Just as we marvel that it’s been 55 years since MLK’s March on Washington, we reflect as well on the unspeakable that took place across Germany 80 years ago.
My grandfather, Samson Hochfeld, one of Berlin’s senior rabbis, had been dead for 17 years and did not see the mindless attack on his elegant synagogue in the Fasanenstrasse on that night, November 9th, 1938. Nor the wave of well-orchestrated destruction and killing across Germany, known as the infamous Kristallnacht, literally “The Night of Broken Glass.” Synagogues and businesses owned by Jewish merchants were targets, tens of thousands were arrested and deported, dozens killed.
The response? Almost none. Germany’s Nazi government took the world’s silence for tacit approval, and the worst genocide in modern European history continued unhindered. Meantime, my parents, with great foresight and determination, had already arrived in the US.
Not an easy journey to undertake. Dad (Max Michael Hochfeld, known to all as Peter), having lost his father at a young age, was raised by well-to-do relatives (the industrialist Ottmar Strauss), earned a PhD from a prestigious university and, in the 1930s, was not allowed (under the punitive Nuremberg laws) to become a lawyer but had instead launched a practice as a tax & financial adviser in Cologne. My mother, Trudy, was the one who most feared the antisemitic rumblings, and made arrangements for the family to escape, virtually unnoticed, into the safety of Holland, and, eventually, to America.
What would Rabbi Hochfeld have made of all this? He’d become known for his World War One sermons, the Kriegspraedigte, that reminded his congregants that–despite the antisemitism of the Kaiser–they were nonetheless Germans. In the decade following Rabbi Hochfeld’s untimely death (at the age of 49!), the humiliated German people were looking for scapegoats, and it was all-too-easy to blame the Jews (less than one percent of Germany’s population at the time). Hitler’s rise to power and his appalling campaign of National Socialism would have baffled Rabbi Hochfeld, as it did most Jewish leaders.
We cannot rewrite history, of course, but I cannot help wondering what might have happened, had Rabbi Hochfeld lived for another decade or three.