Between the statue honoring the 6 million Jewish martyrs of the Holocaust and the museum-like pillars juxtaposing the totalitarian Nazi Germany regime with the democratic United States, the Horwitz-Wasserman Holocaust Memorial Plaza stands as a Center City monument to historical memory.
And on Nov. 9, the 83rd anniversary of Kristallnacht, the Nazi pogrom that ended with the party sending 30,000 Jews to concentration camps, starting the Holocaust in earnest, the plaza lived up to that vital role.
The Philadelphia Holocaust Remembrance Foundation, which operates the Benjamin Franklin Parkway space, hosted “Reflection and Resilience,” an event remembering the infamous “Night of Broken Glass,” in which Nazi paramilitary forces and German civilians smashed thousands of Jewish homes, businesses, hospitals and schools.
The party’s official reason for the atrocity, which killed more than 90 Jews, was the assassination of German diplomat Ernst vom Rath in Paris by a Jew, Herschel Grynszpan.
At “Reflection and Resilience,” Sophie Don, the senior manager of the Remembrance Foundation, opened with a speech explaining why remembering Kristallnacht is essential. Then, Jessi Roemer, the cantor at the Society Hill Synagogue in Philly, and Veronica Jurkiewicz, a local musician, performed a series of songs, including the Mourner’s Kaddish. In between renditions, Molly Wernick, a South Philadelphia-based activist and educator, read a poem about the importance of remembering.
About 50 local Jews gathered in the plaza for its first-ever Kristallnacht event.
The statue was unveiled in 1964 as the first Holocaust memorial in the United States. The space expanded into a plaza in 2018.
“It’s really important to remember today,” said Eszter Kutas, the executive director of the Remembrance Foundation, of Kristallnacht. “We’re experiencing historical highs in the United States of antisemitism in the past five years.”
After opening, the plaza was only used for Yom HaShoah events each spring. Otherwise, it was an open space in which locals could visit, observe the statue and read the pillars.
Don explained that in 2018 and 2019 the foundation was figuring out its role. Then the pandemic happened, postponing additional gatherings.
But in September 2020, with society reopening, the foundation hosted an event called “Stand Against Bigotry,” at which city council members spoke about building bridges across communities.
And once the calendar flipped to 2021, Don and Kutas started putting together a full schedule.
The School District of Philadelphia and other local districts have brought middle and high school students. In May, the foundation held a book giveaway to remember the 1933 Nazi book burnings. Finally, in November, it hosted the remembrance night for Kristallnacht, the pogrom that Kutas described as “the beginning of the end” for Jews in Germany.
She deliberately used that description, she said. According to Kutas, it’s essential to remember more than just the Holocaust and the concentration camps.
The Nazis only got to that point after years of foreshadowing. Hitler became chancellor in 1933, then made his own word the rule of law in 1934. The next year, he passed the Nuremberg Laws, which forbade Jews from marrying Germans and stripped Jews of their citizenship.
All of that happened before Kristallnacht — and Kristallnacht occurred before the Nazis segregated Jews into ghettos and declared the Final Solution.
This is why, Kutas said, it’s vital to remember every step that led to the Holocaust, and to recognize every present-day outbreak of antisemitism.
That first task becomes even more important as the remaining Holocaust survivors die, she added.
“How do we relate these stories when we are 80-some years after Kristallnacht?”
The event was one answer. The 50 or so attendees were young and old, men and women, Jews from the city and the suburbs.
Mark Steinberger of Philadelphia said he still has his father’s 1938 copy of a New York paper reporting Kristallnacht.
“It was the expansion of the suffering that led to the murders,” he said.
Yulia Shpilman of Devon spent the first decade of her life in the Soviet Union, where her family had to mark its Jewish identity on birth certificates and passports and had limited access to key institutions, such as higher education.
“It’s a really important reminder of how fortunate we are, and how fragile democracy can be,” she said of the plaza’s pillars.
Helen Braverman of Center City is the child of Holocaust survivors. Her parents put up some of the money for the martyr statue. Braverman came to honor their legacy.
“We’ve got to carry on this memory so the world doesn’t forget,” she concluded. “Anything we do, any little bit, any big thing, is important.”
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