Columns General story Jeffrey Salkin: Martini Judaism Opinion

Kristallnacht matters more than ever

A boy cleans the street after Kristallnacht in November 1938. Religion News service file photo

The man who ordained me as a rabbi was Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk. He served as the president of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion from 1971 until his retirement in 1996.

Whether it was on the bima of Congregation Emanuel in New York City (which is where I was ordained) or on the bima of Plum Street Temple (which is where Rabbi Frazen was was ordained), or at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, at the moment of ordination, he would look each of us in the eye and he would ask each one of us if we were ready for the awesome responsibility of being a rabbi in Israel, a rabbi for the entire Jewish people.

Alfred Gottschalk was not my principle teacher, nor was he my principle influence in the rabbinate. But we had a warm, affectionate, often humor-filled relationship over the years, especially when we would see each other on the streets in Jerusalem or at services there at the college. But in a real sense, he became my teacher. Not in life, but in a story that I first learned about him after he died. I invite you to learn from that story as well.

It is a story about Kristallnacht.

On November 9, 1938, eighty years ago this evening — Alfred Gottschalk was barely eight years old. That was Kristallnacht – the “night of broken glass.” That was the night when, all across Germany and Austria, Nazi thugs burned synagogues – among them the most beautiful synagogues in Europe – 267 synagogues in all. They destroyed Jewish homes and approximately 7000 Jewish businesses. 91 Jews were murdered. Many more Jews, crippled by depression and despair, took their own lives. 30,000 Jewish men were taken away and put into concentration camps.

Eighty years ago this evening – it was the beginning of the end for German Jewry, and for European Jewry. It started with boycotts, and restrictions that forbade Jews from serving in various professions, studying in universities, shopping in various stores, having gentiles patronize Jewish businesses….until it was too late.

This is an eyewitness report – of just one small thing that happened on those nights of broken glass. One small scene. This is the face of evil.

The object of the mob’s hate was a hospital for sick Jewish children, many of them cripples. In minutes the windows had been smashed and the doors forced. When we arrived, the swine were forcing the wee children out over the broken glass, bare-footed and wearing nothing but their night-shirts. The nurses, doctors, and attendants were being kicked and beaten by the mob leaders, most of whom were women….

[The eyewitness continues]: I saw a piano in the middle of the street, and a German was playing it. He laughed. “Ha, Ha. It still works. The Jew piano can still play.” [From Leonard Baker, Days of Sorrow and Pain: Leo Baeck and the Berlin Jews]

Rabbi Gottschalk grew up in the tiny German village of Oberwesel. The residents of Oberwesel revered the memory of a young Christian boy named Werner, who allegedly was murdered by Jews in the Middle Ages. In later years, Rabbi Gottschalk would remember that his childhood was essentially peaceful, except for the annual observance of Werner’s Day, when his friends would suddenly turn on him and beat him up, in memory of young Werner whom the Jews had supposedly murdered.

In Oberwesel, it was slightly different. The rabble could not set the synagogue ablaze because it was too close to the homes of so-called “good Germans.”

So the Nazis ransacked it for whatever they could find — and then they tore up the Torah scrolls, and then they tossed the pieces of parchment into a creek.

The next morning, young Alfred Gottschalk and his grandfather waded into the creek. Together, they pulled the saturated pieces of Torah parchment out of the water.

This is what Alfred’s grandfather said to him:

“Some day,” his grandfather told him, “Someday, Alfred, you will put the scroll together again.” 

For the rest of his life, Alfred Gottschalk put the pieces of Torah back together again.

The good news, the godly news, the redemptive news: We are of a generation that has both the will and the ability to put the Torah back together again.

Despite the temptation, in the wake of the horror in Pittsburgh, which is a wound to American Jewry and American Judaism that will not heal – to dwell on the pain, and the realization that there are many people in the world, and in America, many people on the far right, and on the far left, who hate the Jewish people – we must be vigilant – in order to protect the safety of Jews.

