By Rabbi Lance J. Sussman
Kristallnacht is very personal to me. On the evening of Nov. 9, 1938, my grandfather, grandmother and uncle watched their synagogue burn to the ground in Bamberg, Germany. From their front window, they could see across the Regnitz River and its canals. Hoping to save just one Torah from the synagogue’s collection, the leader of the Bamberg Jewish community, Willy Lessing, pleaded with the Nazis in front of the building who, in turn, fatally beat him with iron bars before defacing the synagogue, tearing up all of its Torahs and then setting the structure on fire. Later that night, the Gestapo came and arrested my grandfather, Max Sacki, who was released with the help of a non-Jewish friend. HE gathered his family and quickly arranged to take his family to Holland.
Although only a member of the Second Generation, the trauma of Nov. 9-10 has had a major effect on my life as if it was my own personal experience. So, when I received a call from an old friend and New York-based colleague, Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum, president of the North American Board of Rabbis, a 1999 offshoot of the New York Board of Rabbis, to join him and two dozen other rabbis, cantors and civic officials for a “Mission of Solidarity and Hope” commemorating the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht in Germany, the answer was yes.
Our visit lasted from Nov. 6 to 11, although I came early for Shabbat. The mission was flawless in vision, detail and implementation. I returned home better informed about Kristallnacht and the current situation in Germany, especially with respect to the rise of neo-Nazism in some of the country’s eastern states.
A complete account of our trip is beyond the scope of this report, but several highlights stand out and are important to share. The trip was organized by the Goethe-Institut on behalf of Germany’s Federal Foreign Office. Throughout our trip we were accompanied by David Gill, the German consul in New York, who provided excellent commentary. We also had excellent English-speaking guides provided by the Goethe-Institut.
Our opening program was at Bleibergs, a kosher restaurant near our hotel in Berlin in the Tiergarten section of the capital city. Our host was Stephan Steinlein, head of the Office of the Federal President. Later in the trip, our group was invited to hear Federal President Angela Merkel speak at the Rykestrasse Synagogue, along with other visiting groups including the American Jewish Committee and members of the Berlin Jewish community.
The principle speakers were Michaela Kuechler, special representative for relations with Jewish organizations, and Dagmar Pruin, managing director of the Action Reconciliation Service for Peace. From them we learned about Germany’s current Jewish community, which may be as large as 225,000, people and their efforts in rebuilding Jewish life in Germany. We also learned about the rise of the alt-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) and its increasing political presence in the country.
On day two, we traveled south to Dresden by train to meet with officials at the Landestag there and have a lengthy luncheon and discussion with Michael Krethschmer, the president of Saxony and a leading member of the ruling conservative Christian Democratic Union party. Saxony is one of Germany’s easternmost provinces and includes the cities of Dresden, Leipzig and Cheminitz. Saxony suffers from relatively high employment and culturally is one of the most Protestant regions of Germany. Anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic attitudes are higher in Saxony than in much of the rest of Germany.
It was a relief for us to meet with 250 students at Dresden’s Evangelisches Kreuzgymnasium (high school) and listen to their spectacular Boys’ Choir, which presented two pieces by Felix Mendelsohn. A dozen of the school’s upper class students made presentations to us in perfect English about their relationship to Germany’s past. Many made a sophisticated distinction between guilt and shame. As young people, they argued, they are not guilty of genocide, but as Germans, they are deeply ashamed of their country’s recent past. The presence of Rabbi James Gibson from Pittsburgh’s Temple Sinai in our group was deeply moving to the students, who gave him a thunderous applause.
For me, the highlight of the trip was on the third day. In the morning, we went to the Bundestag, Germany’s federal parliament, and met with Kerstin Griese, a Member of Parliament and a representative of the Social Democratic party. It was my honor to introduce our group to Griese, who then spoke with us about Germany today, and the need to fight anti-Semitism and support for Israel. From there, we participated in a march through downtown Berlin with several thousand people in commemoration of Kristallnacht, ending at the Foundation Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe located just south of the Brandenburg Gate in the heart of the city. At the memorial, the names of more than 55,000 murdered Berlin Jews were read by a variety of speakers, including city officials, a rabbi, day school students and an imam. People in the street were quiet and respectful.
My final event in Berlin was at the Foreign Office, where we were present for the opening of a new exhibition on “From the Inside to the Outside: The November Pogroms of 1938 in Diplomat’s Reports from Germany.” Our principle speaker was Heiko Maas, the German foreign minister, who again repeated the pledge “never to forget” and to work actively against anti-Semitism and hate. In general, Germans no longer speak of Kristallnacht, as it is a term developed by the Nazis as a euphemism. They instead prefer to call the events of Nov. 9-10, 1938 the “November Pogrom.”
Whatever you went to call Kristallnacht, it was a singular moment which demonstrated to the world what the Nazis were capable of in terms of anti-Jewish violence.
At the time, the world was repelled by the pogrom but, in fact, did nothing. The rest is an unparalleled brutal tale of horror.
I have been to Germany many times and appreciate what its government and schools are doing with respect to Holocaust documentation, education and memorialization. But the more I learn, the less I understand of the Shoah and its betrayal of all human decency.
Rabbi Lance J. Sussman is the senior rabbi of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park and the vice chair of the Board of Governors at Gratz College in Melrose Park.