Posvar Hall event marks 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht


Pitt’s annual Kristallnacht commemoration had a special poignancy this year, following so closely after the murders at Tree of Life Synagogue on Oct. 27.

Nearly 60 people gathered in a classroom at Posvar Hall on Nov. 9 to remember the “Night of Broken Glass” 80 years ago in Germany and to pay tribute to the 11 killed at Tree of Life.

Student readings recounted the history of the night in 1938 when German soldiers and others torched synagogues, vandalized Jewish homes, schools and businesses and killed close to 100. Then Rabbi Water Jacob, rabbi emeritus and senior scholar at Rodef Shalom Synagogue in Oakland, gave his personal recollections from his childhood in Augsburg, Germany.

Jacob was living a fairly protected life in the synagogue complex where his father was the rabbi. Since Jewish kids were banned from public school, he got his education on a school set up at the synagogue. And his parents kept much of the news about the growing totalitarian state from Jacob and his brothers.

“All this came to a crashing halt with Kristallnacht,” Jacob said. “That meant from then on we were in a totally different situation.”

The synagogue was saved because someone “mistakenly” called the fire department after the pews had been set on fire. But Jacob and his family would leave Germany in 1940 and settle in Springfield, Mo.

Jacob returned to Augsburg for the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht. In his talk there, he said. “Individuals who raised their voices and rejected the Nazi persecution lived in Germany as well, and we should not forget them. They were not leaders but people who followed their conscience.”

He recounted the story of a milkman coming to the synagogue on the Nov. 10, 1938. As people stood around jeering at the old men cleaning up the destruction, the milkman did his job like he always did. “This was a simple good man and we must have more of them,” Jacob said.

He said the reactions to the Tree of Life tragedy, including a letter from the president of Germany expressing his sympathy, show there are good people out there.

Jacob said we need to “really see what needs strengthening in the lives around us to make us not just more tolerant but more tolerant in a visible way, in a way that means something, and not just a few nice sentences.

“And finally, we need to do something about this needless, totally needless, inexcusable, gun violence. ... It’s going to take a lot of effort and really courage on some people’s part.”

Anti-semitism and white supremacy

Dean Kathleen BleeKathleen Blee, dean of the Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences and a sociology professor who has researched white supremacists for 30 years, gave a mini-lecture about the current state of anti-Semitism and white supremacy in the United States.

Blee said for the past 40 years, Jews have been the main target of white supremacists. They think of Jews as non-white and the organized world of these groups channels this into violence.

Extremist anti-Semitism is something mostly created within the world of white supremacy, Blee said. It’s not something that people get into naturally or grow up with.

“When I have talked to people about why they are racist toward, say, African-Americans, everyone can give me a personal story that to them explains it. Now the stories are ridiculous, but they are their stories,” she said.

But the hatred of Jews is much more insidious; it’s a belief that Jews control the world.

“It’s something they learned inside this world. Anti-Semitism is the secret, the gift, the bonding information people get when they become attached to white supremacy,” Blee said. “It’s the secret clue to explain everything. It explains why your town isn’t working out, it explains why your wife is divorcing you, it explains why you are failing your math test — Jews control the world.

“They learn the sense that Jews are invisible puppet-masters controlling everything. The kind of anti-Semitism that is learned in these groups and fuels what happened at Tree of Life and other places is extremely conspiratorial and circular. … And it’s extremely different to break out of it.”

If you believe Jews control everything, it’s almost impossible to accept any counter-information, which Blee said is very scary. If asked to give examples of Jewish control, she said, they’ll respond, “Jews are so good at controlling that you can’t see it.” And to that there is no counter-argument.

Another ideology — dubbed Christian Identity — believes all people of color are pre-Adam and Eve and are descendant from a non-human lineage. “It’s taking racism to a really shocking new level,” Blee said.

And they are told Jews are the “literal descendants of Satan. … It’s not very hard to see how that kind of ideology, in itself, gives an urgency to violence. You are literally fighting for your life if Satan is embodied on the Earth.”

Blee also said that people she has talked to who left this world often act like those who have overcome a serious addiction. It had become the center of their life.

She worries that there is of late a blurring of white supremacists, white nationalists, alt-right and electoral mainstream politics, which had been extremely separate groups.

The world of anti-Semitism has moved into virtual space, which may move people to more violent acts than when they had personal contact, Blee said. To some extent, the groups had a moderating effect on their members, because they didn’t want illegal acts to bring them extra attention. That restraint is lifted in virtual space.

Irina Livezeanu, director of Pitt’s Jewish Studies Program, ended the formal part of the event talking about nationalism, particularly President Trump’s assertion that he is a nationalist without defining what that means to him.

Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at 412-648-4294 or suejones@pitt.edu.