From The Rabbi’s Study: Kristallnacht Remembrance

Dear Friends,

I hope this note finds you well as we enter the month of November and its unique mix of remembrance (especially on the anniversary of Kristallnacht), renewal (especially on the anniversary of the United Nations vote to establish two states in Palestine, including a Jewish state,) and thanksgiving. This year, The Temple Tifereth Israel’s November events will seek to highlight these themes and promote prayerful learning and sharing, and hopeful, forward-looking creativity and engagement. Our ‘Violins and Hope’ Exhibition opening and book launch, coinciding with a special Kristallnacht service and program, promise to be both moving and uplifting. We all know about Kristallnacht, in November 1938, and the effect of orchestrated attacks against Jews, their businesses, and communal institutions, initially within Germany. However, we rarely recall other events that took place at different moments (all in November,) that we may learn from and bear in mind throughout the weeks to come.

Almost exactly five years before Kristallnacht, on November 12 1933 Germany held its first federal parliamentary elections following the passage of “The Act to Remedy the Distress of the People and the Reich” in March of that year. The passage of this law allowed the German government to pass laws and sidestep both procedural requirements set forth in the Weimar Republic’s constitution and (already limited opportunities for) judicial review of the laws passed. The implications of this law, passed with a majority of more than two thirds of German deputies, included the consolidation of power in the hands of the Nazis and the ability of its leaders to legislate quickly and freely. The law’s passage signaled the fall of the Weimar Republic. The federal (or national) elections of November 12 were the first held in Germany under its new regime, and only included political representatives and “guests” approved by the Nazis. In the previous elections cycle the Nazis won approximately 44% of the vote and 288 seats of the Reichstag’s 661. On November 12, 1933, they won 92% of the vote and all parliamentary seats following a campaign of intimidation and aggressive propaganda. This day in November of 1933 marked the transformation of Germany into a one party, totalitarian state, and ended Germany’s participation in the League of Nations (the predecessor organization to the United Nations.) We often think of the rise of Hitler to power in 1933 as gradually leading to the passage of the Nuremberg Laws in 1935, Kristallnacht in 1938, and the start of World War II in 1939. However, we must recall that Germany’s vibrant multi-party democracy effectively collapsed within a mere eight months of Hitler’s rise to power.

Approximately one year later, in late November of 1934, Germany’s celebrated and controversial conductor, Wilhelm Furtwangler, publicly attacked the Nazi regime’s ban of Paul Hindemith, identified by the Nazis as a “degenerate artist,” and one connected with Jews (Hindemith’s wife was of Jewish descent and he maintained friendships and collegial relationships with a number of Jewish thinkers and artists.) In 1934-5, both Furtwangler and Hindemith attempted to maintain their autonomy and integrity in the face of Nazi censorship and “cultural regulation,” and both developed complex relationships with the Nazi regime and made deeply controversial decisions. However, part of the significance of the “Hindemith case” and Furtwangler’s courageous stand for artistic expression was the ultimate failure of the defense of musical expression in Nazi Germany. While during the first years of the Nazi regime Furtwangler tried to advocate on behalf of Jewish musicians and assist others to leave Germany, and while he sought to argue for artistic freedom and the exclusion of the Nazi agenda from musical life, Goebbels, Hitler, and other Nazi leaders had their way. Jewish musicians were removed and persecuted; many fled.  Furtwangler remained in Germany, a dissident forced to compromise with the Nazis, whose appearances were exploited by the Regime. Hindemith would depart to Switzerland and eventually settle in the U.S. As our commemoration of Kristallnacht nears, we must recall the significance of musical and artistic expression to the integrity of our cultural lives and identities. The freedoms we cherish must never be taken for granted. Our duty to produce and sustain a culture of diverse and challenging artistic expression is anchored in our collective memory, and rooted in the struggles of artists and thinkers in generations past.

Beyond the political and artistic aspects of our commemoration and reflection, we also consider the academic or intellectual enterprise and its centrality to a free, inclusive, and fair society that promotes growth and social mobility. On November 19, 1935, following years of episodic protests against Jewish students in Hungary, the University of Budapest closed its doors because of anti-Jewish rioting. Against the backdrop of the Great Depression and increasing economic hardship, thousands of students marched to expel their Jewish colleagues, calling to establish strict quotas for Jewish students and to regulate the participation of Jews in the liberal professions. Their claims were that the Jews were over-represented in the liberal professions and higher echelons of finance, media, and the government, and under-represented in industry. While the Jews represented a small minority of Hungarians, they sometimes constituted 20%, 25%, or more of the students in certain faculties. The argument was that the Jews “displaced” other Hungarians. The organizers and activists in Pecs, Debrecen, Szeged, and Budapest pressured Jewish students to relinquish their places at universities in these locations, sometimes stood guard around their campuses to prevent Jewish students from attending classes, and, among other things, demanded “Jewish free” weeks of lectures, as well as “ghetto benches” for Jewish students. We know of the exclusion from and discrimination in institutions of higher learning dedicated to the advancement of knowledge and exploration of new ideas. However, we must also always recall our duty to promote teaching and growth among all learners and fight efforts of discrimination and exclusion when they arise. Our parents and through them we have learned these lessons, as well as the implications of silence and accommodation in the face of prejudice.

As we recall the events of past years and generations, our commemoration of Kristallnacht will be a celebration of creativity, learning, and engagement. Our efforts will focus on highlighting the civic, artistic, and intellectual responsibility we bear, and the gifts of freedom and the ability to spread a message of hope that we hold so dear. Please join us.

Sending to all of you our good wishes,
Rabbi Jonathan Cohen