Thursday, November 7, 2013

Bravery in the Face of Hatred

It is no secret that Judaism is filled with irony. Throughout their history, Jews have had to cultivate a strong sense of humor, often needing to find laughter within their tears. So it is not surprising that we might need to read this Shabbat’s Torah portion, Va-yetze, with a sense of irony. Va-yetze is one of the most hopeful portions we read each year. In it, Jacob falls asleep on a rock (“Jacob’s Pillow”) and has a dream in which God tells him, “I will give to you and your seed the land where you are sleeping. And your seed will be as dust of the earth and spread in all directions, and through you will all the families on earth be blessed. I am with you and will guard you. I will not leave you until I have accomplished what I have promised." The narrative for this week also deals with Jacob’s marriages and the birth of his 12 sons, who will become the namesakes of the tribes of Israel. All positive stuff, you have to admit.

But this Shabbat also marks the 75th anniversary of the Kristallnacht, “the night of broken glass,” when Hitler’s “brownshirts” broke windows in and set fire to synagogues throughout Germany. German Jews living through that night (and sadly many did not) probably began to doubt the positive message God had given Jacob in Va-yetze; they began to wonder if God was indeed on guard. And it took a special kind of bravery for German Jews (and really all of us) to put aside their doubt and to go forward after that evening.

The inside of a German synagogue the morning after
So it is bravery that I want to write about.

On November 10, 1938, my mother-in-law, Frances Malzer, was 23 years old and living in London. She had left home all alone the year before, following her family’s urging that she leave Hitler’s Germany, and was eking out an existence as a domestic helper for a German Jewish family living in England. She once laughingly told us that she was not a very good housemaid, and she didn’t get along very well with the woman of the house. My mother-in-law was always very neat, but I don’t think she ever enjoyed cleaning—and certainly not for other people. She also spoke very little English at the time. She was a little nervous that she might get fired and be left even more alone in a strange country.

Frances Malzer, probably around 1938

So imagine how she must have felt when she received an urgent telegram from her parents on November 10, 1938. Her parents were living in a small town in Bavaria, almost too small to make an impact on a German map but filled with enough Jews to arouse the anger and attention of the brownshirts. I am not sure just what the telegram said, but the message was loud and clear: GET US OUT OF HERE!

And this singular woman set about doing just that. With her limited English and even more limited resources, she began looking for someone who could help sponsor her parents to leave Germany and come to England or even America. Now, my mother-in-law seldom talked about these events, so I can only guess at them. Somehow she communicated with cousins in Germany or German Jews in England who let her know that a distant cousin living in New Orleans, of all places, was wealthy enough and family-centered enough to provide the financial help and documentation to get her parents and brother out of Germany. So she set the wheels in motion, finding a way to contact Edgar Stern (whose wife was the daughter of one of the founders of Sears & Roebuck) and appeal to him to rescue her family.

(Here I must digress with another ironic twist. Edgar Stern and his wife had a daughter named Audrey. It was not a common name, but my mother-in-law really liked it. So perhaps as a way to thank her cousin or simply because she liked the name, my mother-in-law named her only child— my wife—Audrey. All to the good. But somehow the Malzers and Sterns had very little to do with each other once the Malzers arrived in New York. My wife’s family never cultivated a relationship with their REALLY RICH cousins! Sadly ironic, and enough to make you laugh and cry at the same time.)

More on bravery. My wife’s uncle Harold, her mother’s younger brother, was never a very warm or engaging person. We have several family anecdotes that back that up. He was also not a very lucky person. On November 10, 1938, he was 18 years old and on an outing for Orthodox Jewish youth being held far away from his family home in Bavaria. So he was a Jewish kid all alone in a country in which Jews like him were being set upon in the streets by Nazis or their sympathizers. He once told us a little of what happened to him then. Over the next several days, he hid out during the days and managed to slip onto trains at night, until he could finally rejoin his parents. It must have been a harrowing experience. He did get to England with his parents soon afterwards, but then his unluckiness resurfaced. He found himself unwittingly enlisting into the British army to fight the Germans. It would be several years before he too would make it to New York.

Frances (Franzi) and her brother Harold (Hans)
 as children in Germany

I think Audrey’s family may have one more connection to Kristallnacht. In the days following that terrible night, thousands of Jewish men (as many as 30,000 according to the U.S. Holocaust Museum) were thrown into concentration camps in Germany, accused of the crime of being Jewish. I know that Audrey’s father was sent to Dachau, the camp in southern Germany, at around that time and long before he met my mother-in-law in New York. How did he get there? What was his experience like? How did he get out? He never talked about any of that. So many European Jews, it seems, never wanted to tell their children about the ways they suffered. I think they wanted to spare their children any painful memories. So we are left wondering and filling in the blanks ourselves.

For my own ancestors, safely in America long before 1938, Kristallnacht was a news event, painful to read about or view in newsreels but not very threatening. For Audrey’s family, the event was harrowing and called for fast action, quick wits, and great bravery. It took all of that for them to be able to be in a position to experience God’s promise to Jacob that they would be blessed. That seems ironic to me, but it also makes me proud.

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