Op-Ed: Kristallnacht without my father

Janet R. Kirchheimer

This is the 73rd anniversary of Kristallnacht, and the first one I will mark without my father.  Kristallnacht is referred to as the “night of broken glass.” But it was much more. It was the beginning of the end of most of European Jewry. It was two days of Nazi government-sponsored riots on Nov. 9 and 10, 1938, in Germany and Austria. Reported numbers vary, but about 270 synagogues were burned, 7,000 businesses and homes were damaged or destroyed, and 100 Jews were killed. Between 26,000 and 30,000 Jews were arrested and deported to concentration camps. My father was one of them. A 16-year-old boy living in Niederstetten, Germany, he was arrested on Nov. 10 and sent to Dachau.

My father died this past July and, in mourning his loss, I’ve thought about how the Holocaust will be remembered, or if it will be remembered at all.  Survivors of the Shoah are dying each day, and how can the next generations remember something they haven’t experienced?

One way is to tell our stories. On Pesach we tell the story of our slavery in Egypt and liberation from bondage. There are Yom HaShoah services, memoirs by survivors, and organizations working to keep the stories alive. Children who are of the age to go to the services will be the last to meet survivors.  The telling of the Holocaust is not just for survivors, it is for all of us – a part of the ongoing Jewish story.

Another is to take action.  There is a midrash, a rabbinic commentary that says when the Jews were freed from Egypt and about to cross the Red Sea they were afraid to go in.  Only one man, Nachshon ben Aminadav, marched into the water, and when it reached his nose, the sea split, allowing the people to cross. Judaism does not want us to stand idly by.  We must act, we must have the courage to jump in and make a difference.  It is up to each of us to find a way to contribute towards a more just society.

I don’t believe there are lessons to be learned from the Holocaust − that some people were good while others were evil, and that we can learn life lessons from those who died.  Six million are gone.  The only lesson is to ensure that another Holocaust does not happen again, to anyone, anywhere in the world.

We also have an obligation to remember the victims and to make certain that their stories are not lost − not just the stories of the horrors, but about life before the Shoah and the extraordinary efforts of the survivors to begin new lives. The poet Cornelius Eady says that poets write to navigate their way in the world.  I wrote “How to Spot One of Us,” a collection of poems about the Holocaust and my family.  My writing and teaching have helped me to navigate as I grapple with the Shoah and its legacy.

In the aftermath of such horrific events, there are no easy answers. Most of the time I’m left trying to understand something that cannot be explained. My parents (my mother is a survivor as well) showed me that, as hard as the struggle is, it’s better to live a life filled with love and faith in the future than a life of anger and hate.

My father taught me many things: how to ride a bicycle, change a tire, about his life in Germany before the Shoah, and about how to live after such tragedy.  But the most important thing he taught me was that life goes on and every day is precious.  Each year, on Kristallnacht, my father told his story.  It is now my turn.

Janet R. Kirchheimer is a teaching fellow at Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and author of “How to Spot One of Us.”