Dvar Torah for 80th Anniversary of Krystallnacht

Tonight marks the 80th anniversary of Krystallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass  a day on which the persecution of the Jews of Germany took a giant leap toward the Holocaust to come. 276 Synagogues and 7,500 businesses were set aflame, countless homes were destroyed, 91 people were killed and 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and imprisoned in camps.

It was a night of mass intimidation and brutality. And whereas, many Jews had assumed that others would rise to their defense, if attacked, it was a night not just of shattered glass, but of shattered hopes and perceptions, a shattered sense of well-being; a loud awakening to a frightening reality. It was also a night that shattered the idea that in the modern Western world, the pogroms of the old world could not and would not happen. We heard similar sentiments expressed about the recent attack at Eitz Chayim Synagogue. “I never thought it would happen here.”

Yesterday, I found a video of Peter Pintus, former Assistant to the Rabbi at the Temple, who passed away some years ago now, speaking about his experiences during the Holocaust for a class at Iowa State. I heard him talk about his experiences numerous times and remember clearly what he said happened on Krystallnacht. They lived in Berlin. Peter’s father was a wealthy Jewish industrialist. His mother was a Christian.

That night, the NAZIs came to the family apartment for his father, “the Jew Pintus,” who had heard about what might happen, and spent the night riding the subway instead of returning home. The Nazis who showed up terrorized and intimidated Peter and his mother. They damaged the furniture and tossed the apartment, but didn’t harm them. When the NAZIs visited their elderly Jewish neighbor, a single woman whom Peter had recalled collected Hummel figurines, they shattered every single piece in her prized collection, gleeful at the destruction, and the emotional turmoil that it caused her.

Peter talked of walking the streets near their home, seeing what had been wrought that horrible night. There was a burning synagogue with firemen outside, not trying to put out the flames in the synagogue, but protecting the surrounding buildings from catching on fire. Perhaps, some were distressed by not being able to do their jobs. But they let the synagogues burn.

Peter talked of passing by Jewish businesses, the glass windows shattered into the streets, anti-Jewish slogans scrawled in yellow paint on the walls.

It’s hard to imagine the level of fear that Jews in Berlin would have felt that night and in the days, weeks, months, and later years to come. They were forced to come to the realization that all that they had built up could so easily be taken away and destroyed, that so many people who could have helped, who could have said or done something, instead said and did nothing, and that so many others joined against them.

“Zachor!” “Remember!” is one of the most important themes in the Jewish tradition. We remember our journey from Egypt, from slavery to freedom. We remember how Amalek came after those who were vulnerable and we celebrate a holiday to remember the events in the story of Esther. We remember our family members and our martyrs during Yizkor services multiple times a year. We are constantly urged to remember.

Our tradition doesn’t just believe that “He who forgets history is destined to repeat it.” Instead, our tradition believes that history often repeats and those who forget or ignore the lessons of history, how to cope with threats as they unfold, will not long survive when they do.

Having seen the truth of our errors, we are a people who nonetheless strives to see the best in others and often, having trusted in others to stand up to evil, find ourselves far too regularly disappointed. We are like Rabbi Jacob Rader Marcus, a professor at Hebrew Union College, who wrote in 1935 of the Rise of the Nazis to power in Germany:

There is doubt, however, that the fear of widespread pogroms at the present is well-grounded. It is probable that the masses of the Party, if not some of the leaders, original envisaged a program which would wipe out the entire Jewish community. The response of the world to the atrocity reports made it clear, however, that such a policy could never be put into execution.

It was so clear to him that the world would rise up in condemnation and action.

Over the centuries, we’ve learned all too well that people who threaten to do us harm and have the means to do so must be taken at their word. The greatest sin of our age is not indifference to the suffering of others, it is indifference to threats that lead to the preventable suffering of others and even of ourselves. It is seeing rail lines on their way to camps and not bombing them. It is watching genocide unfold and forming committees to discuss the events while hoping that sanity will prevail in the interim. Failure to act against those who threaten has time and again led to a byproduct of that failure, to discussions of how we should not “stand idly by” as those future threats are put into action.

We strive to make true the words of Professor Yehuda Bauer in reference to the Shoah, “Thou shalt not be a victim, thou shalt not be a perpetrator, but, above all, thou shalt not be a by-stander.”

We have both a justifiably paranoid tradition and a tradition that believes in miracles and preaches hope amid darkness. We too are like Anne Frank, a young woman hiding in an attic during some of the darkest days of our people’s history, saying, “Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart” and “I must uphold my ideals, for perhaps the time will come when I will be able to carry them out.”

Amid our fears and sadness over the past couple of weeks, we have seen great compassion and goodwill, outreach from across the religious spectrum. Perhaps, the strongest support we have received has come from the Muslim refugee community here, people who know persecution and oppression.

We saw perhaps 1,000 people gather for our community vigil, including dozens of members of the clergy and political leaders from both parties. It was a tremendous showing of love and concern and we appreciated it very much.

But as we seemingly face both rising antisemitism and an increased willingness to act upon hatred, our challenge is to go beyond thoughts and prayers to effective actions.

The darkness of the age old hatred of Jews yet endures. We cannot ever forget that it is there, neither because it regularly resurfaces, nor because we always must be mindful that it could flourish in the right conditions.

On this anniversary of the night of broken glass, we must remember that our Shalom, the peace in our lives, which our tradition likens to a Sukkah, is very much like crystal glass as well. The whole shatters when but a small piece is pierced. We have learned through the generations to sweep up, to make repairs, and to go on with life. But we go on remembering, ever mindful, ever aware.

Tonight, as we remember the events of 80 years ago and those in recent weeks, we also need to remember what has happened since, that we have survived the utter darkness and we once again thrive as a Jewish people.

  • We have made a difference and brought goodness into the world.
  • We re-established a Jewish nation a decade after Krystallnacht.
  • We have gathered threatened exiles from a myriad of nations and helped them create new homes with new hopes.
  • We danced Hava Nagilah on the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem within a few years of the last flames of the furnaces being extinguished.
  • Our culture thrives.
  • Our religious traditions are maintained and expanded.
  • Our contributions to science and the arts have been taken to yet new heights.
  • The Jewish state is strong and secure, as is the Jewish community in the United States of America.
  • There is a bright Jewish future.

But tonight, around the country, the Jewish community is fearful enough that security is a priority and armed guards are seen by many as an absolute necessity. In Europe, for many years now, that has been the case. I do not know that our community will always feel that necessity, but we feel it now. We feel a need for the extra security cameras and the locked doors as well.

This Shabbat, as we read of the story of two nations battling each other in Rebecca’s womb, of Jacob and Esau, each representing competing characteristics, let us choose to be joyful and idealistic instead of sad, angry, and fearful. Let us, like Ann Frank, go forward trusting in the goodness of those who show us caring and not allow ourselves to so easily succumb to cynicism.

There is indeed evil in the world. We don’t need to look too hard to find it.

Our challenge, today, as it has been time and again in our past,

Will be to not become lost to our fears,

But to maintain our commitment to our values:

To welcome with audacious hospitality rather than wariness,

To respond to hatred with Remember the stranger and Love thy neighbor,

Rather than to become haters ourselves,

To kindle light amid the darkness and

Even walking through the darkest valleys,

The valleys darkened by the shadow of death,

May we ever focus on that light.

We are Jews.

We remember.

Shabbat Shalom.