But we must also be vigilant – to protect the safety of Judaism.

Last Shabbat, the synagogues of America were filled. We came together. We felt the support of the larger community.

But, let us not rely on the external dangers to bolster Jewish life. Such upticks in our consciousness are bound to be short-lived. A people needs a radar – but it also needs a rudder.

Let me conclude as I began – with a memory of Kristallnacht.

Emil Fackenheim was one of the greatest Jewish thinkers of our time. He had been a rabbinical student in Berlin before the war.

In the wake of Kristallnacht, Fackenheim found himself in a prison cell with more than twenty Jewish men. The cell was filled with despair. Then an older man spoke up: “You, Fackenheim! You are a student of Judaism! You know more than the rest of us here. You tell us what Judaism has to say to us now! [From Emil Fackenheim, What is Judaism?]

That is what we ask ourselves: What does Judaism have to say to us now?

And it is to know, to quote the evil piano player: The Jew piano still plays. It still works. It still has sweet and compelling and transformative music to offer to our people, and to the world.

[excerpted from my sermon for this evening at Temple Solel, Hollywood, FL]

About the author

Jeffrey Salkin

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality and ethics, published by Jewish Lights Publishing and Jewish Publication Society.

22 Comments

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  • There is some debate on the Kristallnacht 9/11 event: “In 1938 there were approximately 1,400 synagogues in Germany, of which only about 180 were destroyed or damaged. Furthermore, Jews owned approximately 100,000 shops and department stores in Germany in 1938. Of this number, only about 7,500 had their windows broken… History writers tell us that during the Crystal Night all the Jews were frightened, meekly accepted whatever happened to them and watched the destruction of their property with no resistance. The contrary is true. While going through the files on this subject, I found many documents which report precisely just the opposite of what is claimed. The fact is that in many cases Jews and their German neighbors fought together against the attackers, pushing them down staircases. Street mobs were beaten up and chased away in more than one case. Police and Party officials were generally on the side of the Jews. Some Jewish community leaders went to police stations the next morning and asked the police to investigate the damage done to their synagogues. The resulting police reports are still available in the files today…. it seems entirely plausible that certain Jewish groups were involved. The [Jewish organization] LICA was almost certainly involved in the murder of vom Rath”.

    Source: Ingrid Wecket, IHR Vol. 6, No. 2

  • Now for people who weren’t proven to the world to be lying neo-nazis.

    IHR got its keitster sued for defamation and had to pay out.
    https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/mel-mermelstein-survived-auschwitz-then-sued-holocaust-deniers-court-180970123/

    But really, Roy, no.

    https://www.hdot.org/portfolio_category/kristallnacht/

    [I show my work because I am not embarrassed by the people I copy and paste from]

    How do we know Adolf Hitler authorized the Kristallnacht pogrom?
    As a means of exonerating Adolf Hitler, many Holocaust deniers claim:
    Adolf Hitler did not know about and did not authorize the Kristallnacht pogrom.

    Holocaust denier David Irving asserts that Josef Goebbels, the Minister of Propaganda, initiated the pogrom without Hitler’s knowledge or permission.[1]

    The facts are:
    Available evidence shows that Adolf Hitler knew about and authorized the Kristallnacht pogrom. In the early evening of November 9, 1938, Josef Goebbels informed Hitler of the first stirrings of widespread pogrom activity. Hitler gave his authorization for the violence of Kristallnacht to be continued, even increased.

    The facts about Hitler’s knowledge and authorization of Kristallnacht:
    Nazi German diplomat Ernst vom Rath was assassinated by a Jewish teenager in Paris on November 9, 1938. Vom Rath died at 5:30 p.m. By early that evening, several cases of antisemitic violence had already take place in Germany. Josef Goebbels, the Nazi Minister of Propaganda, was informed that disturbances had broken out in two locations in Germany. Hitler and Goebbels discussed these incidents before attending a dinner together at the Old Town Hall in Munich.

