Monday, November 13, 2017

My Mother's Kristallnacht Reflections

My Mother, Sophie Black (z"l) was born in Leipzig, Germany in 1926.  On November 9th, 1938, when she was 12 years old, she and her parents, Abram and Esther Koven, hid from hordes of brown-shirted Nazi thugs who systematically destroyed Jewish businesses, synagogues and other institutions in what is now known as Kristallnacht - the "Night of Broken Glass."  Historians see this event as a pivotal moment in the unfolding of Hitler's Final Solution.  As you will read below, Sophie was able to escape Germany a few weeks following that terrible night, but those memories haunted her the rest of her life.

Each year, at her Synagogue - Beth Emet, in Evanston, IL, she would share reminiscences of her experiences on Kristallnacht.  I don't have copies of all of her speeches, but I shared the following at Shabbat services at Temple Emanuel on Friday night, November 10, 2017.  Here is the text that she delivered on November 5, 2010:

                Several events occurred in the month of November during the last century which are of vital importance to the Jewish people.  The most recent was on November 4, the fifteenth anniversary of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, which is within memory of many in this room.  However, the one upon which I wish to focus this evening took place in Germany in 1938 during the night between November 9 and 10.  History books refer to it as Kristallnacht, The Night of Broken Glass.  I remember those days 72 years ago most vividly and want to share a few memories with you.
                Some historical references are necessary.  In the middle of October 1938 the Polish government issued a decree threatening to deprive all Polish citizens living in Germany of their Polish passports.  This Polish measure was widely regarded as an action directed primarily against Jews, and fearing that thousands of Jews were about to be marooned in Germany, the German government turned the tables on the Poles and rapidly deported Jews who held Polish citizenship to the Polish border. They were unable to take more than a small suitcase with them, and what happened to their belongings and businesses is not available in history books.  No one in Poland had anticipated this, and when the trains arrived during the last days of October 1938 at the border between Germany and Poland, the German guards forced the people off the trains, but the Polish border guards refused to let them step unto Polish soil. 
                For several days it was utter chaos at the borders.  Eventually people were settled some place in Poland, and after the Second World War broke out in September of the following year, many of those were sent to the death camps.  Whatever lives they had, after deportation from Germany, were difficult, to say the least. 
                In 1938 Herschel Grynszpan was a young man living in Paris with relatives.  He was born in Germany, had arrived in France earlier that year, but his parents remained in Germany.  They were Polish citizens and were subjected to the deportation.  When he learned of their fate, he went berserk, bought a gun, and went to the German embassy in Paris.  He asked to speak to a person in charge, was sent to a deputy called Ernst von Rath, and shot him.  Von Rath died two days later.  Grynszpan’s fate is unknown.  There are various stories; one even suggests that he survived the war years in prison in Germany, returned to France, and lived out his life with a new identity.
                Kristallnacht, which in German records is referred to as the spontaneous reaction to Grynszpan’s deed, provided the Nazi government with the opportunity to remove all vestiges of Jewish life from German soil.  Synagogues were totally destroyed; businesses could not be continued, unless they were managed by Germans.  All Jewish schools were closed, and every man could expect to be arrested and taken to a concentration camp.
                My parents and I went into hiding on Friday, November 10.  We were scheduled to leave for America a week later, and the only reason we were able to keep that date was because we were not at home, when the Gestapo came to arrest my father.  I remember the days in hiding as terribly tense times.  We were not personally affected by the Polish deportations, because my parents did not carry Polish passports.  They were stateless persons, having fled from the Ukraine in 1920, which cost them their citizenship.  My father had built up a business in Leipzig, and until 1933 life was quite good.  However, he realized quickly that there was no future for Jews in Germany after 1933, and being an ardent Zionist, he made numerous attempts to get certificates for the three us to immigrate to Palestine.  However, his lack of citizenship was a deterrent, and in the spring of 1938 he asked his sister in America to send him an affidavit.  She did, and that accounted for our scheduled departure.
                We had reservations on the boat called The New Amsterdam, and when we left Leipzig on November 19, we were scheduled to go to Rotterdam.  The trip to the Dutch border was about four hours long, and those were literally the longest hours of my life.  I was terribly frightened.  Would the border guards let us cross?  Would they let my father leave?  Where would they take us, should they not allow us to leave?  However, we were in luck; everything passed smoothly, and suddenly we were in Holland.  Nevertheless, it took several days, before I was able to get rid of the dread that had settled in the pit of my gut.
                The impact of an experience such as Kristallnacht is hard to describe.  No matter how one turns the events, there are always unanswered questions.  I think about my classmates.  Half of them did not survive the Shoah.  I think about my parents’ friends, who did not make it out of Germany.  And I think about people who were able to carry out the cruelties and horrors that took place in Germany, and I have no answer.  All one can do is to hope and to pray that such events will never occur again, and that people will finally accept that we are all created in the image of God.  I pray that the Eternal One will stay close to us and will give us the vitality to make the world a good place for all people, so that everyone will be able to walk in peace and achieve fulfillment.  Keyn y’hi ratson.(May it be God's will.)

