I always tell the children on my Museum tours that one reason it's important to know History is because it gives us a good opportunity to learn from the past, so we don't make the same mistakes. Oh, each generation can make new ones for their descendants to learn from, but hopefully we won't make the same ones again.
Sweater worn by Auschwitz Survivor
on display at our State Historical Museum
But today - and tomorrow (November 9th and 10th) is an anniversary of an historic event that was unequalled in human recorded history. What I speak of, of course, is the 70th anniversary of "Kristallnacht" , "The Night of Broken Glass."Youngsters (that would be anyone under about age 45) may read about it and shake their heads - "That must have taken place in the Middle Ages, what a terrible thing." Well -- let me put it in a bit of perspective: there are survivors of Kristallnacht alive today, and they are not extremely old. It happened well within the lifespan of many of our senior citizens, and I venture that a visit to a retirement center would produce a group of people who remember hearing of it or reading about it at the time.
I've stated before: if asked "what I am", I reply that I'm Jewish, and indeed I was raised in a Conservative Jewish household. NOTE: "conservative" in this instance means neither the strictness of Orthodox Jewry nor the more casual and modern Reform branch.....has nothing, I repeat nothing to do with politics. Having said that, I also add that I consider myself an ETHNIC Jew, as opposed to religious. Judaism is a religion, true, but it's also an ethnic group - and there are candles burning all over the world where knots of scholars discuss this definition and its consequences until the crack of dawn.
What it means to ME is, when my children were little (and today) I celebrate Chanukah, Passover, and the High Holy Days (Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement). Part of being an ethnic Jew is the food....and those holidays have the best food (well, except Yom Kippur, which has no food at all - one fasts, *entirely*, from sundown to sundown).
But even ethnic Jews are aware of the history, and Kristallnacht was the match held to the candle that became the Holocaust, and illuminated a period of history that showed, clearly, the lengths that Man's Cruelty can go to. Again, reading of the Holocaust sounds - even to me - like events of that nature must've happened early in the Dark Ages.
My mother was known for her elegant dinner parties, and while I didn't attend (I was a little kid, and not the sort parents trot out for the admiration of their friends) I got to meet the guests before going up to my room. (Oh, hey - my sister and I got to eat the great food, don't get me wrong.)
There were newspaper dinner parties, comprised of journalists and newspapermen who worked with my father (and admired him - did I ever mention that my daddy is in Who's Who in American Journalism? Did I ever mention that I digress?)
And there were Just Friends dinner parties, and they, of course (being the 1950s, &c) were comprised mostly of Jewish friends. I remember occasions where two people in particular remained in my mind, though their names are forgotten to me, along with their faces and their relationship to my parents: one was a woman with a long, dark, purple number on her forearm. My recollection is that she wore a long-sleeved sweater, but I was shown the number. The other was a man, whom I remember thinking was very handsome, who had a leather glove on his left hand. (I also remember him as having an eye patch, but I think that's the romanticism of my little-kid self, to tell you the truth.)
I was told that he wore the glove because his hand was made of iron; he had lost his "meat hand" in Germany, and he was Israeli. He had an ACCENT! I mean, does it get more exciting than that? A tall man (ok, I'm only 4'11" now; I was a kid then; he might not have actually been tall at all) with an exotic foreign accent, described as Israeli - and with an IRON HAND!
Well....I remember asking Mom what was the deal with the number on that lady's arm, and I remember that she answered me and I don't doubt that her answer was age-appropriate, but I imagine it didn't really mean much to me.
When I got to junior high school, I hit a Jewish Phase (have I mentioned that I was a trial to my mother? Ooooh yeah). I bought a large beautiful carved Mexican sterling-silver Star of David on a fairly heavy chain and determined to wear it always. My mother forbade it! I was horrified...and realized, years later, how that must have made her perhaps terrified as well las uncomfortable; her generation practiced their religion openly - but didn't go out of their way in their daily lives to draw attention to it. That's one thing for which I mean to apologize when we meet in Heaven or whatever happens. I was put out, but didn't wear it.
But also at that time, I started reading some books, taken from our shelves at home, about the Holocaust, and I came to realize something, which I believe today. (This is my opinion, based on nothing resembling research, &c)
I think there are two kinds of Jews: one kind reads everything they can on the Holocaust, studies it, discusses it, researches it. The other kind acknowledges it, mourns it - but doesn't want to see any pictures or hear any first-person memories. And guess what? I'm both.
I read a lot - but given the chance to tour the famous Holocaust Museum (it's in Washington, D.C., I think) -- my initial feeling is, I won't. I'm sensitive to historical artifacts; I get misty-eyed at our Museum looking at Abraham Lincoln's shawl and the rock thrown through the window of a black woman in Little Rock, AR with a note tied to it reading "Next time it'll be dynamite...KKK".
So walking through a boxcar - seeing (as I understand it) piles of gold taken from people as they entered the chambers....I don't think Icould. Or would. Truth to tell, I don't know. Given the chance (I've never been to DC!) I might try and have to flee; I might not even try; I might go through it, probably sobbing.....I just don't know.
Well, boys and girls, humanity has given over atrocities, we haven't got the whole message from Kristallnacht or from the Holocaust (and I say "we", but of course now, as then, it's the few who somehow lack 2/3 of their hearts and 3/4 of their brains, but still....). There are new ones, or the same old ones performed with modern technology.
But now the world knows of Kristallnacht, and it's mentioned on NPR and in the newspapers, and it must be mourned afresh. I am mourning it afresh - but through my tears, I still feel optimistic. CHANGE, especially as it relates to human beings, is painstakingly slow. But the turtle won the race. So will we; if not in my lifetime, perhaps in my grandchildren's?
I'll end with another memory, one I might have mentioned before: I remember lying on the floor, coloring in my coloring book, while my parents sat listening to the big radio. It was 1948, and I was five years old. It was some dull recitation and I wasn't really listening - but suddenly my parents both cried out, and when I looked up, they were BOTH weeping. I didn't know daddies COULD weep, it was unthinkable! And they said "It's passed the UN, Israel will become a Jewish State." I had no idea what that meant - but it's now one of my most-cherished memories. Advancing age provides an exquisite appreciation for history.