Friday, January 10, 2014

Vayetze 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht

Vayetze   75th anniversary of Kristallnacht   
            It is very common of us to speak about “Brotherly Love”, so to say that the reminder that we are all brothers will enable us human beings to live in harmony. In truth, whenever I hear of it, my ears perk up. After all, weren’t Cain and Abel brothers-but look what happened!
            Then, this Shabbat, we read of Jacob, who is fleeing for his life from his brother. In last week’s portion, Esau swears that he will kill his brother Jacob over what he sees as the theft of his birthright.
Jacob and Esau become the metaphor for Judea and Rome, and later, Jews and Christian Europe.
In a nutshell, brothers, but in a very dysfunctional relationship, wherein the larger, more powerful brother could easily turn and wreak havoc on the smaller and weaker brother.
I bring this to mind, because this dates marks the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, usually translated as “Night of the Shattered Glass”. It got its nickname from the piles of broken glass from the storefronts of Jewish shopkeepers that had been broken into and vandalized on that fateful November 9 and 10 of 1938. Some 30,000 Jews were rounded up an sent to concentration camps and then to add insult to injury, the Jews were charged with a fine of 1 Billion Marks  and then, all insurance moneys from the tremendous money was to be paid to the Government, not to the Jews.
By its scope and vehemence, it is often thought to be the official start of the Shoah, the Holocaust.
            75 years have gone by, and with the passing of the years, the need to remember grows even stronger. Why do I say that?
            Rhonda Fink Whitman, a journalist, went to the campus of a major university and asks students at random what they knew about the Holocaust. These students were perfectly bright and articulate, and completely ignorant. Not only did they not know of the Holocaust, they did not know what country was involved, did not know that Jews were killed, did not even know what World War II or who President Roosevelt was. I am sure you have heard the quote by George Santayana, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it". If there is reason to worry for the future, these students who have no concept of the past, are reason enough.
            To prevent repeating the past, therefore, I want to touch on several key themes.
            It is easy for a people to descend into dictatorship.
You may know I am pursuing my own research on this period based on my parents’ experience.
My father was in Rabbinical school in Berlin when Hitler came to power and spent two miserable years in a Berlin prison, and upon release, fled to Austria and then to Czechoslovakia, where he was once again captured and imprisoned. Luckily for him, when the Germans invaded Poland in 1939, they kicked out their prisoners to the Soviet lines, and thus my father was able to escape, further on, to Stalingrad and finally to Kirghiz on the border with China.
But ten years before Kristallnacht, my father was a young student of political science, and he completed his doctoral dissertation at the University of Vienna, on “Parliamentary Government-System and Crisis”.  
Keep in mind that when he first typed his thesis, Hitler had just recently come out of Landsberg prison and had not had one decent electoral victory. His Nazi party had won very few seats in the Reichstag and it was so insignificant, that my father did not mention it in his thesis! From the public perspective, this was the Roaring Twenties and the world economy was solid. For the most part, Woodrow Wilson had succeeded in his goal: “The world must be made safe for democracy.”
 The only exceptions at the time were fascist Italy and Communist Russia. Democracy was safe—or so it seemed to everyone-- but not to the young student of political science. Very simply put, in his day, democratic government was proving unworkable, and he warned of the collapse and takeover of government, either by left or right dictatorship, if the parties could not speak to the needs of the people.
He finished his studies, defended his thesis, and on November 14, 1928, he received his signed doctorate. Ten years, almost to the date, of the armistice, Nov. 11, 1918, that brought an end to the Great War to “Make the World Safe for Democracy” and for which we commemorate Veterans Day. It would also be ten years later, almost to the date, of Kristallnacht, Night of the Broken Glass.
The height of irony is in the signature on the diploma- Rector of the University, scholar of the Bible, Theodore Innitzer. He would become Archbishop of Vienna, and then Cardinal. Ten years later, as Cardinal Theodore Innitzer, he would sign a declaration to welcome the Anschluss , the swallowing up of Austria by the Third Reich, and add, at his signature,”Heil Hitler”. The Cardinal lived to regret it.
