Sermon: Kristallnacht – 75 Years

“Kristallnacht – 75 Years”
November 8, 2013
Temple B’nai Chaim

Rabbi David A. Lipper

On November 7, 1938, Herschel Grynszpan, a 17-year old German Jew enraged by his family’s expulsion from Germany, walked into the German Embassy in Paris and fired five shots at a junior diplomat, Ernst vom Rath. Two days later, the diplomat died and Germany was in the grip of skillfully orchestrated anti-Jewish violence. In the early hours of November 10, coordinated destruction broke out in cities, towns and villages throughout the Third Reich.

On the night of November 9, 1938, and into the next day, forces of the Nazi Third Reich went on a rampage of destruction against Jews and Jewish communities all over Germany and Austria.  On that night, known as Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass”, 7,500 Jewish businesses, 276 synagogues, 14 Jewish community centers, cemeteries and countless Jewish homes were destroyed.  At least 91 Jews were killed and hundreds maimed.  30,000 Jewish men were dragged to concentration camps.

The consequences of this violence were disastrous for the Jews of the Third Reich. In a single night, Kristallnacht marked the beginning of the systematic eradication of a people who could trace their ancestry in Germany to Roman times.

There were no attempts to hide the intent to humiliate, threaten and harm the more than 700,000 Jews who lived in cities and towns large and small. Under the cover of official encouragement, one could participate in the humiliation of a people, view it from a block away, or, on the morning after, take it all in with glee or smug satisfaction.

Indeed, there were no guidelines to those who carried out this massive pogrom, save for making sure that there be no fires set against Jewish-owned properties that might spread to non-Jewish buildings and neighborhoods.   Pouring massive amounts of salt into the wounds in the aftermath, the Nazi authorities demanded that the Jewish community compensate the government for the “damage inflicted against it.”

Lest there be no mistaking the message being so loudly sent, thousands of Jews were hauled off to places like Sachsenhausen, a short distance from Berlin, which became the archetype for the concentration camps and death camps that would soon multiply in Germany and the lands it would occupy after the beginning of World War II less than one year later.

Reports of residents watching the sledgehammers crashing against shop windows and the incendiary attacks on Jewish houses of worship note many who watched and cheered those who perpetrated the destruction.   No mystery in this—from Hitler’s coming to power in 1933, the Nazi regime had been setting the scene for what would occur during Kristallnacht.  By casting the Jews as Germany’s “misfortune,” as unclean and unwanted vermin, the Nazis were ensuring the public’s absolute and unquestioning support for a pogrom against the Jewish community. And so, they destroyed Jewish property and, what were even more important, Jewish places of worship.

German officials announced Kristallnacht had erupted as a spontaneous outburst of public sentiment in response to the assassination of a German embassy official stationed in Paris by a 17-year-old Polish Jew.   Days before, his Polish born parents, long time residents of Germany had been expelled from the Reich with thousands of other Jews of Polish citizenship.  Within days after the pogrom, Jews were ordered to pay one billion marks to pay for the destruction, which further burdened them.  Kristallnacht was a turning point in history. The pogroms marked an intensification of Nazi anti-Jewish policy that had begun in 1933 that would culminate in the Holocaust—the systematic, attempt to annihilate the European Jews.

                     – November, 1938

No pause button back then to capture bodies
laid thick with dust, motionless on the earth,
the splintering of glass, the snap of beams
and bones, the uprooting of graves. A break
occurs in history between what’s seen
and what’s stored on the blind side of each blink.
Through keyholes, and through cracks between curtains
in third floor windows, the pavements glint like stars,
so beautiful it’s hard to look.

Some pray, some cry, and no one is responsible,
though no one lacks responsibility –
that’s what they tell themselves in silent rooms –
they are responsible to witness this
but not to bear witness.
Such a relief nothing is missing by the morning, except
for Isaac, who is carted off to Dachau
for three months, but his diamonds are untouched
on his return. Return? Of course, although
he leaves at once. Well, others too are broken
in nameless camps, their names whispered around
the towns like unsubstantiated rumours.
When nothing can be proved, anything can
be true. No slow-motion replays back then.
The New York Times reports, not that Goebbels
orders the attacks, but that he calls
a halt (only after all Jewish windows
have been smashed and every synagogue
ground into ashes).

