Today marks the 100th anniversary of the November 11 agreement that ended the First World War. Today also marks the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the organized riot that revealed to all, in dramatic fashion, the true intent of the Nazi regime. These were times of great trial and testing.
During the past two weeks, we have also been witness to and participants in great trial and testing. The killings in Pittsburgh elicited a strong demonstration of shock, grief and unity within the Canadian Jewish community. The public media focused significant attention on the challenges anti-semitism continues to present to North American Jewry. The outreach to us by Muslims and Christians, as well as what was expressed during the recent Parliament of World’s Religions, was a powerful expression of interfaith solidarity and concern.
Today’s Torah reading includes multiple elements of testing. Rivkah and Yitzhak are tested by their inability to have children. Esav and Yaakov are tested by their desire to gain or willingness to relinquish the covenantal berakhah and birthright. Rivkah is tested by her commitment to respond to the divine oracle, even at the cost of deceiving her husband. Yitzhak is tested by his unconscious willingness to bless Yaakov, following his father’s pattern of selecting the most worthy successor, rather than the socially accepted model of birth-order.
Those Biblical tests challenge peoples’ confidence, faith, decision-making skills, what they are willing to sacrifice, and their reputation and integrity.
We, too, have been tested. Today we pay particular attention to the first world war. During that war, the total number of both civilian and military casualties is estimated at around 37 million people. The war killed almost 7 million civilians and 10 million military personnel. Of the almost 620,000 Canadians who served in the Canadian Expeditionary Force, almost 10 percent, close to 61,000 soldiers, were killed during the war, and almost 28 percent, another 172,000, were wounded.
Veterans, families of those who participated in the wars, those who suffered—through injury, death, and trauma—know well this feeling of being tested. Tested in faith. Tested to make snap decisions with huge impact. Tested to sacrifice personally for the sake of others. Tested to be split from family: children from parents, siblings from siblings, couples from one another.
Even after the conflict ended, tests continued. Communities trying to continue. Women who had entered the work force trying to find their place in society. The men and women who went overseas—trying to rediscover their place back home, after flying planes, attending to injuries, seeking enemy ships, or fighting in combat.
The Jewish population of Europe was deeply tested by the first World War. Many Jews lived within one of the major areas of conflict and significant numbers of Jews fought in the various armies.
The war on the eastern front between Russia and the Central Powers of Germany and Austria was conducted on territories that were home to almost four million Jews. In 1914 into the winter of 1915, Russian forces occupied Austrian Galicia. In the spring and summer of 1915, Germany and Austria conquered Poland, Lithuania, and western Belorussia. Under Russian rule, the Jews—including my father and uncle—were suspected of collaboration with the enemy, and 600,000 of them were exiled to Siberia. To assist the displaced and impoverished, North American Jews established welfare organizations on a scale previously unknown.
About half a million Jews donned Russian uniforms. Almost 100,000 Jews served in the German army. Despite this massive enlistment, accusations of evasion and of profiteering were brought against the Jews in both countries. Jews volunteered in France and England, Canada and the United States, in disproportionate numbers, but still there were suspicions concerning their loyalty or their commitments.
The war’s upheavals changed the demographic map of the Jewish people. After the war, hundreds of thousands of Jews resumed leaving Europe. Jewish life in Europe would never be the same. And the Balfour Declaration opened the door to the possibility of a modern return to an ancient homeland.
By the end of the war, Jews were identified with those who had “stabbedGermany in the back.” Jews were also blamed by many for the 1917 Russian Revolution. Approximately 100,000 Jews were killed in the anti‑Bolshevik campaigns conducted by Ukrainian, Polish, and Russian nationalists.
The nationalists who saw Jews as having contributed to the defeat of Germany were fertile ground for Nazi support. Nazi electoral victory led to increased discrimination. But Kristallnacht revealed to all the murderous intent of the Nazis.
David Ebner, a rabbinic colleague, shared with me his father’s memoir of the time.
The Jewish community had a very active cultural life, with a theatre group, a chorus and a symphony orchestra. Music was an integral part of our family's life -- I often fell asleep to the sounds of Beethoven and Schubert trios and quartets being played in the next room by my father, a violinist, a pianist cousin and friends. My alarm clock on Sunday mornings was my father practicing Bach and Mozart violin concertos.
Perhaps the most important influence that the Stuttgart Jewish community exerted on my life was the establishment, after Hitler came to power, of a Jewish day school, grades 1 through 8. My older sister Karla had attended a German public school, but increasing anti-semitism caused many, if not most, of the Jewish parents to send their younger children to the Jewish day school, once it was established. We studied Hebrew as well as the standard secular subjects, and also English, since most of our families were hoping, trying, to emigrate to the United States.
