Thursday, November 4, 2010
Next Tuesday evening marks the seventy-second anniversary of Kristallnacht, the great nation-wide pogrom in Germany and Austria that in the eyes of one eye-witness “changed everything.” As indeed it did! Up until that point, Nazi anti-Semitism, for all it was virulently promulgated and for all Jews living under Nazi rule had prior to 1938 suffered indignation after indignation as their civil and human rights were slowly—and through an exquisitely “legal” process—taken from them, the ultimate horrors of the Shoah were first accurately presaged by the events of November 9-10 during which almost a hundred Jews were murdered, about 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and taken to concentration camps where more than a thousand eventually died, and almost two thousand synagogues were either ransacked or burnt to the ground.
That the Nazis meant business was no secret even before Kristallnacht. But that they were prepared to know no restraint at all of any sort—in other words, that they were prepared to sink past the savage to the level of the truly inhuman—that first became crystal clear to the world outside Germany (and perhaps also to many inside the Reich as well) as the sun rose on the tenth of November and, as sometimes occurs in the course of human events, the landscape was nothing at all like it was the previous day. Not for the Jews, certainly. But also not for the Germans who crossed a line that night back across which they themselves would soon be powerless to retreat. For people like myself who feel obliged by the facts to interpret the events of the Shoah in terms of the possibility of nations choosing to join the realm of the demonic, Kristallnacht is suggestive of the great truth that once nations (in this not unlike people) sell their souls to the devil they can only buy them back when the devil is ready to deal. And, as any student of Jewish history knows all too well, Samael rarely if ever folds his cards while still ahead in the game. (Do readers know who Samael is? I’ll write in more detail about him another time, but the short version is that he serves in kabbalistic mythology as king of the demonic realm, thus as the embodiment of depravity, debauchery, and evil. I hope one day to write a book about the Shoah in terms of traditional Jewish demonology. One day!)
Nor does it seem odd to me that, at least at Shelter Rock, we mark the annual observance both of Kristallnacht and Yom Hashoah, the memorial day for the martyrs of the Nazi era observed on the twenty-seventh day of Nisan each spring. Obviously, they’re related. They’re even intimately related, but they also have different messages to impart. Yom Hashoah—or more properly Yom Hazikaron Lashoah Velagevurah, “Holocaust and Heroism Memorial Day”—is a day devoted to remembering the martyrs, to forcing ourselves not to look away from the camps and the execution pits, from instances of moral degeneracy and brutalization too numerous even to count let alone truly to fathom. Kristallnacht is about the Shoah, but also about the years leading up to the Shoah, about the way a nation slowly turned from decency to perverse criminality of the most violent and terrible kind, about the way that things can change for the worse almost (at least at first) without anyone taking too much notice or understanding the implications of the present for the future. Kristallnacht is thus not solely about remembering, but also about the need to remain ever vigilant in the defense of human rights and in the ongoing and never-ending battle against anti-Semitism. And it is about our obligation to turn away from the fantasy that somehow politics has to do far more importantly with the government itself and those who serve in it than in any truly consequential way with the people governed by that government. (How many times have you heard someone voice the opinion that governments come and go but the lot of the governed remains basically the same regardless of who is in power? Kristallnacht exists to negate that opinion totally and absolutely.) We do want to believe that things never change. We all enjoy thinking that change itself is not only not inevitable but almost impossible, that how things are is how things always will be. There’s great comfort in that sense of permanence, but the Jews of Germany found out just how quickly and totally things can deteriorate on the evening of November 9, 1938. We gather to remember the events of that evening partially out of solidarity with the ghosts of the kedoshim and their legacy, but also to re-affirm our own commitment to remaining ever vigilant, ever watchful, ever aware of how things are out there in the great big world beyond the confines of our happy, slightly insular community. On Yom Hashoah, we close our eyes to the world and focus on remembering our martyrs, our kedoshim. On Kristallnacht, we open our eyes to the world and focus on the ways we must labor to make the world safe for our own children and grandchildren.
As many of you know, Joan and I (and also baby Max) lived in Germany for two years in the mid-1980s. I haven’t written much about those years, but I’d like to write about one specific aspect of our stay in Heidelberg here and specifically with reference to our first Kristallnacht on German soil.
It was an odd time in our lives. We thought we had left New York for one year so I could spend two semesters as a fellow at the Hebrew University. But then I was approached by Shmaryahu Talmon, a professor of Bible in Jerusalem who also served as the rector of the Institute for Jewish Studies attached to the University of Heidelberg. He asked if we would consider spending a few years in Germany, if we would like to be part of the great effort to re-establish Jewish learning and Jewish culture in Germany. It sounded beyond intriguing. The salary was exceptional, even by American standards. Our stuff was all in storage anyway. Max was years away even from attending Nursery School. (He was four months old when we arrived in Heidelberg.) I felt challenged by the obligation to deliver my lectures in German, a language I could read well but which I had little practice speaking even informally. But I also felt myself drawn to the enterprise…and not least of all because of the role the Shoah played even in then in my thinking about my own Jewishness and my place in the world. There was something about seeing this place up close, about matching the fantasy to the reality, about actually encountering these monsters in their own lair. And, of course, also about serving the Jews who remained in Germany and meeting Jewish students of a kind I had earlier barely known to exist.
