Keene, Kaliningrad and Riga: Confronting the memory of Kristallnacht

I travel for my work; I travel often — my wife and children might say too often. Just before Chanukah, I was in Latvia, Lithuania, Russia, Canada, New Hampshire, Washington, D.C., and then back home. A hectic schedule is of little interest, but what I experienced might be.

November marked the 75th anniversary of the Third Reich’s pogroms of 1938, still commonly referred to in the sanitized language of that time as Kristallnacht. Crystal is fragile and beautiful; setting aflame synagogues throughout Germany and Austria, destroying some 7,000 Jewish businesses, killing 91 Jews, arresting 30,000 Jewish men age 16-60 and shipping them off to newly expanded concentration camps, is anything but beautiful.

I was invited to Keene University in New Hampshire, which convened a series of programs over four days to commemorate these pogroms by stressing the importance and the fragility of the common space we share. At its culminating event, 900 students and faculty, townspeople and officials gathered in a restored downtown theater to remember the past and reinforce the sense of Commons – an important New England term — making room in that common space for a diversity of people and opinion, a mosaic of people who enrich even the rural New Hampshire landscape. The fire chief spoke of the mission of his department — so antithetical to the instructions sent out to German fire officials those November days: “Do not put out the fires at the synagogue, unless they threaten the Aryan buildings nearby.” Those instructions were followed by most, but not all, fire departments – there were rare instances in which chiefs would not let their town burn. Survivors spoke of their experiences as young children seeing sacred space aflame and also understanding that in such a world, nothing was sacred.

I was invited to keynote the event, and I spoke first of the place of the synagogue in Germany as a self-confident public manifestation of Jews in German society and then of the impressive role of the synagogue under Nazi oppression. By day, German synagogues between 1933 and ’38 served as welfare offices and emigration offices and as schools – the safest place for a Jewish child was the Jewish school, but danger lurked on the way to school and home from school. Synagogues also became a training center for mobile professions, a recognition that many careers were no longer viable — plumbers and electricians are mobile, so too are agricultural workers and musicians, even architects and filmmakers. Nurses are mobile, but not doctors, whose licensing requirements are cumbersome. Lawyers and writers are not mobile. In the evening, the synagogues changed character. They became language schools : Hebrew for those going to Palestine and English. And arts centers: One night might feature a theater performance or an opera, a symphonic concert or even a ballet giving employment to Jews who’d been kicked off the German stage. Evenings were also spent in adult education, with the likes of Martin Buber leading efforts to give German Jews inner strength to withstand the daily assaults on their very beings.

At the same time, Shabbat services took on new meaning, with Jews who seldom set foot in synagogue coming out of a need to be together. Prayers became codes, and sermons became an indirect way of speaking from the Torah to the anguish of those days. Imagine speaking of Pharaoh and Haman then.

I was also invited to Kaliningrad, Russia, for a conference commemorating the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kaliningrad, formerly Konigsberg, was once a German city on the Baltic coast. Ethnic Germans were expelled in 1946. This year it was the site of an annual conference on the Holocaust organized by Ilya Altman, the imaginative head of the Moscow-based Russian Holocaust Center; each year, the conference takes place in a Russian city with a direct experience of the Holocaust and commemorates significant anniversaries of the events that took place in his country.

Doctoral students and young professors read papers on the repressed history of their town, including on the synagogues, and on the Jewish community before the war. Konigsberg was also the home for a time of Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese diplomat, later stationed in Kovno, who gave Jews visas to Shanghai in the last days of an independent Lithuania.

The well-known story bears repeating. As Lithuania was being overtaken by Germany, the Dutch Consul, Jan Zwartendyk, discovered that Curacao did not required a visa for entry; in partnership with his Japanese counterpart Sugihara, he learned that if a passport holder had an end visa, he or she could get a transit visa to travel via the Soviet Union to Japan, and to Japanese-held territory in China. Shanghai, in the late 1930s had become a haven for German Jews. Among those rescued were Lithuanian Yeshiva students of Mirer Yeshiva, which was transferred to Shanghai for the war years. Though Japan was allied with Germany, it did not partake in the Final Solution to the Jewish problem, and the Shanghai ghetto became home to some 30,000 Jews.

But the Russian scholars at the conference were less interested in the end results of Sugihara’s valiant efforts, and more in his regional role. A Finnish professor spoke of newly declassified documents that identify Sugihara as a Japanese spy masquerading as a diplomat. His task in Konigsberg — to track Soviet ships on the Baltic. Scholars speculated – though I will not — as to why he was freed by the Soviet Union, which had imprisoned him and another famous diplomat rescuer, Raoul Wallenberg, while Wallenberg was allowed to die in Soviet custody.

Most impressive, for me, was listening to concerns of Russian secondary school teachers who teach the Holocaust there, and how similar they are to the issues raised by American teachers. How do you personalize the history so that the abstract recitation of times, dates and events become real for the students? Russian teachers, like their American counterparts, have no problem making this history relevant to their student’s lives, as the students can relate to the Holocaust to their own contemporary situation. The sensitive teacher however, must ensure the connections are authentic and deep, not trivial and imagined.

The Kongisberg synagogue is being rebuilt on the site of its ruins in the city’s historic downtown, near to the Main Cathedral. Its entrance will be modeled on the original façade. A Russian Jew has given seven-million Euros to the project. Because I am writing the foreword to a book on German synagogues and their place within the city landscape, and because I never write a foreword to a book unless I have read it in its entirety, I had in my computer the Konisberg synagogue’s original architectural drawings, as well as pictures combed from archives throughout the world. Was it a coincidence or fate? The architects were as startled as I was by what I was able to give to them.

I also had to be in Latvia for some meetings, and because air connections would have involved a nine-hour layover in Moscow, I decided to drive between Kaliningrad and Riga — traversing Russia, Lithuania and Latvia. The distance was not great, some 250 miles, but the landscape touched on Jewish memories. A third of the trip was on a country road through a two-country national park, with the Baltic Sea on one side and a magnificent forest in the waning hours of its fall colors on the other. As a student of the Holocaust, I wondered — How many Jews could hide in these hundred miles of woods?

A ferry linked me to the mainland, and then a sojourn through the countryside of Lithuania. Signs were pointing to Vilnius (Vilna) in one direction and Kaunas (Kovno) in another. Would that I had had the time — I was ready to explore Jewish history in these two famous cities. I arrived in Riga on Independence Day, where thousands of people were walking the streets, and a light show illuminated the darkness. In the morning I toured the ghetto where Sigi Ziering, whose Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Ethics I direct, was interned, along with his mother and brother — sent from Germany to Riga — and where his name appears on a list of survivors. A local rabbi is seeking to tell the ghetto story in historic buildings on its actual site. He is developing the site slowly, with great determination and drive.

As a Jew travelling in Eastern Europe, I always see what is there, but also was is not there. I am haunted by the Presence of Absence and the Absence of Presence. As a scholar teaching about these sites, it is a privilege to share the story of what once was and is no longer, most especially to the younger generation, who are so very anxious to learn.