On the morning of November 10, 1938, my sister Martha and I walked to school, the city's Jewish Day School, as usual. The school was next door to Stuttgart's Liberal synagogue. It had a balcony for the women congregants, but also an organ and a mixed choir, which my father directed as I was growing up. The school had been organized and built in 1933, as a response to the advent of Hitler and the Nazi's coming to power in Germany.
The walk to school took us between half an hour and 45 minutes. On the way that morning, my sister and I commented on a number of stores with broken display windows. My guess was that a drunk had crashed into these windows and broken them. About a block or so from school, a woman, seeing us with our school backpacks, said that we would have no school that day and that we should go home. We continued on till we rounded the corner of Hospital Strasse, where the Jewish Community House, the synagogue and the school were located. It was obvious there had been a fire at the synagogue. The policeman told us to go home, there was to be no school.
Martha and I walked home as quickly as we could, very scared. My mother told us later that our faces were "white as cheese" when we got home. The next morning. my parents received a call from an older cousin that her father had just been arrested, and that she thought my father should leave the house. He did, and went to the American consulate, which was in Stuttgart, on the pretext of inquiring about our emigration status. The Nazis came to search our home, but my father was not there.
We had a strictly kosher home until 1936, when the Nuremberg Laws forbade kosher slaughtering. However, we still kept dairy and meat separate, and of course observed Shabbat and the holidays. My mother always lit candles on Friday night, and both Pesach seders and Chanukah celebrations stand out in my mind as warm and happy events. I learned the Birkat Hamazon, the grace after meals, by heart, because we recited it every Friday night.
One of my most vivid childhood memories is the Friday night meal my mother, sister Martha and I, and other German refugees ate in a rooming house in Rotterdam, the evening before we were due to board ship and depart for America. After the meal someone suggested that we ought to bensh. When no one stepped forward, my mother volunteered me [my father was already in America, having preceded us by nine months because of restrictive immigration policies we were not able to go with him]. So I led a roomful of some fifty or sixty German Jewish refugees, about to leave for America, in the Birkat. It is a powerful memory.
Rabbi Ebstein continues:
The story of Birkat hamazon has always stuck in my mind. What must it have been like for a group of refugees, the night before they were to flee to safety. I’m sure they wondered if they would make it, if they would ever observe Shabbat in peace and harmony, and be able to hear the voice of a young boy leading birkat hamazon. At that moment, in 1939, the establishment of the state of Israel was years off. Most of Europes’s Jewish population was still alive, and it is doubtful that the six million Jews who were about to perish had an inkling of the fate that awaited them. Yet, my father chanted the phrase, bone birachamav, yerushalyaim, amen. And 60 Jews asked God to rebuild their ancestral home in Jerusalem, not knowing that in a decade, the dream would begin to be realized.
We know where Kristallnacht led. To the trains, the deportations, the labour camps, the killing squads, and the death camps. When we mark Kristallnacht, we know that governments are tested by their response to anti-semitism and extremism.
That is why what occurred last Wednesday was so significant.
The words of Prime Minister Trudeau in the House of Commons were remarkable, going far beyond an apology for the St Louis to include a poignant recognition of the failure of Canadian immigration policy during the Holocaust years, a strong denunciation of contemporary anti-semitism, and a complete rejection of BDS and other efforts to isolate and stigmatize Israel.
In the years leading up to the war, Hitler tested the world’s resolve….With every decree, he challenged the political courage of our leaders and the empathy of those who elected them. With every pogrom, he tested the bounds of our humanity and the limits of our solidarity. Adolf Hitler’s test was one the Canadian government failed miserably….
As we stand here today, we must commit ourselves not just to remember, but to act on this tragic history, so that our children and grandchildren flourish in a world in which they are never questioned or attacked because of their identity….
It is my sincere hope that by issuing this long overdue apology, we can shine a light on this painful chapter of our history and ensure that its lessons are never forgotten… . while no words will ever erase their pain, it is our sincere hope that this apology will … bring them some peace.
That it will cement Canada’s unwavering commitment to stand with the Jewish community here and around the world in the fight against anti-Semitism. More than 70 years ago, Canada turned its back on you. But today, Canadians pledge, now and forever, never again.
We are often tested. In our personal lives and in the public square. How we respond, depends on our faith, our courage, and our willingness to speak up for our rights. Let us not forget how important our human and political rights are. At this time of anniversary and memory, we must not allow our leaders to fail the tests of our time.We must also stand strong in these times of trial—with voices uplifted in song, joining with Cantor Ezer and the Beth Tzedec Choir, we give each other the faith and courage to remain strong and united