We settled into a nice apartment in Rohrbach, once its own little village but now part of greater Heidelberg. It was, we soon realized, the real thing we had somehow wandered into. The nice lady downstairs mentioned to me in passing one Sunday morning as she was leaving for church that her fiancé had fallen “in the east.” (She didn’t need to add on which side he had been fighting.) The slightly demented old guy in the apartment across from ours actually had been a Nazi soldier, which detail he shared with me one evening as I came home to find him moving most of his furniture onto the landing between our two front doors as part of some imaginary air raid drill he was internally reliving. Even the nice couple upstairs, he an Australian and she a German dance teacher, kept an enormous, larger-than-life-sized bust of Golda Meir (of all people) hidden in a huge armoire in their living room as some sort of weird, slightly creepy, way of affirming their non-Nazi-ness to whomever they felt inclined to make that point. It was, in a word, both just as we had imagined it was going to be and also nothing at all like what we had imagined Germany would be like. But I had signed a contract to remain for two years…and so there was nothing to do but make the best of it. At the very least, we told ourselves, our German would improve!
Up the road a piece from our apartment house was the site of the Rohrbach synagogue burnt to the ground on Kristallnacht. I learned this soon after we arrived not by being told about it, but simply one day on the way home from the grocer’s by walking past a low pillar emblazoned with the single Hebrew word chai that a nearby plaque noted marked the spot of the former synagogue. I had heard about Kristallnacht my whole life. To some degree, I had internalized the horror and allowed it to become a motivating factor both in my career choice and in the direction in which I grew to adulthood both in terms of my Judaism and my Jewishness. Our next neighbor when I was a boy was a woman who had experienced the events of Kristallnacht in Vienna and who had escaped Austria barely a month or two later. So I certainly knew all about the events of November 9, 1938…but somehow none of that prepared me for that moment on a crisp, fall day when, carrying two bags of fruit and vegetables, I suddenly found myself standing on the all-too-real site of a synagogue actually burnt to the ground in the course of that horrific night.
Later, I found a book in the university library and read up on the details. The Nazi Student Organization began its work that evening in Heidelberg proper, taking as its first priority the destruction of the beautiful synagogue on the Grosse Mantelstrasse that at that time had served Heidelberg Jewry for three quarters of a century. By the time they were done, it was already 4:30 in the morning, but their leader, a man named Chelius, urged them on towards Rohrbach, about a kilometer or so south of the then city limits, where they attended to the destruction of the synagogue on the Rathausstrasse there as well. First the contents of the synagogue was taken into the street and burnt to ash. The fire department was in attendance, but only to make sure the fire didn’t spread to neighboring buildings. The police, apparently not considering any crime to be taking place, stayed away entirely. The most prominent Jewish resident of Rohrbach, a man named Siegmund Beer who lived just up the Rathausstrasse from the synagogue was arrested and, along with 150 other Heidelberg Jews, sent to Dachau. The synagogue building was left an empty shell, but not fully destroyed. Soon enough, however, it was declared a danger and torn down properly. And thus the religious life of a Jewish community that had existed in that place for hundreds of years came to an end.
In the course of our years in Germany, I walked by that pillar almost every single day. I imagined that eventually I would stop noticing it, stop feeling duty-bound to stop and ponder its implications, stop feeling obliged to stop in my path every single time I walked by to read the plaque again. But that never happened and, in the end, I never failed to stop, never failed to read the inscription, never failed to pause for a moment to ask myself how I could live in that place and among those people. In the end, I suppose I must have grown tired of asking myself that question.
After two years, we left. I only knew one other Jew in Rohrbach, the elderly man who served the synagogue in Heidelberg proper—in those days just a prayer room over a store but now a full-fledged synagogue with its own building—as its shammas. If there were other Jews in Rohrbach, they didn't present themselves to me. As we packed up and looked after selling our car and finding a way to ship our stuff to Vancouver, I remember wondering who would stop to ponder that marker and its plaque once we would be gone. Was it rational to expect the locals to care? They were mostly born after the way. Even the older ones hadn’t personally destroyed the Rohrbach synagogue and so had every reason not to feel involved in the matter. (If any members of the SA-Studentensturm group that actually had destroyed the synagogues in Heidelberg and Rohrbach survived the war and settled in Heidelberg after the war, I obviously had no way to know. But I preferred to imagine them all consigned to whatever depth of hell is reserved for people such as themselves and their leaders. Imagining that any of them might yet have been alive and well and living in my neighborhood was just too much to imagine. I preferred to close my eyes to that being even remotely possible. But in my heart I knew I was lying to myself…and that too was why we felt eventually that we had to leave.)
And we did leave, only returning for a few days’ visit twenty years later. In 2006, two decades after packing up and leaving, Joan and I decided to spend a night in Heidelberg on our way to Israel. We wanted to see how it looked, how our house was faring, what the school and the new synagogue looked like. But mostly I wanted to walk up the Rathausstrasse and visit that pillar and its plaque. Which I did. It looked the same. It was a cool July day. No one was around. It was just Joan, me, and the ghosts. We hadn’t seen each other for a while, but reunions can only be heartfelt to a certain degree when one side says nothing at all. But silent or not I knew them to be present. And I found myself glad to have given two years of my life to honoring their memory with my daily pilgrimage to the site of their synagogue…and happy also to have left and, until that very moment, never to have returned.