Kristallnacht, Six Decades Later

In April of last year, I received the following letter from the city of Graz, Austria, where I was born.

"On November 9th, 2000, the newly erected synagogue in Graz will be returned to the Jewish community. The return of the synagogue is a visual appeal for forgiveness for the atrocities and unjust criminal actions that were dealt our Jewish fellow citizens in the year 1938. This new House of God for the Jewish Community in Graz, which now stands at the very same spot where the former synagogue stood, should be a symbol for new respect for human rights and human kindness here in our city."

"The curators for the rebuilding of the synagogue and the Jewish community have the pleasure of inviting you to be a party of this meaningful event. You had to leave this city many years ago with bitter experiences and great danger. It would give us great pleasure if you would return to our city, where we would like to ask for your forgiveness. We know that terrible memories are connected with such a visit, and we have great respect for your decision."

Immediately after the Anschluss — the union of Nazi Germany and Austria on March 12, 1938 — the Graz Jewish cemetery was desecrated. Local officials sought to make Graz the first town to be Judenrein.

On the nights of Nov. 9 and 10 — Kristallnacht — the main synagogue was dynamited and burned to the ground. All Jewish residents were driven from their homes. Their subsequent fate is unknown, though most perished in the Holocaust.

In spite of many misgivings, I decided to take the invitation and return to Graz. I took my daughter, then 46, with me.

Municipal officials throughout the event repeatedly emphasized it was "somewhat late" to apologize for what happened 62 years ago, and asked for forgiveness. As the saying goes: "Better late than never."

We were treated royally — wined and dined from morning till night. A very large group came from Israel and several groups from the United States.

The new synagogue is beautiful in its modern structure and simplicity. Its 12 beams upholding a glass cupola symbolize the 12 tribes of Israel. There is a big Magen David on the top, and all over the glass dome are excerpts of the Torah in Hebrew letters.

On Nov. 8, the day before the synagogue’s official opening, the site was renamed the David Herzog Platz in honor of our old rabbi, David Herzog. He was already 70 years old on that fateful night of Nov. 9. A mob beat him and threw him into the River Mur, where he somehow managed to swim ashore. They were going to throw him into the flames of the burning synagogue, but police stopped them. (Not out of kindness; the police were afraid the surrounding buildings would catch fire, so they cordoned the area off.) Herzog, a broken man, eventually managed to leave for England, and he died shortly after. His 93-year-old son lives in Chicago, but for health reasons could not make the long trip to Graz.

The following day was the official opening with the president of Austria, Dr. Thomas Klestil, and many dignitaries attending. When the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, the Chief Rabbi of Vienna and the president of the Jewish community in Graz came in, each carrying a Torah as they walked through the congregation, we were all in tears. The choir of the Big Synagogue in Jerusalem provided music. There were many speeches, and each one emphasized forgiveness and expressed hope and faith that this House of God would put an end to hatred and discrimination.

Graz is fortunate to have an outstanding mayor, Alfred Stingl, who was not only instrumental in arranging this whole huge project, but who extended his warmth, courtesy and charisma. When the large Israeli group arrived in Vienna, he met the airplane, arranged a reception at the airport, carried luggage and shook everyone’s hand.

He quickly returned to Graz to welcome the visitors at the hotel and was part of a large reception for them, though it was almost midnight. He thanked us over and over again, both as a group and individually, for coming and for forgiving.

I was interviewed by a reporter of a local newspaper, and I told her that although one can never forget or totally forgive, it was time to let go. I had built up such a hatred and dislike for everything Austrian, the particular dialect of Graz, even of the food, that it didn’t leave me any peace.

I feel this visit has somehow softened these feelings, and in the final analysis, you cannot really blame second and third generations for the "sins of the fathers." In grave doubt is whether the Austrians are truly repentant and whether Jews in Austria will ever be equal citizens. I will say, however, that Graz city officials tried their utmost, and I fervently hope they will continue to be successful.

As for me, even though I had a very meaningful and enjoyable time, my happiest moment was when I showed my U.S. passport at Schwechart Airport in Vienna and returned to my home for the past 53 years in Los Angeles.