NEW YORK – World-famous concert pianist Simone Dinnerstein rendered the Bach Goldberg Variations beautifully as emotion played across her face. A five-part male choir sounded heavenly harmonizing with Cantor Josh Breitzer on classics of German Jewish liturgy. British Jewish author Thomas Harding related the stunning story of his great uncle hunting down Rudolf Hoss, Auschwitz’s architect and commandant. Moving as these tributes to the greatness of German Jewish culture and the suffering of German Jews on Kristallnacht were, they remained echoes of an era whose eyewitnesses are now mostly gone.
The gathering Sunday night at Brooklyn’s Congregation Beth Elohim commemorated the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the November night in 1938 when Nazis and German civilians rampaged through Jewish areas in Germany and parts of Austria, burning more than 1,000 synagogues, ransacking and ruining at least 7,000 Jewish-owned businesses, murdering at least 91 people and arresting 30,000 Jews.
My father had a scar on his forehead that he said was caused by a rock thrown through the window of his bedroom that night. His father, Solly, Uncle Ludwig and maternal grandfather were three of the men arrested that night (Solly as he sat shiva for his father) for the crime of being Jewish. They were imprisoned at Buchenwald while my grandmother and her sister, Ludwig’s wife, went day after day to the German authorities pleading for their release.
Oma and Aunt Lotte’s father died at Buchenwald, of a heart attack. Their half-starved, ill husbands finally returned home. Soon after, Aunt Lotte and Uncle Ludwig went to Palestine, found it unsuitable for their refined German taste and settled in New York. Oma would not leave Germany until her mother had an exit visa. When she finally obtained one from Trinidad, my then-4-year-old father’s parents got visas to the U.S. and arranged passage, by ocean liner, to New York.
Days before their departure, with all their belongings on a dock in Genoa, Italy declared war on Great Britain and France, making passage across the Atlantic impossible. My grandparents managed to arrange visas from countries to the east (Oma said she bribed the doorman at the Russian embassy with several hundred German marks to put their passports at the top of the pile. They got their visas).
The train left on Friday night. Opa, pious his entire life, approached their rabbi about desecrating Shabbat. And the rabbi said, “you go.” With one suitcase between them they travelled by train across Eastern Europe then Russia, to Japan and South Korea. Oma said she bathed my father with cologne, as that was in greater supply than water. They traveled by ship to Seattle and then by train and bus crossed the U.S. to reach Aunt Lotte and Uncle Ludwig, already settled in Washington Heights. Soon after they left Germany Oma’s mother was deported to the Lodz ghetto, where she died.
Though not something I think often about, this personal family history rushed forward as I sat among the audience of about 250 people at Beth Elohim on November 10. Most appeared to be in their 60s and older, though there was a smattering of young people in the pews of the elegant sanctuary at the Reform temple, which was founded by German Jews in 1861.
Breitzer, Beth Elohim’s young cantor, said in an interview afterward that the goal of the evening was to “make connections between the past and the present. We wanted to provide people throughout Brooklyn with an opportunity to reflect and think back on the past 75 years since that awful night. As Rabbi [Andy] Bachman pointed out, there is hope, there is consolation. After such a calamity, people look toward some sense of structure and comfort. Music can provide that in a way that not much else can.”
With his wife, mezzo-soprano Donna Breitzer, the cantor and his choir — an ad hoc group of congregants and synagogue staff — sang liturgical pieces whose music was composed by Louis Lewandowski, Eduard Birnbaum, Hugo Chaim Adler and others with German roots.
Their harmonies brought to life with sudden vividness something embedded in my family’s historical memory that I never realized was part of my own: the sound of the men’s choir at my grandparents’ synagogue. They were among the founders of Congregation Shaare Hatikvah and Opa was in the choir. Long after he had died of cancer, while my father was a young man, I would go to services with Oma once or twice a year. The women sat behind a bronzed fence at the back of the sanctuary, a dark space with walls of gray cinder block, while the gabbai shushed them from up front. That space was a stark contrast to the elegance of Beth Elohim’s sanctuary or any of the many others in which I have recently prayed. But what must it have taken for these now-impoverished German Jews, that saving remnant, to muster what they earned working as house painters and house cleaners, as Opa and Oma did, in order to resurrect what little was left of their religious community hard by the George Washington Bridge.
Echoes of Kristallnacht’s last surviving voices and of those already gone resonated loudly in the Beth Elohim sanctuary during their commemoration. Increasingly distant as those voices are, they were audible still as Dinnerstein lyrically played Bach and as the choir sang the psalmist’s words of gratitude to God, arranged by Lewandowski in a melody traditional for German Jews, but surely heard in few places anymore.