear it. Now think of our children, and the women and people of beauty and affluence who walk around with a little Jewish star around their necks, and what they feel in America and in the world today when they wear it with pride.”

Berenbaum then offered two profound examples of how prayer was used to teach the Jews of Germany how to respond to the lives they were then living. “Rabbi Leo Baeck composed a prayer for Yom Kippur 1935, which he read in German, but only someone who knew the original text would understand the changes. It was Aleynu, and to the phrase, ‘We bow our heads and bend our knees before the King of Kings, the Holy One Blessed be He,’ he added the words, ‘But we stand erect before man.’ It was his way of telling the community on this most scared night that part of being a Jew is to stand against the idolatry they were experiencing all around them.”

Another example came from Rabbi Joachim Prince, who was one of the last rabbis in Berlin. (Prince, who survived, was a Bergen county resident, and was the speaker who preceded the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the podium on The Mall in DC, when King made his “I Have A Dream” speech.) In 1937, Prince was prohibited from preaching, and the Gestapo monitored the synagogue. He asked the Gestapo agent if he could lead his congregation in prayer, and since that was not yet prohibited, he was given permission to proceed.

“He read a line in the Amida, in Shmoneh Esrei, one that traditional Jews read at least three times a day—and there are people here who have prayed it thousands of times but never paid real attention to it. He had his congregation read it again and again in Hebrew, not a language the Gestapo understood: ‘Ve chol ha choshvim olay roah, meheyra ofer atzosam ve kalkel maschshevotam—and all who plan evil against me, quickly annul their counsel and frustrate their intention.’ In other words, let God confuse our oppressors.

“The congregation read it, and they read it again, and they read it again and again because it was sinking into them as they understood what it translated into in Germany, what it really meant. The synagogue was trying to be responsible.”

More than 1,000 German synagogues were burned that night, as bystanders brought children to watch the flames and fire departments were prohibited from extinguishing the flames unless they were spreading to nearby properties.

“By attacking the synagogue,” said Berenbaum, “they were attacking the heart and soul of the Jewish community and the only institution that responded to the catastrophe. The synagogues responded to the catastrophe by transformation. When the Germans attacked the synagogue, they were depriving Jews of anything roughly resembling a public life or a communal life. They were being ripped out of the presence of German society.”

He then directed his remarks to kindertransportees in the audience and noted that after Kristallnacht, their parents took an enormous risk by placing them—and he used the title of a movie about them to describe it—into the arms of strangers. “They did it because they loved you so much they wanted you to survive. No parent under normal circumstances would give their child to an unknown person to raise him unless they understood desperation.”

His conclusion was to the point: “Tonight we remember with pride the role of the synagogue and its prominence in German society. We remember the cruelty that was inflicted on this night 75 years ago, and we remember the bystanders who watched the synagogues burn and who brought their kids to watch the synagogues burn. We remember that there were rooms where even the most scared could not be left alone and had to be desecrated and destroyed. We remember the outrage of the world that did not translate into doing something serious about the situation. We remember the courage of the Jews who understood they had to get out and those who got out—and the despair of the Jews who knew they had to get out and had nowhere to go.

“And we remember that the tragic Reichspogrom of November 1938, Kristallnacht, was the tragic end of the beginning and the beginning of the end.”

By Jeanette Friedman

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