Editor’s note: Kristallnacht is the name of the night and following day Nov.9-10 1938 when the Nazis launched full scale assault on Jewish stores, Jewish homes, and Jews walking the street in Germany. From the time Hitler took power in 1933 there had been increasing assaults on the rights of Jews (banning them from the universities, firing them from teaching jobs, jobs as doctors in hospitals, working for any government funded program or institution, forcing them to wear yellow stars) but it was only at Kristalnacht that every Jew in Germany was forced to face the fact that their lives were in danger. Around the world Jews and humanity had been alerted that the Nazis would stop at nothing in their assault on Jews. No wonder, then, that so many Jews today feel sickened when they read of physical assaults in Israel itself on random Palestinians and random refugees from Africa and Asia residing in Israel. Joe Newman doesn’t touch that in what he writes below, but his reminder that “Never Again” might apply to never again for anyone not just Jews, brings to mind the way that some Jews are willing to close their eyes to the suffering that a segment of the Jewish people, in the name of the entire Jewish people, are perpetrating against another people! But there the comparison must stop–Israel is not acting like the Nazis were–Palestinians living in Israel still have employment, vote, and live in conditions far better than most people living in surrounding Arab countries (and for that reason, Israeli Arabs make clear that their demand is for equal treatment, NOT to move to an Arab country). Palestinians are killed, but so are Israelis (though far fewer than Palestinians). And though many Israelis would like to see all Palestinians move to another country, none of them seek the murder or destruction of the Palestinian people itself (though in practice, ethnic cleansing of the sort some ISraelis yearn for would de-facto be the destruction of the Palestinian people). My point is not to exonerate Israeli treatment of Palestinians, which I believe to be a horrendous reality that betrays the best in Judaism and will be an eternal shame in Jewish history, but simply to resist any mechanistic (and usually badly intentioned) attempt to reduce what Israel is doing to what the Nazis did to us. I understand when some of my fellow progressive Jews, filled with frustration and anger at what Israelis are doing to Palestinians, use the Nazi analogy–but it is misleading and false. And we Jews and our allies in all religions and none have every right to mourn the horrendous tragedy of the Holocaust, and remembering Kristalnacht is one step in that process. Joseph Newman’s Reflections are part of that process.
Reflections on Kristallnacht by Joseph Newman
What I remember when Kristallnacht is mentioned begins with the young lady whose picture you see here. This is my daughter Rita Jo. Rita was 1 year old on October 27, 1938 – but she was not doing the things that a 1 year old should do, and we were concerned. We were living temporarily in Chicago at the time and took her to a highly recommended pediatrician for evaluation. On November 7 we received the report. – The use of forceps at her birth had broken blood vessels in her head, causing hemorrhages which destroyed brain matter and inhibited brain growth. That the damage was irreversible and nothing could be done to help her – and it was probable that she would never be able to walk, talk or care for herself. And of course, the usual advice given to parents at that time, – consider placing her in an institution,- try to forget her and have other children. – I remember – several times during the next couple of days looking at Rita Jo or staring into space and asking “why God, – Why.”
So, when Kristallnacht occurred I was angered, but my anger was diffused. I probably again asked why, this time not of an absent God but of people. – Kristallnacht was not then my center of concern; we were trying to put together the shattered pieces of our own little world.
After many frantic phone calls to and from family we regained our composure and that weekend went home to South Bend for a visit. We confirmed what we had agreed to, that we would seek opinions from other doctors and go on with our life – with Rita Jo. So, we were able to act reasonably normal and as was usual, my mother and father asked “what else is going on in the world?” “What is happening in Germany?” I brought Chicago papers with me so I showed them some Kristallnacht pictures and started reading a newspaper article. As I was reading I noticed raw anger building in my father’s face and a look of futility in my mothers. I stopped reading for a moment and my father said “read more.” When I finished the article my father spat and swore; my mother sighed, shook her head and said in angry disgust “noch a mol men harget yidden. A meshugana Velt.”
I had stopped my reading because when I saw their faces I remembered. To them Kristallnacht was not a new happening. They were recalling their past. They had lived through some Kristallnacht’s , but back then they were called pogroms. My parents were visioning Cossacks not Gestapo; it was not glass strewn about but goose feathers from pillows and down from parenas; and townspeople you could not be sure of. – I also remembered that when they were barely 20 years old they had gone out on the streets of Vilna and Bialystok to protest those pogroms and conditions they didn’t like. Their protests had led to their arrest and sentencing as political prisoners with time to be spent in frozen Siberia as guests of the Tsar. I was proud then – as I am now – to say that my parents had not been silent but had acted. My parents had been political prisoners.
I wanted to read more but now they were discussing between themselves, in Yiddish – probably the same discussion they had when they went out on the street passing out leaflets. The same discussions they had at the Arbeiter Ring meetings; meetings they made us attend. Yes, Kristallnacht disturbed and angered them, but they were also disturbed and angry that few seemed to have listened then, – would anyone listen now?
The next week there was a training session in Chicago for Social Security field representatives. There was three of us who had become close friends during initial training in Baltimore; Matthew, who was Jewish and from Wisconsin, me and Wilbur, who was black and from Southern Illinois. Matt and I were sitting at a table when Wilbur came in, he had a newspaper in his hand, threw it on the table as he was sitting down said “those M-F German bastards.” After a few seconds he said “you know I think I am more bitched about this than you are.”
