This article was originally published in the Jewish Independent.
The following remarks have been slightly modified from the original welcoming and closing addresses given at the Victoria Holocaust Remembrance and Education Society’s annual Kristallnacht Commemoration, which took place at Congregation Emanu-El on Nov 9.
Shalom and welcome. Thank you all for coming to share in this evening of remembrance and resiliency. It is a dark Monday night in November, but you have chosen to be here. That is a statement in itself, and we thank you for taking part in tonight’s program.
We are remembering Nov. 9, 1938, a tragic night of destruction that carried on into the next day and was a portent of things to come. Remembering events such as these, as painful as they are, is vital. We don’t need to dwell on them so much as we need to draw on them for the lessons they can offer us.
Rabbi Harry Brechner of Congregation Emanu-El reminded me recently that one of our congregants, Steffi Porzecanski, may her memory be forever blessed, was a witness to the Night of Broken Glass. She lived in Berlin at the time. She would talk about how you couldn’t walk on the streets afterwards without feeling and hearing pieces of glass crunching under your feet. By the end of the destruction, some 1,000 synagogues had been burned, windows smashed, Jewish property damaged, ritual objects and cemeteries desecrated and some 30,000 Jews sent to concentration camps.
Sometimes, words are not sufficient in the face of epic horrors. Rabbi Leo Baeck, who also lived in Germany during this period, and who was eventually sent to Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1942 but did ultimately survive, wrote a prayer some years before for Jews to read at Yom Kippur. This prayer was eventually banned by the Nazis. Near the end of the prayer, he says: “We are filled with sorrow and pain. In silence, will we give expression to all that which is in our hearts in moments of silence before our G-d. This silent worship will be more emphatic than any words could be.”
This is where we would like to begin tonight – allowing the silence to speak. I ask you to join me in just looking around our sanctuary and at our windows. All of the colors and nuances of our magnificently crafted windows can’t be fully appreciated at night, but they are, nevertheless, beautiful windows. At our early morning service on Thursdays, those of us who come are often treated to an extraordinary light show, as the soft, morning light gently begins touching on the blue glass.
We have all experienced the sound of breaking glass. Can we even begin to imagine the quiet and tranquility being shattered by the sound of window glass suddenly crashing to the ground and breaking into a thousand pieces, as happened in synagogues throughout Germany and Austria, beginning on that November night in 1938. The only reason? Because we were Jews. How would we feel if we witnessed that happening here, in our sanctuary, in our community, to these very windows?
As a symbol of our desire to work together in unity, to respect one another’s differences and to strive for a community that has tolerance and respect at its centre we will rebuild a window together tonight, a window resembling one of our very own windows.
While we are blessed to live somewhere where we haven’t had to witness an event like Kristallnacht, we also must be realistic of the need to remain vigilant and caring for one another in a world where such events have taken place and could, potentially, take place again. The more fractured and fragmented our world becomes, the more vital it is for us to come together, to put our differences aside and see each other on that most human level, stripped of labels and roles and categories. We may all pick our fruit from different trees, but we all share the same garden.
Tonight, as we commemorate the tragic events of that fateful November night and all that followed in its wake, we also recognize the strength and resilience of our people, the courage of the survivors, and we look towards the future with hope for a world where no group is targeted for attack, as the Jews were on the Night of Broken Glass and in the years that followed.
We are truly honored to have Holocaust survivors with us tonight, as well second- and third-generation descendants, representatives of political leadership, law enforcement agencies, faith groups and persons targeted for their sexual orientation, religious or political beliefs, participating in this symbolic reconstruction and in our candlelighting ceremony.
Our candlelighters will light seven candles. Six of them represent the six million lives lost in the Shoah. The seventh candle represents the many other persecuted victims of the Shoah. It is also our candle of hope.
I’d like to thank our wonderful planning committee, our readers, volunteers and musicians for their hard work and dedication. Thank you, as well, to Rabbi Harry for his help and for his words. We are, again, especially honored and deeply grateful to our survivors, descendants of survivors and everyone who helped us with our candlelighting and our window building, especially Julius Maslovat (child Holocaust survivor), the b’nai mitzvah children from Congregation Emanu-El, local grandchildren of Holocaust survivors, MP Murray Rankin, Rabbi Harry of Congregation Emanu-El, Very Rev. Ansley Tucker, Constable Rae Robirtis from Victoria Police Department and Carmel Tanaka (Victoria Hillel director, granddaughter of Holocaust survivors and interned Japanese-Canadians).
The many problems out there in the world sometimes seem too big and too overwhelming for us to solve. Rebuilding our window here tonight may seem small in comparison to the challenges that face us in the wider world. But tonight, as we gathered to remember a difficult chapter from our past, it is our hope that, together, we injected a little more shalom into the world.
In Hebrew, every word has a three-letter root from which other words are formed. From the same root for the word shalom, peace, comes the word shalem, whole, and shlemut, wholeness. Each time we inject more shalom into the world, we are, in essence, diminishing brokenness and creating more wholeness. A little shalom goes a long, long way.
Our window may be fragile, but it is full of possibility. The cracks are a necessary reminder of our vulnerability. They are the scars that must be there, reminding us of our past, reminding us of the Night of Broken Glass.
A window allows us to look in – in this case, looking into the past, back to Nov. 9, 1938. And a window allows us to look out. What is that world that we, as individuals and as a community, want to see when we look out? A window also shows us our reflection. Who do we see looking back at us? Who do we want to see?
Elisheva Gray is a member of the Victoria Holocaust Remembrance and Education Society and is on the planning committee for the Kristallnacht Commemoration in Victoria.