On Kristallnacht, we remember the giants

by Jeanette Friedman
Special to WJW

This evening, while we remember Kristallnacht 1938 and light the commemoration candelabras, the words of world leaders calling for the destruction of the Jewish people ring in our ears.

As we mark the official beginning of the Holocaust on that November night in 1938, we remember the Six Million and the survivors who have since died, for they, led by people like Benjamin Meed and Sigmund Strochlitz – powerful men with a vision and commitment to those who had died – changed the way the Jewish people think about themselves and their place in history.

They turned the victims of the Holocaust into survivors who proudly built new lives and, using mind and spirit, taught us all how to fight against the forces of hatred and evil. Both of these leaders – Meed, who established the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants, and Strochlitz, a member of the council that launched the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum – died last month, but they knew how to remember Kristallnacht and the Holocaust.

In the first weeks of November 1979, around Kristallnacht, a wave of anti-Semitism swept U.S. suburbia. Perhaps it was caused by the oil crisis and recession (economic crunches have a tendency to bring out the worst in people), perhaps it was triggered when the docudrama Holocaust caused the deniers to crawl out from under their rocks.

Whatever the catalyst, during those very weeks, the Holocaust survivors, many of them in their late 50s and early 60s, came into their own. After two years of groundwork, they decided to make an international reunion of Holocaust survivors a reality.

At the same time, many of their children, the Second Generation (2Gs), self-aware because of Helen Epstein’s book Children of the Holocaust, began forming the nodes of a network at a Zachor conference in New York City. Between them, a movement to remember, commemorate and learn about the Holocaust was born.

By mid-1980, some of these 2Gs found themselves sitting in a dingy, crowded room at the old World Jewish Congress. In front sat a long line of mostly men, who told us we were there to fulfill a fantasy conceived in a hospital in Auschwitz.

It was Ernest Michel’s dream. He – who on Kristallnacht had watched as the synagogue in his hometown of Manheim, Germany, was set ablaze and who witnessed the hooligans shattering the glass of Jewish shop fronts – asked everyone to help him convince Holocaust survivors and their families around the world to come to Israel in June 1981 and stand in the shadow of the Western Wall to declare, “We are here!”

Ernie didn’t do it alone. Partnering with Ben Meed – described by many as an irresistible force – and others who inspired and empowered, thousands heard the call. Thousands joined together in accepting the obligation to remember and keep the promises made to those left behind. They wrote books, they visited schools, they told their stories.

Today, many of these people are gone or fading. When Ben and Sigmund – who led the kehillah, community, of survivors together – left this world within just a week of each other, it made us understand that Father Time is on the march. Soon we will have only the stories, not the survivors who told them. And still there is so much to do.

The survivor leadership commanded and got the respect of the American Jewish community, a community that had failed European Jewry during the war and failed the survivors when they first arrived in the goldene medina. But this did not dissuade these stalwarts.

They led their people to the halls of power – by negotiating for them with foreign governments to get back what rightfully belonged to them, by lobbying governments to take responsibility for their actions and by teaching history to their children.

They led their people into the universities and ivy-covered towers, challenging the historians, philosophers and theologians with the abyss that is the Holocaust. They taught a world that hatred and murder cannot be business as usual.

These survivors, and thousands of others like them, are the glowing candles in the candelabra of Holocaust commemoration and remembrance. They light the world with their commitment to meet the promise to those who did not survive.

As we lose them, we must remember this Kristallnacht that they are indeed the immortals who led the way in teaching us that hatred destroys everything it touches.

Jeanette Friedman is editor of Together, the official publication of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants (www.americangathering.com).