Friday, 8 November 2013

Note for a sermon on the 75th Anniversary of Kirstallnacht

Kristallnacht a series of attacks on Jews and Jewish property, while the Nazi leadership looked on approvingly, or at the very least looked away.

9–10 November 1938 75 years ago this very weekend

At least 91 Jews killed 30,000 arrested and taken to concentration camps. Over 1,000 synagogues burned and over 7,000 Jewish businesses destroyed or damaged.

Name from the broken shards of glass

Perhaps more bleakly than even that account of loss of life and property, Kristallnacht was the last death knell of German Jewry, got out before, or didn’t get out at all.

And we’ve just commemorated that loss with a song.

Singing over the souls of those destroyed by the Nazis.

Even more, conceivably bizarre and strange, it’s a song whose words are about belief, in the coming of the Messiah, bemunah shleimah – with a perfect faith.

How could anyone have a emunah shleimah after all this?

Story that Hasid of the Modzitzer Rebbe came up with this niggun on the train to Treblinka, what difference does that make?

In the aftermath of a murder of 7 million Jews, the gypsies and the gays and the communists and the Jehovas Witnesses and every other precious human life snuffed out in humanities darkest hour, what difference does any of it make?

Theodor Adorno’s warning about the barbarity of poetry in the aftermath of Auschwitz sticks in the craw. Maybe all singing, all forms of response, all pompous prayer, pious mutterings, maybe all of it is barbaric.[1]

What kind of a response could make any difference?

Never forget has become a kind of sop, what did we do during the genocides in Cambodia, or Rwanda or former Yugoslavia.

Isaiah Berlin argued that the only conceivably appropriate response to the Holocaust is one of savage irony.

Here’s a piece of savage irony,

Altmann and his secretary were sitting in a coffeehouse in Berlin in 1935. “Herr Altmann” said his secretary, ‘I notice you are reading Der Sturmer! I can’t understand why you are carrying a Nazi libel sheet. Are you some kind of masochist, or God forbid, a self-hating Jew?”

“On the contrary, Frau Epstein. When I used to read the Jewish papers, all I leaned about were pogroms, riots in Palestine and assimilation in America, but now that I read Der Sturmer, I see so much more: that the Jews control all the banks, that we dominate the arts, that we are on the verge of taking over the world. You know – it makes me feel a whole lot better.” [2]

God help us, laughing as we walk over the Broken Glass.

There’s an art installation in the Jewish Museum of Berlin – started in 1997 by the Israeli artist Menahem Kaddishman, Shalechet, by now some 10,000 iron chunks of metal, cut into faces, screaming mouths and all, and you tread over them, and as you do the metal rubs against itself and cries.

Here we are treading over the Broken Glass and the broken burns and the burnt up bones and the burnt up everything – that, of course, is the meaning of the Greek Term for burnt up everything – Holocaust.

So what does count?

This is the best I can offer.

In the early 1980s Emil Fackenheim was a well regarded philosopher, he had come up with a notional commandment not to hand Hitler a posthumous victory some 20 years earlier, but he was struggling with the questions I’ve mentioned – what counts as authentic after the Holocaust.

And then he has a moment of epiphany. He recalls it in his work, To Mend the World.

[While studying the story of Pelagia Lewinska] I made what to me was, and still is, a momentous discovery: that while religious thinkers were vainly struggling for a response to Auschwitz, Jews throughout the world had been responding all along … with an unexpected will to live – with under the circumstances, an incredible commitment to Jewish group survival.[3]

The evil of the Holocaust world is philosophically intelligible after Auschwitz in the exact sense in which it was already understood in Auschwitz – and Buchenwald, Lublin and the Warsaw Ghetto – by the resisting victims themselves… No deeper or more ultimate grasp is possible for philosophical thought that comes … after the event. This grasp – their grasp – is epistemologically ultimate.[4]


His point is this, if it happened then and if meaning was found in those actions, even in the face of barbarism and horror we cannot even begin to imagine, then meaning can be found in holding, perpetuating those actions still.

The partic interesting piece about F’s book for those who follow trends in Jewish narratives is the term he adopted for this claiming of integrity, and perpetrating an action in memory of something utterly crushed and broken – he used the term Tikkun. We live in a world where the term Tikkun has been so used and overused that it’s lost any connection to standing up on the other side of a moment of utter shattered destruction and insisting in the possibility of an authentic response.

But’s that what the term meant to F.

Tikkun is a response using the broken fragments of what has been destroyed. It’s as meaningful now as it was then.

Singing is as meaningful now as it was then.

Singing a tune that was sung in the train on the way to Treblinka is meaningful now because it was important then.

So is humour, and prayer and coming to Synagogue and all the rest of everything we do to prove that despite our brokenness we are still here, and still seeking authentic Jewish response.

And it’s not just the Jewish stories that are authentic, as they survive the brokenness. Here’s a story about a German non-Jew.

The Oranienburger Strasse Synagogue was the centre of Berlin Jewry from the time of its construction in the 1860s, seating 3000 people, and clearly a place of interest to the violent mobs set on destruction on that horrendous night 75 years ago. The mob broke into the Synagogue, smashed furniture, desecrated the Sifrei Torah and started a fire, but then a lone police officer, Otto Belgardt arrived and commanded the mob to disperse. And disperse they did, because one man insisted that they should. And the fire was put out and the building survived.

We should all commit ourselves to being that one person who can stand infront of a mob and demand they cease from their violence. That would indeed be an authentic Tikkun.

Today the Oranienburger Strasse Synagogue is home to a thriving Masorti community, still in Berlin, still making meaning by walking on the fragments of broken glass, still believing there is Tikkun in appropriating the broken wreckage of the Jewish story we inherit and live.

We sang earlier because we believe in the validity of singing after the Holocaust, because there was singing in the Holocaust. WE sang to offer a Tikkun in the aftermath of the brokenness/

We’ll stand in the Kiddush and Kibbitz and tell jokes, because we believe in the validity of kibitzing and joking even as we walk over the broken glass. Even as kibitzing and joking were never snuffed out by Nazi oppression.

And next week, please God, we’ll celebrate an aufruf for a couple getting married using a Ketubah illustrated by the son of a Holocaust survivor, because Ardyn Halter, like his father, the Auschwitz survivor Roman, belived before him, that love is possible after the Holocaust.

For even as we mourn the broken glass and so much else, we believe in the power of these actions of Tikkun, as authentic, as important and as necessary today as they were 75 years ago.


Shabbat Shalom


[2] Un-attributed joke found in ed. W. Novak & M. Waldoks The Big Book of Jewish Humour New York, Harper Perennial 1981 p.61

[3] Fackenheim, E. The Quest for Past and Future (1968, Bloomington IN, Beacon) pp. 19-20

[4] MW p. 248.

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