    Several eyewitnesses reported that Goebbels and Hitler had an intense discussion together at dinner that night. Goebbels’ diary entry for that day read: “I go to the Party reception in the Old Town Hall. Colossal activity. I brief the Führer about the matter. He orders: let the demonstrations go on. Withdraw the police. The Jews must for once feel the people’s fury.

    That is right.”[2] Hitler left the dinner around 9:00 p.m., strangely allowing Goebbels to give the speech that Hitler himself had given for the previous five years. The report of the Supreme Nazi Party Court, held after the pogrom, stated that Goebbels gave a rousing speech in which he informed the Gauleiters (party district leaders) of the disorder already erupting in parts of Germany.

    Attendees recalled that Goebbels invoked Hitler’s approval of the violence, including future violence against Jews: “on his briefing, the Führer has decided” that future demonstrations should not be stopped.[3] The Gauleiters at the meeting understood their orders as such: “the Party should not appear to the outside world as the originator of the demonstrations, but should in reality organize them and carry them out.”[4] After Goebbels’ speech, they rushed to the telephones and issued orders to their subordinates across Germany that they should directly incite and/or encourage the violence.

    Conclusion:
    Contrary to the claims of Holocaust deniers, Adolf Hitler knew about and authorized the Kristallnacht pogrom. Reputable scholars assert that the evidence points to the following conclusion: Goebbels fully informed Hitler of antisemitic disturbances in the early evening of November 9, 1938; during his dinner with Goebbels, Hitler authorized more widespread pogrom activity. This activity was organized and encouraged by the SA (Stormtroopers) and SS. Hitler left the dinner so that the international community could not hold him directly responsible for the resulting destruction and violence. With Hitler’s blessing, Goebbels gave Hitler’s keynote speech for him, rousing the Gauleiters into action. They put the plan into effect promptly after his speech.

    NOTES
    [1] Richard J. Evans, David Irving, Hitler and Holocaust Denial, Section (4)(4.3)(c)(ii)(A)(2) at http://www.hdot.org, “Expert Witness Reports.”

    [2] Diary entry of Josef Goebbels, November 9, 1938 as cited in Richard J. Evans, David Irving, Hitler and Holocaust Denial, Section (4)(4.3)(c)(ii)(A)(3-5).

    [3] Richard J. Evans, David Irving, Hitler and Holocaust Denial, Section (4)(4.3)(c)(ii)(B)(5).

    [4] Richard J. Evans, David Irving, Hitler and Holocaust Denial, Section (4)(4.3)(c)(ii)(C)(3).

  • We have a president who incites violence against Jews, Immigrants, Muslims and anyone of color.

    A former AG who called a police reform movement a racial identity extremist group.

  • What struck me about your story is that you say what happened recently was a “Wound to American Jewry”. You need to open your eyes and learn to see it as a “Wound to Humanity”, not just a wound to Jews, or a wound to Americans, it is a “Wound to ALL of Humanity.”

    This hate and divisiveness spewed by Trump and Evangelical Christians and White Nationalists and everyday simple Conservatives “Wounds ALL decent people, ALL people with an intact healthy soul, ALL people with a respect for human dignity and the most basic of freedoms.”.

    This attack isn’t just against Jews it is an attack against ALL of us. You aren’t in this alone. We the people who haven’t lost our souls are in this with you.

    They came for the gypsies but I wasn’t a gypsy so I looked the other way. They came for the homosexuals but I am not a homosexual and so I looked the other way. Then they came for the Jews but I am not a Jew and I looked the other way. Then they came for me and there was no one else left to look.

    I don’t know who first wrote that, I didn’t quote it exactly BUT it holds as true today as when it was first written.

  • Obviously, in an event as large and widespread as Kristallnacht there would be a variety of responses. I’m sure there were pockets of resistance and I’m sure some gentile Germans helped their Jewish neighbors.

