The following is based on remarks delivered at Mount Sinai Jewish Center in Washington Heights at the congregation’s Kristallnacht program.
Upon telling a friend that I was preparing for our shul’s annual Kristallnacht commemoration, he asked me a simple question: Why? Why continue to remember a terrible and disastrous event that really was just the beginning of what would become known as the Holocaust, the most horrific calamity in Jewish history, which claimed millions of Jewish lives? The events of Kristallnacht were undoubtedly tragic, but wouldn’t it make more sense to remember them as part of a larger Holocaust commemoration, when we collectively remember all the awful events from that time period?
Some of you may be aware that there can often be disagreements surrounding the selection of a particular date to remember or commemorate. Regarding the Holocaust, the date designated for the observance for Yom HaShoah, the 27th of Nissan, which marks the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, was not without controversy—both because of the implicit emphasis this placed on the memory of the victims as well as the halachic issues around having a mournful day in an otherwise joyous month. International Holocaust Remembrance Day, observed on January 27, commemorates the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, which has a different implication and significance.
Kristallnacht always was and still remains so important in the psyche of our shul and community because we had survivors here who vividly remember that fateful evening when Jewish businesses were destroyed, shuls burned and Jews killed—all with the full endorsement of the Nazi leadership. Walter Spier, of blessed memory, whose two sons are with us tonight and whose wife Karla, may she live and be well, is watching on Zoom, was one such person, and his eyewitness recollections from then are available online in various forums for all to see and learn from. This night had special significance for him and others who were there because it was then when everything shifted, when many Jews in Germany recognized that they were not dealing with just another antisemitic government or facing just another random pogrom, but that the situation was in fact far more dire. It was through his efforts and the efforts of others in our shul that this memorial event has been taking place here for the past 50 years.
To answer my friend’s original question, however, and to understand myself why this event is indeed so important even for those of us, now several generations removed, who did not experience Kristallnacht firsthand, I decided to do a little research. I found a book in the library entitled “American Religious Responses to Kristallnacht,” which describes how various religious communities perceived the events from that night, once the news of what had transpired spread. One chapter focuses on the Orthodox religious responses in Europe, in the Land of Israel and in the United States. The author, Gershon Greenberg, notes that much of the post-Holocaust theology now used to explain these events was already being developed then, including references to Amalek, the arch-enemy of the Jewish nation, and the need for a massive reckoning and teshuvah within the Jewish community.
In America, the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada declared a day of prayer and fasting, which was met by many communities. At Yeshiva University, the davening was modeled after that of a taanis tzibbur, including the recitation of extra Selichot, Avinu Malkeinu and more, and was followed by an address by its then-president, Rabbi Dr. Bernard Revel. I looked up that week’s issue of The Commentator (YU’s student newspaper, the archives of which are freely available online through YAIR,Yeshiva Academic Institutional Repository) to see their writeup of the event.
In the issue dated November 30, 1938, an article with the headline “German Persecution Denounced by Mass Protest in Auditorium” describes the assembly quite vividly, and one gets a sense of the shock that the students and faculty felt regarding the events of Kristallnacht. Dr. Revel was very emotional, breaking into tears many times, and he described what had happened as “unprecedented,” a word that others would use as well.
As I read the article, I looked to see what else was mentioned in that same issue. There is a large ad for Chesterfield cigarettes “… the blend that can’t be copied,” but other front-page headlines include a description of the YU HaPoel HaMizrachi chapter attending a conference in Philadelphia, an announcement about
the upcoming Chanukah concert, standard reports on the performance of YU’s various athletic teams, and a (seemingly ubiquitous, if not obligatory!) letter by a student complaining about maintenance issues in the dormitory and the administration’s negligence in dealing with it.
While I initially smiled when I saw all this and could not help but remember the old maxim “The more things change, the more things stay the same,” my emotions quickly changed to shock at the juxtaposition. At the same time that Jews in YU and the rest of the world reacted with appropriate horror to the events of Kristallnacht, and, as noted, even used the word “unprecedented,” life continued as normal, with, for college students, the usual event planning and devotion of energy towards other causes, various gripes, and so on. The same was undoubtedly true for others.
Of course, nobody then could possibly have had any idea of what was yet to come, that Kristallnacht was the beginning of an unparalleled tragedy which would leave millions dead and the entire Jewish European world uprooted. They could not have anticipated the horrific events which would soon follow, resulting in the unimaginable loss of life and of a culture as well as the emotional shockwaves that we continue to feel to this day, and the theological crisis that would shake the Jewish people to the core.
But this reaction, without criticizing or assigning any blame to anyone is, to me, itself worth remembering, worth commemorating. We can so easily become complacent when hearing about tragedy, even if we honestly recognize it and are sincerely abhorred and even personally moved by it. When Russia first invaded Ukraine back in February, there was tremendous shock and fear, leading many Jewish Shuls to say special tefillos and Tehillim, even on Shabbos, asking for Divine intervention and protection. Much tzedakah was quickly raised to assist the Jewish communities there. Now, not all that many months later, it is difficult to have that same level of passion. It is not just the passage of time and weariness (or even the fact that Ukraine has had significant success in repelling the invaders), but because we have other things in our lives that require our energy, resources and tefillos. The same is true of other events, including those that hit home for us as Jews. After the initial reaction, our normal lives move on.
Kristallnacht was a beginning, but nobody who was there at the time knew it yet. It was a night that many experienced as horrific and the tragedy of which was recognized and marked, but perhaps not in the world-stopping way that it could or should have been. When we remember Kristallnacht, then, perhaps we are remembering not only what took place, but also what didn’t take place, what was not perceived. When we look around the world nowadays, and especially when we see antisemitism, in whatever form it takes, we must consistently deplore it, call it out and stand up against it. Our normal lives do indeed have to move on, but we dare not grow complacent and become emotionally detached from what goes on around us.
Rabbi Yaakov Taubes serves as the rabbi at Mount Sinai Jewish Center in Washington Heights, as well as an assistant director at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) at YU. He is also a PhD candidate in medieval Jewish history at the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies.