A Kristallnacht lesson for our generation

It was Nov. 9 – Kristallnacht, the night of “broken glass” – when hundreds of Jewish businesses and virtually every synagogue throughout Germany and Austria were set ablaze.

On that terrible night in 1938, my father, Sol, ran into a burning synagogue near his home in Vienna and rescued a Torah that would otherwise have been consumed by the flames. He and his brother, Morris Brafman, carried that Torah halfway around the world, ultimately bringing it to the United States, where it was restored and is currently in a yeshiva in Far Rockaway, Queens, N.Y., in an ark dedicated to the memory of my father and his wife of 55 years, my mother Rose.

My father, my mother and my father’s brother were among the fortunate few who reached the United States. Like many European Jewish refugees, the Brafman brothers built a successful life in their new country, but never forgot the powerful and tragic events of that terrible night that so dramatically reshaped their lives.

In our home around the Shabbat dinner table, the conversation frequently included passionate discussions about what the Nazis did to our people – and even more passionate discussions about the failure of much of the international community to do anything about it. My father and uncle also were troubled by the lack of an adequate response from the American Jewish community to the Holocaust.

In Elie Wiesel’s book “The Jews of Silence,” one of the earliest writings about the persecution of Jews in the Soviet Union, Wiesel refers to them as Jews of silence not only because they were held prisoner by the Soviet Union but because they were prevented from speaking out about religious matters. In one of the most haunting statements in the book, Wiesel observes that Jews in the free world who failed to protest against the persecution of Soviet Jewry were also Jews of silence.

My father and his brother were determined to put an end to the silence. Having lived through the “abandonment of the Jews,” words borrowed from the title of David S. Wyman’s landmark book, they were concerned about the persecution of Jews in the Soviet Union. They vowed to make certain there would be no second such abandonment.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, reports began reaching the West about the mistreatment of Jews by the Soviet government. Synagogues were closed down, the study of the Hebrew language was outlawed, Soviet publications were filled with anti-Semitism, and asking for permission to emigrate to Israel assured a one-way ticket to a prison or forced labor camp in Siberia.

These were the years before American Jewry mobilized in protest – before the huge rallies, before we wore wristbands with names of refuseniks, before we set an empty chair at our Passover seder table to symbolize the Russian Jews who were not permitted to celebrate the holiday.

This was 20 years earlier. In a small Manhattan office, the Brafman brothers established the International League for the Repatriation of Russian Jews, recognizing the legal right of any citizen of the world to be permitted to repatriate to his or her homeland. They were not lawyers, but it was they who put forward, for the first time, the important legal argument that since the State of Israel was the homeland of all Jews, the Soviet Union was violating international law by refusing to allow Jews to emigrate to Israel.

Day after day, year after year, in a lonely battle, these two brave men along with a small handful of heroic colleagues wrote editorials, circulated petitions and enlisted concerned government officials who made the issue of Soviet Jewry public. They persisted in their efforts, until it became an international issue that could not be ignored.

My uncle and my father understood that before they could get people interested in a problem, they first had to make them aware of the problem. So too they understood that as far as the world was concerned, Jewish blood was considered cheap and that only by pressuring public officials in the United States, who would in turn pressure public officials in the Soviet Union, could they ultimately persuade the Soviet Union that the battle to keep Jews prisoner was not worth it and that allowing Jews to emigrate to Israel was a legal solution to what had become a growing international issue.

As we all know, their work and the work of so many other heroes of the struggle for Soviet Jewry ultimately paid enormous dividends – because eventually, the Soviet Union recognized the right of Jews to emigrate to Israel. Millions of Jews from the Soviet Union were freed. Many went to Israel, others to the United States, where today in both countries they are raising proud Jewish families, free to practice their religion and enjoy their heritage with dignity.

What began as a terrible destructive blaze on Kristallnacht 69 years ago became a blazing lifetime pursuit for two men who refused to be Jews of silence and to abandon their Soviet brothers and sisters as so many of their European brothers and sisters had been abandoned many years before.

Benjamin Brafman is a member of the board of directors of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies. This article, based on his remarks in November 2007 at an institute conference held at the Fordham University School of Law, New York, is reprinted with permission of The Wyman Institute.