Yom HaShoah 2019 Remarks
Good evening. My name is Rabbi Ben Goldberg and on behalf of KTI and the other participating synagogues—Community Synagogue of Rye, Congregation Emanu-El of Westchester and the Jewish Community Center of Harrison—thank you for joining us this evening for this important commemoration of Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Our gathering tonight feels all the more urgent in light of the attack on the synagogue in Poway, CA last Shabbat. We mourn the loss of Lori Gilbert-Kaye, who by all accounts was a dedicated, generous and loving member of that community. We pray for the speedy recovery of those wounded: Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, the synagogue’s spiritual leader; Noya Dahan, an 8 year-old girl; and Almog Peretz, her uncle visiting from Israel for Passover.
Part of what makes shootings like the one in Poway so striking is that they are reminiscent of the long history of persecution of the Jewish people, part of which we are gathered to remember tonight. Throughout our long history, we have seen how hateful words and suspicious conspiracy theories eventually can turn into expulsions and violence against us. The Holocaust was but one dramatic example of this pattern, a pattern that continues even now, as we were so forcefully reminded a few days ago.
This year, the organizing committee chose the theme of early warning signs for our ceremony tonight. This theme draws our attention to the fact that the Holocaust did not begin with ghettos or deportations or concentration camps or gas chambers. Rather, it began with hateful rhetoric, discriminatory laws, and extremist ideas creeping into the mainstream.
Tonight, several members of our community will share their or their parents’ and grandparents’ responses to the early warning signs of the Holocaust. When and how did they decide to leave? How did they realize that things would get worse and not better? What did they see that others tragically missed? These personal stories will put a human face on what easily can become an impersonal historical narrative.
Once again, thank you for joining us this evening as we remember one of the saddest chapters in our long history as a people.
When I was in college, one of the most popular courses was a class on the history of the Holocaust taught by Professor Peter Hayes. For good reason the class was so popular: Hayes is a spellbinding lecturer, and the material itself is inherently compelling to students, Jews and non-Jews alike, who wanted to better understand this often-discussed but poorly-understood period in history.
Professor Hayes is an economic historian, whose own research focuses on the behavior of large German corporations before, during, and after the Holocaust. But he has also dedicated large parts of his career to increasing public understanding of the Holocaust and making the massive scholarly literature on the subject accessible to the public.
The capstone of decades of his work as a public scholar is this book he published in 2017: Why? Explaining the Holocaust, which was based on his class. Hayes concludes the book with an anecdote that is highly relevant to our theme this evening of early warning signs, or, as Hayes puts it, using a German proverb: beware the beginnings.
Hayes writes that he is often asked at public lectures when and how the Holocaust could have been prevented or stopped. Perhaps surprisingly, he points to a precise time and place: April 5, 1933, in Berlin.
On April 1, the same day as the Nazi boycott of Jewish-owned shops in Germany, a company of Nazi storm troopers occupied the offices of the National Association of German Industry. The association was led by a prominent industrialist named Gustav Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach, who also led the Krupp armaments and steel company. The storm troopers disrupted the activities of the association and refused to leave the office until it dismissed all of its employees who were Jews or who were affiliated with other political parties.
Krupp, who was part of the old German elite who thought they could exploit Hitler for their own purposes, tried to intervene with Hitler to have his storm troopers leave. Hitler refused, explaining that he could not restrain the enthusiasm of the people who had helped him achieve power. After just a few days, on April 5, Krupp capitulated, firing the targeted employees and breaking their employment contracts with the association.
Eight days later, one of the members of the association’s governing board, a man named Georg von Muller-Oerlinghausen, wrote what Hayes calls a “prophetic protest” to Krupp. Von Muller wrote that Krupp’s actions amounted to surrendering to bullying and, more importantly, “deprived the organization of all basis for future noncompliance with Nazi demands.” If Krupp was unwilling to stand up for the contractual rights of his own employees, whom was he willing to defend, and on what grounds?
von Muller, we can see in hindsight, was painfully right. Krupp became an ardent Nazi and major supplier of armaments to the Nazi regime. But von Muller was also right that the way things begin, and the way that powerful people respond to new realities, sets a precedent and a direction for the future.
If powerful people could so easily be coerced into firing their Jewish employees, then it wouldn’t take much to get their cooperation, or mere silence, in the much more nefarious persecution that was to come. Had more Germans been like von Muller, and fewer like Krupp, in those early months of the Nazi regime, perhaps things would have turned out very differently.
Beware the beginnings. Beware the Pharaoh who does not know Joseph. Beware how quickly and easily norms can shift. Beware the ways that human weaknesses like wounded pride and fear and prejudice and ambition and hate can have disastrous consequences.
We’ve heard several stories tonight about early warning signs and the need for us to remain vigilant about anti-Semitism in particular and hateful ideologies in general. These stories have broken our hearts, but they also inspired us to make “never again” more than just a slogan. May our vigilance serve as a fitting memorial for the millions we remember tonight.
We will now shift our attention from these stories to the blessed memory of those who perished in the Shoah, with the words of El Malei Rachamim, the memorial prayer, on page 10.