Rabbi Dan Ornstein: Kristallnakht

Nov 26, 2015

Between November 9 and 10, 1938, Nazi authorities fomented violence against the entire population of German Jews.  Thugs vandalized and looted Jewish owned establishments, homes and synagogues, and dragged their Jewish neighbors into the streets, brutalizing and killing them.  This date in history is generally regarded by historians as the beginning of the Holocaust. Kristallnakht, the Night of Broken Glass, as it was later referred to, is commemorated annually on those days.  To mark Kristallnakht this year, my wife and I attended a viewing of Oren Jacoby’s documentary, My Italian Secret, which chronicles the courageous activities of Italians who hid and saved Jews under Mussolini’s Fascist regime.  The film shows how citizens ranging from Gino Bartali, the celebrity cyclist, to long forgotten priests and nuns living in the countryside risked their lives to hide Jewish refugees simply because it was the right thing to do.  These stories are very personal for Jews, and they are especially personal for my wife’s family.  She recently returned from a heritage trip to Germany, where she retraced her family’s history, including her grandparents’ escape from the Fatherland in the late 1930’s before Hitler could grab them. 

After the film, as we left the theater and walked in the rain, I turned to her and asked,

“So, where would we hide them?” 

“Uh, hide whom?” she responded. 

“You know, the people who would be persecuted in America if Donald Trump or some other demagogue comes to power?” I said. 

She looked at me with that sarcastic eye reserved for spouses and said, “I guess we’ll need to put an addition on the house.” 

“Yes,” I said, “That might be a good idea.  By the way, if the new Fascist government comes for us, where would we go?”  

Wearied by my paranoid fantasies that I trot out when I’m anxious about the political climate, she responded, “Well, you know, as the descendant of German citizens, I’m eligible for citizenship.  We could just go to Germany!”

Aside from the fact that our family would make a beeline for Israel if American politics got ugly for Jews, there is something bitterly ironic about my wife’s suggestion, seventy years after the end of the Third Reich.  Perhaps in response to its dark history, Germany now leads the EU in hosting refugees from Syria and elsewhere who are fleeing genocide and other persecutions.  It is also home to a thriving community of over 100,000 Jews, along with a lot of judeophile non-Jewish Germans eager to exorcise their nation’s old racist demons.  Who could have imagined a rehabilitated Germany modeling politically just behavior for anyone?

I think about those Italian rescuers then and the Germans now, and I wonder fearfully about what we would do if we needed to escape America.  Yet I also wonder whether we would find the courage to protect persecuted people, if a dystopian America decided to turn its venom on a minority other than the Jews. My wife always tells me that speculative questions like these are irrelevant. One can neither tell the future nor plan for a moral challenge this great.  Our integrity is tested quite spontaneously in the moment of confrontation, and it is nearly impossible to judge before or after the fact the choices that people make in such extreme circumstances. 

Still, I want to believe that the values I have been raised with and am living would compel me to welcome in a persecuted neighbor looking for a hiding place.  Hopefully, that knock on my door will never come.  Meanwhile, Thanksgiving is approaching, and it is possible that thousands of terrorized refugees will be invited to our shores, with the dark suspicion of ISIS terrorists hiding within their ranks looming over them.  Perhaps this is the new moment of confrontation which will test the angels of our better or our meaner natures as Americans.  What refuge, if any, will we have to offer?

Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY.

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