What’s no longer there gapes fragile as memory
    – back then, so easy

to break from, and once broken, like crystal,
useless and irreplaceable. Those hollow
spaces behind the eyes – not hollow really –
watch history blow in like sand, and pass;
the eyes now stung shut for the aftermath.

These days marked the beginning of inhumanity,   We were other.   Less.    Empty and devoid.   75 years ago our world was forever changed.   We could now see the action that thought caused.   Inhuman dialogue becoming destruction.   Town after town, businesses destroyed, smashed and burned, people crushed and beaten down.   Relationships rent.  The very fabric of a once proud civilization unraveled.   

Is healing possible?

Esther Golan left Germany at age 15 on a Kinder Transport to England. Her parents did not survive the death camps.  She was raised by a step family in England through and following the war.   He family ties were severed and when the war ended, she left for the new country of Israel and created a life for herself.   Amazingly, Esther found peace in her understanding of Germany and courageously returns there each year to tell her story to school children and to dialogue with Germans.      

In 2003, Ester joined 250 Jewish and Palestinian Israelis on a journey to Auschwitz, led by Father Emile Shufani of Nazereth.  She thought that her story could be the catalyst for a healing between modern day demonizers.    That maybe the Israeli’s and the Palestinians could begin to see the humanity of each other.   Esther said, “The way out, is we must find ways to recognize the humanity of the other.”

Recognizing humanity … isn’t that the answer to all conflict.  Oh, were it so easy.  In the stream of Torah dialogue that we are in this Shabbat, it is all about family and conflict and the inability of siblings to see the humanity of the other.  

Well Jacob, the deceiver, stole his brother’s blessing last week from their father. Esau in his hunger showed no humanity to Jacob and Jacob took what little humanity Esau had by robbing him of his birthright and blessing.  Esau, left to struggle for his own survival without the benefit of inheritance or family support, threatens to kill Jacob as soon as their father dies.  Jacob flees, to continue the path of Genesis, the path of wandering.  You see, Torah wants us to wander.  From the moment we left the Garden of Eden, God wanted us to wander and spread across the earth.  
Jacob, who was the tent dweller with his mother Rebecca, became the wanderer when challenged by Esau.  In effect, he was to live the life of Esau from this moment on.  He was to wander.  This was the message of his father’s life and especially his grandfather’s life, Abraham.  Abraham was the quintessential wanderer.  I believe that the message of Abraham’s life is that you have to wander, until you find the blessing of faith.  
Jacob stumbled across faith while wandering.  Abraham had his mountain, Jacob his river.  By the waters of the Yabbok, Jacob was transformed from the conniving deceitful being that he was, into the man of God that was his destiny.  He was to become Israel.   His transformation comes as the sun begins to rise on a new day.  He turns to the being, maybe himself and says “God is in this place and I didn’t know it.”   Even the deceiver has to recognize the humanity within … Awareness of presence.

Sermons should end with a nechemta, with words of comfort. We never know where life will lead us. Jewish life, in particular, has taken some amazing twists and turns. Who could possibly imagine 75 years ago, that Germany would have one of the world’s fastest growing Jewish communities?  Who would believe that just 7 years ago, three rabbis were ordained in Germany for the first time since 1942?  Who could fathom that Germany is the most philo-Semitic and pro-Israel country in all of Europe? There are almost 250,000 Jews in Germany today, most of them from the former Soviet Union. With our help, they are building a vibrant Jewish community that, we pray, will have a long and prosperous existence.

Tomorrow … November 9, 2013, we will mark the 75th anniversary of a night of riots and pogroms against Jews and Jewish communities in Germany and Austria.  

70 years ago our voices were silenced by a world who neglected to believe in man’s inhumanity.     Let’s turn the brokenness of our past into the wholeness of others future.  Then will the lives forever changed, those lost and those broken, be made whole.

Shabbat Shalom