80 years ago tonight, Nazi forces orchestrated a pogrom in Jewish neighbourhoods in Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia. They orchestrated a pogrom – beyond a riot or an attack, it was a concentrated and organized display of violence and horror that was meant to step up their genocide to a terrible new level. It was so violent and destructive that it’s been known as Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass), for all the shattered shards of glass from synagogues, Jewish homes, and businesses. But the horror of that night was also from the fire – 267 synagogues and 7500 Jewish-owned businesses were burned, and local firefighters only intervened if the flames threatened to spread to nearby, presumably not-Jewish, buildings. Beyond that, Jewish cemeteries were desecrated, and Jewish men were rounded up and sent to concentration camps, and over 100 Jews died in the streets. I can’t even wrap my head around the terror of that night. Horror seems too trite a word. Terror seems too soft. What comes after that on the sliding scale of terrible things humans do to each other?
But there is another story that came out of that night: The Kristallnacht Torah. Someone had the presence of mind, during all the mayhem and terror that night, to save a Torah scroll from being destroyed. In Jewish families and communities, the Torah scrolls are all hand scripted; the loss of even one of these is more than the loss of a holy book – it’s an erasure of the lessons and effort and dedication that went into creating it. They are particularly irreplaceable.
That night, Nazi gestapo forced Jewish families to throw their Torah scrolls into bonfires, compelled in many cases by a gun pointed to their heads, while the police laughed and cheered at the destruction. There are so many layers of sickening details to this story, and it feels flippant to say that I find this detail particularly heartbreaking, when there is so much other heartbreak in every second of Kristallnacht and the holocaust.
I have only ever seen one handwritten Torah scroll, at the Holocaust Museum in Toronto, and accompanying that Torah was the story of the Kristallnacht Torah. I’ve read other stories since, but they all show the tenacity of saving a Torah. In one story, someone tipped off the Rabbi that “something” was about to happen, so he was able to hide the Torah. In another, a child was able to throw it out of a burning building and hide it in a Christian cemetery for 5 years. There are probably many other stories, but eventually the Kristallnacht Torah was brought to the United States by a holocaust survivor. Nazis had tried so hard to eradicate the Jewish culture, and they were foiled, on a night such as that, by a Rabbi struggling to counsel his congregation, or perhaps a frightened child.
The Kristallnacht Torah was severely damaged by the conditions where it was hidden for so long, but it has restored, and it was dedicated to the lives of 6 million Jews murdered in the Holocaust.
This year, may we remember the civilian casualties of war. May we find ways to both grieve anniversaries such as Kristallnacht, and celebrate those who find courage during the terror of conflict to do the Right Thing.