    But the notion that the Nazi party was trying to protect Jews is laughable and pathetic, as is the notion that any Jewish groups were responsible. This was orchestrated from the top and encouraged by the Nazi brass. There is plenty of documentation on that fact and no sensible or unbiased person denies that.

  • But the notion that the Nazi party was trying to protect Jews is laughable and pathetic,

    No it’s absolutely not. The Germans were very gracious to the Jews. Auschwitz had many amenities for the inmates — Swimming pool; Recreation — Soccer pitch; Orchestra, Theatre, Post Office…and even a brothel.

    The Jews needed to leave Germany. The Haavara agreement would have been suffice but the “International” Jews weren’t happy with that. They didn’t want all the Jews of the world to reside in one single place.

    http://www.wearswar.wordpress.com
    http://www.codoh.com
    http://www.jan27.org
    http://www.carolynyeager.net

  • There appears to be a constitutional prohibition against a religious test for federal office.

    You should remind Dianne Feinstein.

  • Nothing wrong with pest control. I was of course referring to Muslims. I love taking a s hit and wiping my a ss with pages from the Koran

  • You can stop trying to educate Roy. He is deliberately lying to make Nazis look less like the scum reality made them out to be. He is not ignorant, he just chooses to spread debunked garbage.

  • Looking at events in Broward County, Florida, today, I believe the United States is well on the road to where Deutschland was in 1938, beginning with the predecessor to today’s demand votes not be counted, the Brooks Brothers Riot of 2000.

  • Roy Hobs, you forgot the other amenities at the Camps. Gas chambers, ovens, pits dug to bury those murdered, and you should visit the barracks to see how they lived on crowded shelves, and piles of their shoes, gold teeth. I visited the Camps and saw these remnants of those horrors. Look at the photos of General Eisenhower visiting the Camps and seeing the shriveled bodies of the starved living survivors. Your lying eyes will not deceive you.

  • “…..party was trying to protect Jews is laughable and pathetic…..”

    Auschwitz had a Baby Nursery! Why would the evil Germans care about providing a Nursery for pregnant inmates if they had an evil desire to exterminate all jews?!!!! Makes no logical sense.

    http://www.tomatobubble.com/id966.html

    “Thousands of babies were born in Auschwitz”

  • Roy Hobs’ Statistics on synagogues and Jewish businesses are generally not supported. Nor are his assertions that the police and gentiles helped Jews resist the thugs and hoodlums. Finally, Hobs can’t stand the facts that the Nazis systematically tried to rid Germany and then Poland of all Jews. It was called the Final Silution for a reason: all undesirable Jews were to be exterminated.

  • Well……………………….prominent International Jews were responsible for 9-11…………………so, it’s not a stretch to consider they had a hand in bringing chaos and disruption to Germany.

    See — “Israel did 9-11; all the proof in the world.”

    http://www.bollyn.com

    “The Greatest Story Never Told” by Dennis Wise

    “Communism by the back door” by Dennis Wise

    “Jewish Domination of Weimar Germany” by Eckhart Verlag

    http://www.codoh.com
    http://www.jan27.org
    http://www.barnesreview.org

  • Call this The Other Kristallnacht:

    “My grandmother told and retold her stories about the event known as Kristallnacht throughout her life. … Until I began teaching about the Holocaust at Christian colleges and universities, I had no idea [however] that many of the Jews killed in the Holocaust were professing Christians. … During the war, Theresienstadt was a Jewish ghetto and concentration camp. … Theresienstadt serves as a window into what happened to Christians of Jewish descent during the Holocaust. It is estimated that as many as ten percent of the Jews in Nazi Germany believed in Jesus as the Jewish Messiah. And they suffered and went to their deaths along with their fellow Jews.”

    Source: Judith Rood, “What Happened to Jewish Believers in Jesus in Nazi Germany?”, Jews for Jesus, Volume 21, Number 5.