Service at Westminster Abbey on the 80th Anniversary of Kristallnacht

It was profoundly stirring to participate yesterday in the commemoration service at Westminster Abbey on the 80th year since Kristallnacht. Walking through the precincts, past the memorial of 60,000 poppies for those who died in the First World War was already deeply humbling.

Most moving was the testament of three ‘Kinder’ who recalled the terror of the Night of Broken Glass. They were no longer young; the silence as they slowly negotiated the steep wooden steps to the Abbey lectern drew their words even more deeply into the heart.

I had the privilege of giving the address (Part will be familiar to my own community):

On the 10th November, the morning after Kristallnacht, my grandfather was summoned by the Gestapo to the Hauptsynagoge in Frankfurt. Flames pierced the building, no one did or dared do anything to extinguish them. Yet, as he walked through the crowd of onlookers, he overheard them say that in his own Westendsynagoge, though the interior had been destroyed by rioting Nazis, the Eternal Light was still burning. They took this as a sign from God.

It struck me that my grandfather found himself between two kinds of flame, the fires of destruction, and the Ner Tammid, the calm, inextinguishable inner light which denotes the presence of God.

Through the 30s and 40s both those flames burnt fiercely.

The fire of devastation destroyed synagogues throughout Germany. It crossed the Channel in the Blitzkrieg burning whole districts of London and many British cities. It soared obscenely in the indescribable crematoria by the gas-chambers. Eventually it came back full circle to ravage the towns of Germany. When, after 11 years absence, my grandfather returned to his beloved Frankfurt, he wondered through ‘the unrecognisable streets and squares, while from the broken, hollow windows horror stared’.

Yet the light of God’s presence burnt also. Is glowed in the heart of the British Consul General, Robert Smallbones, through whose offices tens of thousands, my family included, received transit visas to Britain, and who wrote later of his shame for every hour when, overcome by sleep, he was not writing affidavits. It shone in Frank Foley in Berlin, who refused to let the powers that be prevent him from issuing visas for China, because Jews had the right to choose their own fate and ‘would rather die as free men in Shanghai, than as slaves in Dachau’.

It illumined the debate in Parliament, when Britain granted entry to an unlimited number of children. It illumined the words of the MP for Gower, David Rhys Grenfell, who testified to the queues of despairing people outside the passport offices of Germany and Austria, waiting as if before the tribunal which would decide between life and death. It burned in the actions of those British officials who endeavoured to process with courtesy their desperate applications. Indeed, my grandparents described the British consulate in Frankfurt as an island of humanity in a sea of violence and contempt.

It burnt in the hearts of Jewish leaders, Quakers, Christadelphians, churchmen and women, good people, who rescued children, taking them into their homes. It illumined the heart and home of the Bishop of Durham, who took in the ‘Kind’ John Rayner, subsequently Rabbi Dr John Rayner, my teacher, and in his Bishop’s residence ensured he received a Jewish education and celebrated his Bar Mitzvah.

Those same two fires burn today.

The searing flames of incitement rage in those who preach hatred of Jews for being Jews and Muslims for being Muslim, who fan the populist fires of resurgent racism and xenophobia. They burn in the murderous assault on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, in every attack on congregations at prayer, or children at school, or people at Thousand Oaks outside LA, enjoying the simple pleasure of dancing.

But God’s Eternal Light also burns, in the actions of those who create foodbanks, shelter the homeless, share their homes with refugees, run drop-ins and havens for asylum-seekers, reach out a hand to those of different faiths, hoping that it will be taken in trust and fellowship. In shines in the work of Lord Alf Dubs, himself one of the Kinder, tireless in striving to bring lonely, helpless children to safety and the hope of a future in Britain.

But which of those kinds of fire is more powerful?

I imagine a conversation: ‘My grandfather, my Opa, as you stood then between those two flames, which did you think was the stronger?’

I picture him answering with the ancient rabbinic sentence, just four words in Hebrew: neiri beyadecha, veneirecha beyadi: “My light is your hands”, says God, “Your light is in mine”. ‘It’s up to you’, he would say, ‘Which of those flames is stronger lies in your grasp.

The fire of destruction or the flame of sacred light? The choice lies in our hands. Therefore, God, protect our light in Your hands, so that we can protect and nurture Your light entrusted into ours.

In solidarity with the Tree of Life synagogue

I share with our community, with all Jewish congregations around the world, particularly in America, in Pittsburgh, and among the members of the Tree of Life synagogue, a heavy heart.

Those murdered in the appalling gun attack last Shabbat were the faithful of the congregation: a couple, Bernice and Sylvan Simon, married for 62 years; two brothers, Cecil and David Rosenthal, who ‘loved their community and never missed a Saturday’; Daniel Stein, with a ‘very dry sense of humour’, who recently became a grandfather. As a colleague wrote, they were those good, kind, reliable souls ‘on whom we all depend in our communities’.

הַנֶּאֱהָבִים וְהַנְּעִימִם
בְּחַיֵּיהֶם וּבְמוֹתָם לֹא נִפְרָדוּ

They were beloved and kind in their lives;
and [cruelly] in their deaths they were not divided.

There has been an immediate, immense, shocked, heartfelt outpouring of solidarity. It is local: the Muslim community raised tens of thousands of dollars to support the bereaved and injured; at a nearby school, pupils of all faiths sang Havdalah. It is national: at synagogues across America thousands upon thousands have gathered in sorrow and support, queueing in the streets outside, often joined by Christians and Muslims. It is international, as here in London, where the Home Secretary, the Mayor and the American and Israeli Ambassadors spoke out.

Whatever comfort this brings, I’m sorrowfully aware that it does not remove the nightmare that a place of prayer has been made the site of a massacre and that families now face the long years of irreplaceable loss. May God be with them and with their friends, their community and all who lead and guide them.

Those murdered are the victims of three crimes. First, anti-Semitism. They were killed as Jews, because they were Jews, at synagogue, engaged in Jewish prayer. It is abominable proof, as if that were wanted, that this ancient hatred, of Jews for being Jews, is not over.

Second, racism; specifically, white supremacist racism. The killer targeted the Tree of Life synagogue because it works with HIAS, the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society, to support refugees. He screamed abuse about both Jews and Muslims. His actions are an eruption of a vicious hatred of the other; a scornful and fearful contempt which considers itself increasingly legitimised not just in America but across Europe and much of the world.

Third, gun violence. From Britain, American gun laws seem incomprehensible. Why should such lethal, often military-grade, weapons be accessible to those who plan slaughter in schools or places of worship? It is a United States issue, but not solely so. We must all be ashamed that wealth is made from the arms trade, money out of violence. Mostly we don’t know the victims; here, we do.

How must we respond?

Hate speech is lethal. This should not need saying and yet must be said.

Hate speech leads to hate actions. It prepares the ground for lynching, killing and mass murder. It must not be legitimated in the classroom, workplace, clubroom, or from the pulpit of any and every religion. It must on no account be legitimised from high office. ‘Life and death depend on the tongue,’ says the Talmud. The more powerful the tongue, the greater the responsibility. We must therefore reach out to each other across the ‘boundaries’ of faith and ethnic group, as Tree of Life did and does, and as their Muslim neighbours have demonstrated by example. We must never listen passively to hatred and bigotry, against us, any individual or group.

Above all, we must live by our values. We must be vigilant. But we must also be defiant, not in an aggressive manner, but with the defiance of commitment and inner depth.

Our strength lies in living by our Judaism, in rooting our daily actions in its teachings of disciplined dedication to community, to our people and to humanity in all our potential for good and all our susceptibility to suffering.

This is what faith truly means: trustworthiness and service before life and before God. It unites us with the deepest source of inspiration: the dedication, courage, wisdom and compassion of Jewish people, and countless people of other faiths and none, across the troubled millennia.

 

 

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