On the night of November 9, 1938, violent anti-Jewish demonstrations broke out across Germany, Austria, and the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia. Nazi officials depicted the riots as justified reactions to the assassination of German foreign official Ernst vom Rath, who had been shot two days earlier by Herschel Grynszpan, a 17-year old Polish Jew distraught over the deportation of his family from Germany.
Over the next 48 hours, violent mobs, spurred by antisemitic exhortations from Nazi officials, destroyed hundreds of synagogues, burning or desecrating Jewish religious artifacts along the way. Acting on orders from Gestapo headquarters, police officers and firefighters did nothing to prevent the destruction. All told, approximately 7,500 Jewish-owned businesses, homes, and schools were plundered, and 91 Jews were murdered. An additional 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and sent to concentration camps. Nazi officials immediately claimed that the Jews themselves were to blame for the riots, and a fine of one billion Reichsmarks (about $400 million at 1938 rates) was imposed on the German Jewish community.
On November 9, 1938, my father, Hans Stern, was an eleven-year-old living in the Baruch Auerbach Jewish orphanage. His parents had committed suicide a month or so before he was placed there. I have often wondered what it must have been like to be so vulnerable to uncontrolled, uncontained violence. To hear the noise of the mob, the antisemitic chanting, the smell of smoke in the air.
As I have previously shared with you, my father never spoke of his life. His day to day existence is essentially a light blur across a screen. The more I have learned about trauma and PTSD, the clearer it becomes to me just how tortured a soul my father had. He was angry, unpredictably violent, and lost in a terrifying world. When I try to put myself into his eleven-year-old mindset, I can only do so for a moment or two before I shut down.
Kristallnacht was a pogrom, a state-sponsored act of terrorism enacted throughout Germany. In her book, Between Dignity and Despair, Marion Kaplan writes that during the pogrom, Germans displayed “… a mixture of rampant viciousness, studied ignorance, and occasional kindness… What were the reactions of Germans not immediately involved either in the destruction or in helping the Jews? While most approved of, or went along with ‘moderate’ antisemitism, many disapproved of the open barbarism of the November Pogrom… Still, there are almost no cases of public opposition to it.”
After Pittsburgh, I thought a lot about our current vulnerability as Jews in America. I thought about our connections to the American zeitgeist and our contributions to the heart and soul of America. And I am ineluctably drawn to confidently assert that we are blessed to be citizens of the United States.
The number of people who are not Jewish, who, after Pittsburgh, declared themselves allies, is legion. The outpouring of sympathy has been heartfelt and authentic. In no way, shape, or form, is it open season on Jews in America.
I am much more worried right now about simply being an American, vulnerable to people like the Pittsburgh shooter, or the Thousand Oaks shooter, or the Las Vegas shooter, or… the list is endless. These are disturbed male loners, mentally ill and able to legally purchase deadly weapons and special ammo magazines that maximize the kill per bullet ratio. Their psychopathology leads them to feed on hatred, which is in no short supply. Their paranoid delusions about mobs of unknown evil people out to get them are stoked every day by a president who uses fear as a potent get-out-the-vote message. They get inspiration from neo-Nazis, fascists and rabble-rousing haters to go out and destroy the enemy: Blacks, Jews, gays and lesbians, Sikhs, Hispanics – in short, to destroy the Other.
I wish to God I knew some wise response to these random acts of hatred. I wish the Parkland aftermath and the youth crusade had made a dent in gun violence. But the NRA and its allies knew that if they just kept quiet and refused to acknowledge these young people, the gun control push would slowly ebb and fade away. They knew they could count on Congress to do absolutely nothing.
Antisemitism is one manifestation of growing intolerance and violence in this nation. So is racism. So is the move to rescind rights for transgender people. There are not enough security guards in the world to protect America from the creep of fascism and hatred. We, along with our allies, must say no to extremism. We must say no to singling out those who are different. We must say no to those who spew hatred for profit. We must say yes to rational gun laws, yes to better mental health intervention, yes to educating our children in the strength of American diversity.
Eighty years ago tonight, was the official notice that Jewish life in Germany was going to end in tragedy and violence. Pittsburgh is not a message of an ending. It is not a signal to hide, to make our Jewish institutions castles with moats and gun turrets. Pittsburgh is a challenge to the Jews of America to remember the past and never succumb to fear.