I need to tell you about Wilbur. His parents lived in Southern Illinois but their parents lived in Mississippi. After he had known us for a little while he told us that his parents had advised him when he left for school, “seek Jewish kids to befriend, they will accept and challenge your intelligence and will understand your attitude.” During our exchanges of information he told us the maddening stories his parents and grandparents had told him, stories similar to those you have read and heard about. What disturbed Wilbur most was the forced by fear intimidation which Blacks seemed to inherit; the acceptance that you were of an inferior class.
His grandparents; if riding on a one lane road, had to get off the road to let white people pass. And a generation later, the same for his parents walking on the side walk in town. You kept your head down when you met white people until you were allowed to look up. A violation might create a Kristallnacht or pogrom like event To them demonstrations of discrimination was not an event, it was an ever present condition. It was not your window they broke, it was your spirit. He also told us that if we, Matt and I, were in Mississippi meeting with him the way we were we would be subject to arrest. In 1938 there was still a law on the books which made it a misdemeanor for a white to suggest to a negro in any way that he or she was an equal.
The three of us together, in fun, had worked on an odds formula. If a Black person walked up to a group of Wasps the odds were 9 to 1 against him being readily accepted. – If he was Jewish approaching the same people the odds might be 5 to 1; – but if he really looked Jewish the odds for rejection might go up to 7 to 1; and up to 8 to 1 if his first name was Isadore. We never came up with a number if he was Black and looked Jewish
Yes he was more bitched than we were because he personally knew, better than us, what it is to see hate and feel degradation. – Most of the rest of our time together at the meeting we discussed the situation in the US. What about the America Firsters, Lindberg, Ford and Coughlin. Would Roosevelt be allowed to help the British? Would more Jews be allowed into the US.? And even Wilbur joined in to wonder, do US moves toward war make it better or worse for American Jews? — By the way, we lost Matt on Battan.
Now I would like to jump about 55 years – to Sarasota, but not before stopping for a few minutes in a small city in North Eastern Indiana. It is December 3, 1939, I am assigned to open a Social Security Administrative office in that city. My instructions are to introduce myself to the mayor, the postmaster and other officials. So in proper dress, suit, white shirt, tie and hat I go to meet the mayor. In this city the mayors’ job is not a full time job so I go to his place of business. We do not shake hands but I say “my name is Joe Newman, I am representing the United States Government and I am opening a Social Security Administrative office -. “ I get no farther, he interrupts me and says in a bitter voice – “what are you a bunch of Russian Jew Communists?” – There I saw the face of a man, who, I think, if a Kristallnacht was occurring in his city could stand by and let it happen or might even throw a stone. The mayor was of the extreme but I fear he was not alone in his attitude.
I am now in 1993 or thereabouts I am not sure of the year. We, Belle Goldstein and I have had dinner with Rabbi and Rose Shulman at Plymouth Harbor. We had been acquaintances in South Bend where Rabbi and Rose had served. On Longboat Key Rabbi had help found Temple Beth Israel and was now Rabbi Emeritus. We had become close friends. We were in their apartment for after dinner coffee, desert and discussion.
Rose was a staunch social progressive. She started the discussion by telling us that Rabbi was preparing his words for Kristallnacht and she was suggesting that Rabbi try to insert her vision. It was her dream that Kristallnacht develop into being an international day of remembrance. That the people of the world would stop for a moment to consider what hate and prejudice does, to remember all the atrocities that man was perpetrating on man because of hate and prejudice and seek ways to stop them. She didn’t want Kristallnacht to be something like “Remember the Main” or “Remember the Alamo.” She added a phrase that I remembered, she had used it in on me when I was spokesperson for the Council for Retarded Children in Indiana; “Victimhood grants you some rights but more importantly it gives you responsibilities.”
Rabbi in his pontifical way added “It has been written that “Judaism is a road taken, a road on which we encounter hurts as well as healings; and when the hurt is memorialized only for the purpose of remembering, that hurt has served no purpose. Only when it moves us to eliminate or reduce hurt to all does it have value.”
We were all waving the same flag so the rest of the evening was spent reciting appropriate sayings we could remember or make up and in testing our knowledge of history to remember the all too many atrocities of the past; Jewish and non-Jewish.
The evening could not end however without Rose asking, “When we say Never Again are we saying Never Again to Jews or Never Again to anyone?” And Rabbi asking, “If it is evil for others to hate Jews, is it not evil for Jews to hate others?”
I end my story of what I remember by going back to the early 1920’s. The Ku Klux Klan has a presence in South Bend. There is a fiery cross always lighted in an office window in center town, – it has its effect. I am 8 years old and am dreaming. In my dream my mother awakes me and says “Yossele, run away and hide.” I, – frightened, look up and ask, “Ma, where shall I run, where should I hide?” Still in my dream, we hug each other, both of us crying.
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There are thousands of people today; because of prejudice and hate – frightened, – crying, – looking for a place to run to, – for a place to hide; – – – Why God, – Why ?
[When asked for a bio, here is what the author gave us: