History lesson: Kristallnacht

We should not, cannot ignore history.

Across Germany 81 years ago this weekend, storm troopers and Nazi-sanctioned mobs smashed Jewish-owned storefronts and burned synagogues in what we now call Kristallnacht. The most prominent synagogue was in Berlin’s Fasanenstrasse, where my grandfather, Chief Rabbi Samson Hochfeld (long gone by this time), had preached some 15 years earlier. 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 law degree, a doctorate from a prestigious university but, in the 1930s, was prohibited from entering the legal profession. Instead, he launched a practice as a tax & financial adviser in Cologne. My mother, Trudy, was the one who most acutely 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 Hochfeld’s 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 on this Veterans Day weekend I cannot help wondering what might have happened, had Rabbi Hochfeld lived for another decade or three.