by Ellen Norman Stern (Ambler, PA)
On the night of November 10, 1938 my mother and I stood on the sidewalk of Fasanenstrasse in Berlin and watched flames shoot out of the roof of our beautiful and beloved Temple, the great Reform Synagogue, across the street.
I was eleven years old and could not understand what was happening. Behind us in the street several fire engines manned by their crews rested without attempting to put out the fire. In front of the engines crowds of people just stood and watched, some of them obviously snickering.
No one made any attempt to put out the fire. It was obvious to me even at a young age that this was no accidental fire: it had been set because of hatred.
This was the synagogue in which I had my first introduction to Judaism, where I learned about our holy days, listened to the heavenly music of the choir, and felt the closeness of God even as a young child.
That night I even questioned God: “Dear God. This is Your beautiful house. Why are You allowing these evil people to burn it? And why did You not punish those just standing around seemingly enjoying the spectacle?”
But I said these thoughts quietly to myself for even my mother just stood there silently not saying a word. Her face wore such a languished look I did not dare to interrupt her sadness.
Finally, she turned to me and said in a quiet voice, “Remember this.” Then she pulled me away from the crowd and led me to the train station nearby. We went home in silence.
I have remembered that night throughout my life. It has become known as “Kristallnacht” (Night of Broken Glass) because aside from the burning of synagogues, other horrendous episodes occurred that day. Jewish shops all over Germany had their storefront windows smashed by unruly mobs, and many Jewish men were arrested and taken to concentration camps.
“Kristallnacht” was the forerunner to the Holocaust.
On Saturday, October 27, 2018, a crazed, heavily armed individual entered the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and murdered eleven elderly congregants while they were praying. His comment upon being wounded by arresting officers (who themselves sustained gunshot injuries) was: “All Jews should be killed.”
These words lie heavily upon our souls. Have the terrible, hate-filled times come again?
Never in the history of the United States have American Jews faced such concentrated venom.
Yet there is a difference. And there is hope.
In Germany, the hate and conflagration was started and fostered by tools of the State. Here, the actions were of a lone, crazed gunman. And here, the State, in the form of Pittsburgh’s police force and elected officials, Pennsylvania and Federal law enforcement officials, along with Pittsburgh’s medical personnel, the American Press, and worldwide reaction to the tragedy, has supported the bereaved Tree of Life congregation.
Despite my great sadness as a child Holocaust survivor, I have faith in the future.
Born in Germany, Ellen Stern came to the United States as a young girl and grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. She’s the author of numerous books for young adult readers, including biographies of Louis D. Brandeis, Nelson Glueck, and Elie Wiesel. Her most recent publication is The French Physician’s Boy, a novel about Philadelphia’s 1793 Yellow Fever epidemic.