In a twist of irony, in the years leading up to Kristallnacht, synagogues in Germany became community centers and fostered a kind of renaissance of Jewish life, historian Michael Berenbaum told an audience Nov. 9 at the College of Saint Elizabeth in Morristown.
Giving the talk as part of a week of Holocaust remembrance at the Catholic college, he added that after Kristallnacht — the Nov. 9-10, 1938, attacks on Jews and synagogues and Jewish homes and businesses in Germany and Austria, which is regarded as the first major action of the Holocaust — the synagogue “became a lifeline for the Jewish community, a hub of activity.”
Berenbaum is founding research director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and director of the Sigi Ziering Institute: Exploring the Ethical and Religious Implications of the Holocaust, at American Jewish University in California.
According to Berenbaum, before the economic rights and privileges of Jews were stripped away between 1933 and 1938 (and to some extent until 1941, when the Nazi enmity evolved into genocide), the synagogue stood largely as a marker of “the arrival of Jews in the cultural and economic life of Germany.” Like Manhattan’s Temple Emanu-El, “built on the tony Upper East Side, meant to denote the power of the Jewish community,” he said, they became “less about prayer and more about being a symbol of affluence.”
Synagogues in Germany became sites of Jewish schools for children banned from German schools, staffed by professors barred from working at universities and high schools. They offered a place for those seeking to escape to search for visas and and “find out which countries were the least inhospitable” to Jews. Synagogues also became a performance halls for Jewish musicians and conductors no longer welcome in the country’s orchestras. And, increasingly, they were places where Jews turned to prayer as a form of spiritual resistance when clergy were forbidden to preach.
“Jews turned inward, looking to Judaism for solace and inspiration with a passion they hadn’t felt before,” Berenbaum said.
Nov. 9, 1938, marked a turning point. After that, he said, “most Jews were without illusions that Jewish life in the Reich was impossible. Some committed suicide. Some tried to leave. They knew they could not stay, but many had nowhere to go.”
Berenbaum took issue with the term selected for Nov. 9-10. Kristallnacht, he said, is mistranslated as the “Night of Broken Glass.” In German it is the “Night of Crystal,” which “denotes something delicate and beautiful; it beautifies and falsifies the event,” he continued. In Germany, the language has shifted, and the eruption of violence is now known as the November Pogroms. But even that is misleading, because “it conveys…lawlessness,” and that is problematic, he said, because the events of Nov. 9-10 “came at the instigation of the Nazi Party” and were therefore lawful.
More than 300 people attended Berenbaum’s keynote address at the Kristallnacht commemoration. He spoke at the inaugural event in 1990 and promised to return again in 25 years. However, he added, “My dream is [that] I would like, before I leave this earth, to be irrelevant.”
Preceding Berenbaum’s presentation, Fred Heyman, a Holocaust survivor who lives in Morristown, offered his own recollections of Kristallnacht as a child in Germany. With survivor Ann Monka of Montville singing with them for one selection, the Ashrey Choir, a community teen ensemble directed by Cantor Joel Caplan, performed songs about the Holocaust.
The week-long series of talks, screenings, and open classroom for the 25th Week of Holocaust Remembrance was sponsored by the college’s Center for Holocaust and Genocide Education. Other sessions included an interfaith dialogue on the significance of Nostra Aetate that featured Rabbi David Nesson of the Morristown Jewish Center-Beit Yisrael and Dr. Carol Rittner, a member of the Sisters of Mercy and professor emerita of Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Richard Stockton University.
The program will also feature, on Thursday, Nov. 12, at 6:30 p.m., testimony from Monka, who survived the war in Poland, and her daughter, on Friday, Nov. 13, at 12:30 p.m.; a talk on the mysterious death of Alberto Nisman, chief investigator of the 1994 bombing of the Jewish center in Buenos Aires, by Chantal Berthet, assistant professor of global studies, and, also at 12:30 p.m., a talk by Dr. Anne Langan, associate professor of sociology, on the International Criminal Court. Visit cse.edu/kristallnacht2015 for the schedule.