A Sabbath Message: Remembering Kristallnacht – The Power of Communal Memory

“Only guard yourself and guard your soul carefully, lest you forget the things your eyes saw and lest these things depart your heart all the days of your life. And you shall make them known to your children and to your children’s children.”
– Book of Deuteronomy (4:9)

These words are also written on the wall above the eternal flame in the Hall of Remembrance of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, invoking the power of memory.

Sabbath this week brings us to the end of a long, chaotic week. As of this writing, still left with uncertainty for our present and future as a country, our past remains an important anchor in the current storm. Our past grounds us and reminds us who we are and from whence we have come. As citizens of this country, we look to the past as a way to envision the kind of future we dream of for ourselves and for those who come after us. As Jews, we look to our history to inform us as to where we have been and what are the strengths that have kept us here, together as a proud people for so many millennia. I have spoken often about the power of memory. It features prominently in our tradition, whether we are blessing wine on Shabbat or in our daily prayers – we are constantly referring to the act of zicharon or remembering. But while personal memory is so important, communal memory has a special power of its own, a sacred thread which simultaneously connects us both with the past and with the future – and even more importantly, with each other.

Next week, we will commemorate Kristallnacht, The Night of Broken Glass, an important date in our history for us to remember. A number of our local Holocaust Survivors pictured in the photo above directly witnessed the events of this terrible night of November 9, 1938 and into the next day in Germany and across the Third Reich. Thought by many historians to be the first sanctioned violence against Jews, marking the shift from anti-Semitic rhetoric and legislation, and thus the actual beginning of the Holocaust itself. Our Survivors will tell you that what they witnessed are memories which will never leave them, even as young children and teens: violent mobs burning precious synagogues with no one to put out the flames, Jewish businesses being destroyed, the sound of the glass shattering in their minds still, books burned in large piles, and their fathers and grandfathers arrested on the street. In all, over 48 hours, 7,500 Jewish businesses and schools were destroyed, 30,000 Jewish men were sent to Concentration Camps and at least 100 Jews were murdered on the streets. And this was only the beginning.

Perhaps the best way to honor our Survivors and the memory of those who perished in the Holocaust is through the continuity of the generations, ensuring that the stories and lessons of this terrible chapter are carried forward into the future. Through their selflessness, that is why so many of our Survivors have chosen to speak to school and community groups many times over as part of our Portraits of Survival Program, sharing their precious stories and educating many, so that others can bear witness and carry these stories with them. But sharing this painful past can be difficult and take a personal toll. We are so grateful to them for this gift and to have this valuable testimony from so many. We are now hard at work on an extensive archive of this precious material, as well as a new extension of our exhibit, The Portraits Legacy Project. Looking to the future, we want these precious stories to be accessible for generations to come.

It is for these reasons that we have partnered with San Marcos High School for a very special Kristallnacht Commemoration next week. Melanie Jacobson, a wonderful educator, has been the longest and strongest supporter of our Portraits of Survival Program, bringing her history students from San Marcos to our exhibit and to hear from our Survivors twice during the school year since its inception in 2003. Two years ago, we partnered with her and her students for a moving Kristallnacht Commemoration, during which the students shared what learning about the Holocaust has meant to them in their own lives. We will team up again with Ms. Jacobson and her students virtually this year to observe Kristallnacht next Tuesday, November 10th at 9:15 am. We will also hear from one of our Survivors, Mike Wolff, who survived as part of the Kindertransport Program. You will be moved to hear from Mike, as well as the students, as they share the relevance of the lessons of the Holocaust to their lives as young people in the world today. I hope you will consider joining us for this opportunity to remember as a community.

With a fervent wish that we all find peace and rest on this Shabbat,

Ruth Steinberg, LCSW, MAJCS
Director, Jewish Family Service