MIT Hillel on Kristallnacht, Cambridge, MA – November 9, 2020

by George J Elbaum

MIT is my alma mater, and MIT Hillel invited me to give my talk today on Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, which refers to the wave of anti-Jewish violence which began on November 9-10,1938 throughout Germany and Austria. During these two days, 267 synagogues were destroyed, thousands of Jewish stores were looted and vandalized, 90 people were killed, and the Nazis arrested 30,000 Jewish men, many of whom were sent to concentration camps. In the aftermath, the German government blamed the Jews and enacted dozens of new laws restricting their rights. Kristallnacht thus marked a transition to an era of Nazi destruction and genocide.

The Zoom audience of 97 was composed of students, faculty, and others attracted by MIT Hillel’s publicity announcements (see below), and emails.  MIT Hillel’s Executive Director Rabbi Michelle Fisher (who “roped me” into giving my very first talk 10½ years ago on Holocaust Memorial Day) organized the event together with Hillel staffers Shoshana Gibbor, Natalie Yosipovitch, and Marissa Freed, and undergraduate student board member Joseph Feld ’23.

Subsequent Discussion

The audience on the anniversary of Kristallnacht of almost 100 was comprised of many faculty and guests, including 96-year-old survivor of Warsaw ghetto, Maurice Chandler. (Maurice escaped from the ghetto in 1941 when he was 16 by jumping between 2 trolley cars and paying off the non-ghetto trolley conductor not to report him to the police.)  Instead of the usual Q&A after my talks to high schools, in this case there was a far-ranging discussion as much about the current state of post-election (November 3, 2020) U.S. and the world as about my specific Holocaust experience.  I am therefore including this discussion here as part of the MIT Hillel program rather than with the Student Questions part of the website.

**If there are intolerant people in the world, and our message is to be tolerant and open, how should we treat those people?  Being neither a psychologist nor a politician, my personal inclination is to start by being tolerant for as long as I don’t feel taken advantage of, at which point I stop being tolerant.

**What is your perspective on nonviolent vs violent resistance against intolerant movements that will use violence?    If I were in the public sphere I might have a different reply, but as I am not I’ll describe my actual behavior as a child in this specific situation.  I had a toy that a bigger, stronger boy tried to take away from me, so I started to fight him fairly, but seeing that I would lose the fight and the toy I stopped being fair and did something that made him run off screaming.  If faced with a similar situation now, I would probably do the same.   

**Do you harbor any ‘survivor guilt’?  Not at all, and I don’t know how I avoided it since my mother did have it.

**We can feel relatively safe that the US will not continue to be governed by a White Supremacist. However, more than 70 million Americans thought it acceptable to vote for another 4 years of this administration, and some of them continue to undermine the legitimacy of the election. This is a divided country!  What can we do to not let it happen again?   That’s a very tall order, and the ups & downs of human history show that it often does repeat itself, and we’ve not yet learned how to stabilize its swings.

**I was really moved by your statement that we have to be for things, not against things.  How do we do this when we see evil and intolerance in the world?  What is the correct balance of being for tolerance and acceptance and being against injustice?    Evil and intolerance and injustice are, I feel, part & parcel of our animal heritage.  The natural world is not “fair” – fairness is a human invention, an aspiration of human society which has not made much progress in the 8000+ years of civilization vs. our slow-moving evolution.  Re the “correct balance” between tolerance & justice (fairness) vs. intolerance & injustice, my practical side says that it is very subjective and depends on how we were raised, and those who were raised believing the Golden Rule (religiously or intellectually) carry an extra load or constraint in our life vs. those who are unscrupulous.  What’s our reward?  The feeling that we are “doing what’s right.” 

**Did your mother and her peers speak to trauma-informed therapists to help them process, or was that stigmatized?   My mother definitely felt that seeking help from a psychotherapist was a personal weakness and she could never admit that she needed such help.

**Why did your mother choose to come to the US from Paris in 1949?  It seems that she was doing really well in Paris.  First, in Paris she was working for the Polish Communist government establishing Polish bookstores, which I would not classify as “doing really well.”  More important, however, was that 1949 was only 4 years after the war ended, 3 years after anti-Semitic pogroms in Poland in which hundreds of Jews were killed by Polish mobs, and 2 years after she sent me for my safety to Palestine (aborted by a broken leg).  America was the safest country in the world, not to mention the most prosperous.  For any European immigrant, America was a dream come true!   

**Germany was a highly educated and cultured society, yet perpetrated such atrocities and genocide, and a genocide supported by its scientific, medical, and engineering cadres.  As MIT students, what should our education include to keep MIT students moral and ethical?  Indeed, Germany was the best-educated country in Europe, in the world, yet all that education did not prevent its people, including scientists, doctors, and engineers, from following a dictator and committing the worst genocide in human history.  Higher education obviously does not inoculate people from following charismatic charlatans.  Thus if morals and ethics can be taught effectively and successfully, they should be taught to all students.

About gelbaum

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