Sermon: Shabbat Toledot

Written by Rabbi Colin Eimer — 12 November 2018

Yesterday, November 9, 80 years ago would have been just a normal day in pre-war Nazi Germany – as much as any day could have been normal for Jews in Germany after 1933. That morning you might have read in the newspaper about the murder of Ernst von Rath, an official at the German Embassy in Paris, by a young Jewish man called Herschel Grynszpan. The German media would have made much of it. What the papers wouldn’t have told you was that Grynszpan’s parents had been in Germany for 20 years; nor that the Nazis had expelled all Jews of Polish origin nor that Poland refused to let them in, nor that they were forced to live in appalling conditions in former stables in no-man’s land between Germany and Poland. Hershel in Paris by then, but sick with worry about what he heard was happening to his parents, he wanted to make a protest – hence his shooting of von Rath.

By the evening of November 9, had you driven past this synagogue, you would probably have seen it in flames. The fire brigade might have been here but only to make sure the fire didn’t spread to the surrounding houses.

It was Kristallnacht, ‘Crystal Night,’ ‘the Night of Broken Glass,’ so-called because of the shards of broken glass that littered the streets after the destruction of Jewish-owned stores, buildings, and synagogues.

Over 90 Jews were murdered that night, and 30,000 – 10% of German Jewry – were arrested and sent to concentration camps. Many committed suicide in the weeks following Kristallnacht. The vast majority of synagogues in Germany and Austria were destroyed. The community was fined 5billion Deutschmarks to pay for the repairs – mostly gathered by the Nazis from confiscated Jewish property. After Kristallnacht it was clear there was no future for the Jews of Germany.

Yet there is considerable evidence that many Germans found the violence distasteful. Even the Nazis were apprehensive about how the general population and the international community would react. The Nazi ‘cleverness,’ if we can call it that, was not that they tried to persuade all Germans to be anti-Semitic but they persuaded so many to remain indifferent to the fate of the Jews.

In the Prophet Amos there is an enigmatic verse: lachein ha’maskil ba’eit ha’he yidom, ki eit ra’ah he, “therefore the prudent person keeps silent in such a time, because it is an evil time.” (Amos 5:13) the verse is enigmatic because we would expect such people to speak out in evil times, to protest at what they see. Silence is too often understood as assent or acquiescence.

On Thursday evening I went to a lecture at the Wiener Library by a Professor of History at Humboldt University in Berlin. He has been doing research on photographic evidence of Kristallnacht. Interestingly there are very few surviving photos of Kristallnacht. There are lots of photos of burning synagogues, of the aftermath in the next couple of days with shop windows smashed, but very few of the violence against Jewish people or property.

That is why a series of images which do show it have become so iconic and often reproduced. They are of the events in Baden-Baden described in the study passage I read earlier.

Even if many Jews hadn’t seen it then, with 20-20 hindsight we can see how Kristallnacht was that critical point which showed that there was no future for Jews in Germany. Not that anybody knew or predicted just how murderous it would ultimately become – nobody foresaw the Nazi attempt to methodically wipe out the Jewish population of Europe by the use of industrialised mass murder. Genocide had never been attempted before – the word itself was only coined in 1947

In those photos from Baden-Baden, the streets are lined three or four rows deep with spectators. In one, a crowd of children are at the front: it looks like a whole class from a school is there. In another, several people are standing there quite openly taking photos. One photo shows the men inside the synagogue with Dr Flehing reading from Mein Kampf.

At the very least then, that verse from Amos must oblige confront each of us with the question: “What would I have done? Would I have been one of those ‘prudent ones,’ watching, maybe taking a photo or two, but essentially keeping silent ‘because it is an evil time’?”

I know very well what I should have done. I know very well what I would have liked to have done. But I also know that what I might actually have done is another matter altogether. There’s that terrible gap between how I like to view my moral self, on the one hand, and, on the other, what my moral self is like in reality.

I would have liked to have been like Johann von Jan, pastor of a church in Bavaria, in southern Germany. The Sunday after Kristallnacht, he spoke to his community: “Houses of worship,” he said, “sacred to others, have been burned down with impunity. Men who have loyally served our nation and conscientiously done their duty, have been thrown into concentration camps simply because they belong to a different race. Our nation’s infamy is bound to bring about Divine punishment.” He was subsequently dragged out of his Bible class by a Nazi mob and brutally beaten. The mob then smashed his vicarage and he was imprisoned.

[Martin Gilbert, The Holocaust: the Jewish Tragedy (Collins, London, 1986) p73.]

What is the mental mechanism that enables people to turn off their moral switches and commit some of the most vile deeds imaginable? Stabbing people indiscriminately in a street in Melbourne? Beating up a housebound 98-year old in a robbery in Bounds Green? Opening fire on a community at worship in a suburban Pittsburgh Synagogue?

Some people deal with this by denial. We acknowledge that the facts require some action but we cannot bring ourselves to move or the consequences of action seem too painful, so we take refuge in denial. Or we try and rationalise it away. We say what millions must have said in Nazi Europe: “I’d like to act morally and help Jews, but I risk my life and that of my family if I do. What’s the point of saving one life if ten or twenty might be wiped out? What right do I have to endanger my family in that way?” It all sounds reasonable and rational. There should, then, be no need to feel ashamed of our inaction because we’ve shown that there really was no choice. But because something is logical and rational doesn’t, ipso facto, make it acceptable.

Professor Zygmunt Bauman was Emeritus Professor of sociology at Leeds University. He raises this question of moral qualms and guilt, arguing that one of the perverse legacies of Nazism has been the way in which it elevated logic and rationality into the main criterion by which we determine whether an action is acceptable or not. “The tyrant,” he writes, “must be a staunch defender of rationality. He must protect reason, eulogise on the virtues of cost and effect, defend logic against passions and values which, unreasonably, do not count costs and refuse to obey logic.” (Modernity and the Holocaust, Cornell University Press, 1991, p203.) In other words, the Nazis made concern about one’s own survival rational, but concern about somebody else’s survival illogical and irrational.

The paramount importance of self-preservation becomes, then, a sort of absolution for moral insensitivity. “In a system where rationality and ethics point in opposite directions,” suggests Bauman, “humanity is the main loser.” (p206) In the Shoah, the Nazis pitted being sensible and human against self-preservation – with sensible-ness and human-ness coming out the losers. The infernal cleverness of the Nazis was to persuade people that they could deny their moral duty on grounds of self-preservation without needing to feel shame or guilt. “Evil,” concludes Bauman, “needs neither enthusiastic followers nor an applauding audience. The instinct of self-preservation will do, encouraged by the comforting thought that, by lying low, I can still escape.” (p206) But all it does it lead to moral and personal disintegration.

We may not always make the ‘correct’ or ‘best’ moral decisions, but at the very least let’s not elevate self-preservation into a moral category. The urge to self-preservation is natural and sensible – but it possesses no moral virtue or quality. Feeling shame at having made a less-than-moral decision is not an act of moral cowardice but may be one of the few ways we have of preserving something of our humanity in a world which so often denigrates any moral thinking and action. To do any of those things is to continue to be a prisoner of the philosophy and outlook on life which underpinned the Nazis and made Kristallnacht and everything that followed it possible.