Democracy had fallen as the young Weinberg had warned.
So you can see how step one in the process of destruction is the failure of government, when good people fail to work out their social problems.  Rabbi Hanina, who lived through the destruction of the 2nd Temple, when Jew turned on Jew, and warned us: Pray for the welfare of the government, for if not for fear of the government, each one would devour his friend alive!
What other theme?
The fear of the crowd. This week, I attended a screening of a new movie, The Book Thief. It is the story of a teenage girl whose foster parents give shelter to a Jew during the Shoah.   We see a town of honest shopkeepers descend from complicity to cooperation until they themselves become engulfed by the evil. The degradation begins with the burning of books in the town square. Books and the realm of ideas are an integral part of the film and so, therefore, the burning of the books presages what we know will happen. The German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine warned us a century before: “Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings.”
Only one family holds themselves back from the barbarism and seek to remind their fellows of their humanity. In the end, though, death comes to reap vengeance on all, the innocent as well as the guilty, as the entire town in destroyed in the course of the war.
Evil consumes the by stander. Therefore, we have “al taamod al dam reyecha” if you stand by idly, uninvolved, by your neighbor’s blood, you will become the killer and in turn be killed.
            So we have silent acquiescence to the mob.
            Yet one more theme.
            This was a busy movie week. I went to another screening, this one of a Polish film, The Aftermath. While the Book Thief was in many ways a mesmerizing film, this one was a chilling horror. Two brothers discover that the entire town, including their own dear father, had conspired and participated in actively burning their Jewish neighbors to death. It is a film that has raised much furor in Poland, as the Poles have always seen themselves as the victims and blamed the killing of the great mass of Jews on the Germans. To the credit of the current Polish government, there is a willingness to come to grips with that past, and the introduction was given by the Polish Consul-General, Mariusz Brymora.
Mass murder has its roots in something as simple as greed and lust. So, in this case, the Jews had farm land which their Polish neighbors wanted. What better than to do what the German rulers wanted to do anyway, but to kill the Jews and take the land? The villagers throw out the old accusation of the Jew as Christ killer, but that is their excuse; the village priest, honorable and brave, protects the two brothers who have decided to reveal the truth. No, it was not religion that lead to the destruction of the Jews, but human cupidity.
Have you ever look at the Ten Commandments in reverse?
 Numbers 6-10 are in a progression when we go in reverse order. The perpetrators start by violating number 10,” Though shall not covet” the neighbor’s property. It must lead to going to all lengths to justify and excuse the greed  at number 9,” Thou shalt not bear false witness “ with “the Big Lie”,” the “Dolchstoss-Backstab” or blame  the Jew as capitalist and communist.
 In the movie, one of the villagers desires a Jewish woman, who refuses his advances, as we are warned in number 8, Thou shall not commit adultery. The perpetrators  then go on to violate number 7, against stealing, and finally, they  have to descended to violate number 6,”Thou shalt not murder”, because that is the inevitable dead end of the decline into savagery.
Is there a shining light through all this darkness? In both movies, there is someone whose conscience is stronger than hatred, greed, or fear. There is the possibility that the human being can rise above the mire.
In this week’s Torah portion, Jacob dreams of the famous ladder, upon which the angels go up and down. A teacher of mine once told me that the words to describe the ladder, “ Sulam mutzav artza vrosho magia shamayma” described the human being. “A ladder, the base is stuck in the earth, but head reaches the heavens.” Thus, we as human beings can be incredibly base, stuck in the mud and mire, but we can reach heaven ward in our moral actions, in our taking responsibility.
That is the lesson we need to take away with us for this Shabbat, May we be blessed to see a day when all humans have the courage and fortitude to reach “ shamayma”, to reach heavenwards and move beyond resentment, greed and hatred. Amen.

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