It is a great honor for me to speak in this historic church to commemorate this horrific night 76 years ago. I am so very grateful to Pastorin Brita Taddiken of the Thomaskirche and to Pastor Timotheus Arndt for the invitation. I also want to express my eternal gratitude to Pastorin Ursula Sieg and Pastor Martin Pommerening for both welcoming Vickie and me into their home and for the endless hours each has put in to make our ten-week stay in Germany so productive and meaningful.
I first found out what happened on this night in 1938 when I began my graduate studies to become a rabbi at the Hebrew Union College in Los Angels. At the opening convocation the then dean and later President of the College, Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk, of blessed memory, told of how as an eight-year old child in the town of Oberwesel, he watched his grandfather wade into the river Rhine to save charred scraps of Torah scrolls thrown by the Nazis from his burning synagogue.
As my train pulled into Leipzig’s huge station, I realized that my first glimpse of the city was probably my father’s last as he traveled on a different kind of train to Dachau after his arrest on Kristallnacht, November 9, 1938.
I picked up a detailed city map at the information center to try to find the street and apartment where my father had grown up. I also sought the location of the city zoo.
Why the zoo? The eyewitness report on Kristallnacht by David H. Buffum, American consul in Leipzig, reveals: “Jewish dwellings were smashed into, and the contents looted… An eighteen year-old boy was hurled from a three-story window to land with both legs broken … three synagogues were fired simultaneously by incendiary bombs, and many Jews were rounded up and thrown into the stream that flows through the city zoo. SS men commanded horrified spectators to spit, jeer, and defile them with mud.”
When I arrived at the entrance to the zoo, it was 6:45 p.m. The gatekeeper said I was too late. “The zoo closes at seven.”
“It is all right,” I answered, as I handed over the entrance fee. “I only need to go in for a few minutes.” The gatekeeper protested, but I persisted until she finally let me pass.
In a few minutes I was standing before the stream. Tears came to my eyes as I heard myself asking out loud, “Is this where they took you, Papa? Did those bastards spit on you… Did they throw mud on you?” Then, as if in retaliation, I spit into the water from a bridge that straddles the stream.
The next morning I found the office of the Leipzig Jewish community. The elderly lady who answered the door explained that the head of the community was out but would be back later. I explained to her that my father grew up in Leipzig. She pulled down a dusty ledger and opened it to the F’s. I quickly found the family listing.
While we were talking, the leader of the community walked in. I explained who I was and why I was there. He was warm, friendly, and clearly pleased that I had come.
I asked him, “How many Jews live in Leipzig?”
“67”, he answered.
“And how many lived here,” I continued, “when the Jewish population was at its peak?”
“In 1935,” he responded, “18,000 Jews lived in Leipzig.”
“How many perished during the Holocaust?” I asked.
“14,000,” he replied.
The twelve-hour train ride to Amsterdam gave me plenty of time to digest my experiences in Leipzig. I thought, of course, of my father. After Kristallnacht, the Nazis took him to Dachau where they shaved his head, interrogated him, and abused him.
But Leo Fuchs was one of the lucky ones. Because he had relatives already in the United States, and because his visas were complete and in order, the American consulate secured his release after only a few days.
He never spoke of any of this to me, but I know the trauma’s effect never left him. In the spring of 1969 my father fell gravely ill. I flew home to New Jersey from my rabbinical studies in Los Angeles to be with him. I shall never forget my feelings of helplessness when I entered the hospital room, and my father in a semi-comatose state did not recognize me.
I stood there and shuddered as he began shouting in German –which he never spoke at home– that the guards should stop beating him! He had repressed those memories for more than 30 years.
And they were –by and large—good years! In this country my father found love and raised a family. But I –perhaps irrationally—blame the Nazis for shortening his life and depriving me of sharing my greatest joys with him: My ordination as a rabbi, my marriage to Vickie, and our children and our grandchildren.
Why do I say this? My father died at age 57. His older brothers who left Germany before Kristallnacht lived well into their 80’s.
Our children! They are our people’s answer to Hitler’s madness. For us Jews each new life represents a young sapling planted not only to bring joy to a family but also to revitalize a once verdant forest ravaged by fire, by smoke, and by gas.
The word, “genocide,” which we throw around so loosely today, came into our vocabulary so that we could attempt to define what Hitler tried to do: to extirpate the gene pool of our people.
And so we command ourselves: זכור Remember! But if we only remember to wallow in our sorrow, then we waste our time and our tears. We must remember what was so that we can make what will be better.
People ask me all the time. “How could God allow the Holocaust?” I answer that God gave human beings free will and placed us in charge of and responsible for this world. Without free will life would have no meaning. We human beings would be mere puppets on a string or actors following a script from which we could not deviate.
God yearns for us to create a world of justice and compassion, but God does not do it for us. When we fail, it is our failure, not God’s. When we fail, I believe God weeps with us and for us.
As I walked away from the stream that flows through the Leipzig zoo, I wandered past a den of timber wolves in a natural enclosure and beheld a truly wondrous site. A mother wolf stood stark still, while two suckling cubs nursed blissfully at her breasts.
At first, I thought it so incongruous to see such an exquisite glimpse of nature’s harmony in a place that represented to me only discord and destruction. Yet, that is the image that lingered in my mind during the long train ride back to Amsterdam. My mind’s eye kept returning from the vision of violence, hatred, and pain to the peaceful, pastoral scene of wolf cubs drawing sustenance and strength from their mother.
I know that the Nazis’ and neo-Nazi’s use the wolf as a symbol. That is a perversion! Wolves don’t kill because of ideology or cruelty—only to survive.
The Leipzig zoo will always represent for me the horrible evil of which humanity is capable. The wolves, though, will always represent harmony God wants us to create in this world.
On Yom Kippur we read in our synagogues one of the Torah’s most important texts: “See I have set before you life and goodness, death and evil.” (Dt. 30:15). The choice is ours, but God exhorts us: “Choose life that you and your offspring may live (Dt. 30:19).
No, the question is not where was God during the Holocaust. The question is where was humanity?
We cannot change the past, but we can learn from it. We know too well that we can choose death, but God hopes our past will strengthen us as we face the future.
Yes, we can choose death, but God hopes
That the pain we relive this night will give us the courage
To clothe the naked,
Feed the hungry,
Teach the unlettered,
Foster understanding among all people,
And use the vast talents—with which God has blessed us—
To choose life, and
To forge a world of justice, caring, compassion and peace!
And then, at last, we will have the world of which the prophets dreamed when they said (Isaiah 11:9 and Micah 4:4)
They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Eternal One as the sea bed is covered by water … and all shall sit under their vines and under their fig trees and none shall make them afraid!