SKB – November 5, 2010                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              

Monday, November 6, 2017

Guns and Idol Worship

PHOTO: Investigators work at the scene of a mass shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, Nov. 5, 2017. (Jay Janner/ via AP)
Once again, our nation is reeling from senseless and tragic mass shootings.  This week the victims were at a Wall Mart near Denver and a small church in rural Texas.  Last week they were in Las Vegas.  While the locations may shift, the basic details are familiar and rapidly becoming routine.  A lone gunman – usually a white male with anger issues and easy access to high-powered weaponry indiscriminately shoots into a crowd of innocent bystanders.  Whether it takes place in a school, movie theater, store, concert or place of worship, the bloodshed and carnage caused by military-grade rifles in the hands of alienated men has been swift, effective and deadly.  These attacks have become relentless and commonplace. According to the Gun Violence Archive, the Texas church shooting was the 307th such incident in 2017[i].  For those keeping track, that is more than 1 such shooting a day. 

Invariably, in the aftermath of a gun violence incident, angry voices from all sides of the political spectrum shout their talking points:
  • From the anti-gun forces we hear calls for sane gun laws.
  • From the NRA and other gun lobbies, we hea r about protecting the second amendment with calls for more “good guys” with guns to prevent the “bad guys” from carrying out their plans.  Instead of curbing gun sales, we should instead ensure that every American is armed and ready.
Politicians call for thoughts and prayers.  Police and first responders are praised.  The dead are buried.  The wounded are treated and those who were not directly impacted by the tragedy go on with their daily lives. Those in the line of fire, or whose loved ones are victims, however, suffer irreparable physical and psychological damage.  Nothing changes.  We move on and wait until the next tragedy occurs.

This cannot continue.

It is time to acknowledge the fact that when much of the discourse around these tragic events revolves around legislation and personal freedom, we are missing another underlying cause of this national crisis: that of Idolatry.

Let me explain.  In Jewish tradition, Idolatry is not merely praying to objects.  It is a state of mind.  It is a way of perceiving our relationship to the world around us. Idolatry creates a belief that human beings are the ultimate arbiters of meaning and purpose in life. An Idolater believes that his or her own creation is more powerful than the natural order.  To worship a “thing” is to override the mystery, beauty and meaning of our relationship with God and community.  The Bible opposes idols because they isolate us from the holiness that surrounds us.

Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that Shabbat is the antidote to “thingness.”  Judaism does not find holiness in things, but rather in Time.  When we focus on the physical, on objects of our own creation, we engage in acts of hubris that block out the potential for holiness and Godliness to enter into our lives[ii].  It also removes us from community – the central value of Jewish identity.

Much of the discourse around gun control seems to revolve around the questions of personal freedom and individual rights. Restricting access to firearms is perceived by many gun advocates as limiting our access to power.  Guns protect us.  Guns keep us safe.  Guns make us feel better about ourselves. They also isolate us from one another and the values that strengthen community. The myth of the rugged individual who stands above the fray and maintains peace through strength is the bedrock of our national consciousness. The Firearms Lobby would have us believe that placing limits on gun ownership is a form of emasculation that will ultimately not only remove our ability to defend ourselves in times of danger, but also is profoundly anti-American.  To take away our weapons is to take away our freedom.

As each violent incident occurs, the rhetoric ramps up.  The NRA and its partners are spending millions of dollars on advertising campaigns that cast attempts to limit access to firearms as a threat, not only to liberty, but to human rights.  Anti-gun forces are portrayed as “elites” who want to impose their beliefs on a nation that is defenseless – save for their own personal protection.  The gun lobby appears to be warning its supporters to prepare for an epic, apocalyptic battle between the forces for good (pro-gun) and the forces of evil (gun control)[iii].

Through its lobbying efforts, the NRA has also made it practically impossible to measure the impact of firearms on society[iv].  There are no pathways to compromise.  Politicians are beholden to and afraid of the money and power exerted by the gun lobby in Washington. Working for sane gun legislation is akin to blasphemy and political suicide.  As such, the only form of discourse available to us is polemical.  This creates a climate where weapons become sacred objects worthy of veneration.  Those who perish in gun-related tragedies can be seen as sacrifices to the gods of Freedom and the 2nd Amendment.

I am not opposed to firearms, per se.  I know many good people who own them. I am, however, strongly opposed to hiding behind the false god of personal freedom in order to worship at the cult of death and destruction that has been unleashed by the NRA and its allies.

[ii] Cf. AJ Heschel’s seminal work, The Sabbath
[iii] Cf. this recent ad published on NRA TV:
[iv]The 1996 appropriations bill, known as the Dickey Amendment declared that "none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) may be used to advocate or promote gun control.” C.f.