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Westminster Abbey hosts Christians and Jews to remember Kristallnacht on 80th anniversary

Posted on: November 9, 2018 2:42 PM
The Dean of Westminster, Dr John Hall, chats with Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg of the New North London Synagogue and Rabbi to Masorti Judaism, during a Service of Solemn Remembrance and Hope at Westminster Abbey on the 80th anniversary of the Kristallnacht pogrom
Photo Credit: Andrew Dunsmore / Picture Partnership / Westminster Abbey

Congregations from several London synagogues joined Christians at Westminster Abbey last night (Thursday) for a Service of Solemn Remembrance and Hope on the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht. The pogrom was carried out by the Nazis throughout Germany and Austria on 9 and 10 November 1938. It saw synagogues across the country destroyed and many Jewish shops and business premises vandalised, and homes of Jews were burnt down. It was the start of the biggest pogrom against the Jewish community in Europe, and culminated in the holocaust.

Welcoming the congregation to the service, the Dean of Westminster, Dr John Hall, began by remembering a similar commemoration that took place on the 75th anniversary. “Now we gather again to mark the 80th anniversary of that night, itself a terrible foreshadowing of the holocaust”, he said. “Again, from survivors, we shall hear memories of that event, and once more we shall mourn with respect and love not only the victims of that night but all the victims of Nazi persecution.

“Here, in this holy place at the centre of our national life, we shall pray together as we worship the one God sharing a common experience. We shall pray for a growth in mutual respect and understanding between the children of Abraham: Jews, Christians and Muslims. We shall pray for trust in the God who makes and loves his people. Our prayer together will itself be a sign of hope.”

The congregation heard from three survivors of Kristallnacht, including Bea Green, who was a 13-year-old girl at home in her apartment when a telephone call warned the family to “get out of Munich” because “the Nazis are arresting all the Jews”.

They headed to the synagogue where her father was praying to find an SS officer closing the gates. “I remember feeling very scared”, she said. Her father managed to get out of the synagogue and the family drove to the railway station where they caught a train to Amsterdam.

In 1939, she was one of a number of Jews who came to the UK on the Kindertransport – laid on to provide sanctuary to Jewish children. She was reunited with her parents after the war.

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Three survivors of Kristallnacht – Freddie Knoller, Bea Green, and Leslie Brent – deliver eye-witness testimonies at Westminster Abbey during a Service of Solemn Remembrance and Hope on the 80th anniversary of the pogrom on Thursday evening (8 November).
Photo: Andrew Dunsmore / Picture Partnership / Westminster Abbey

Freddie Knoller’s experience was less hopeful. He too remember receiving a phone call at the family home in Vienna. His family were told that their synagogue was on fire. While fire engines were at the scene, they were spraying water only on neighbouring buildings to prevent the fire from spreading.

He and his family switched off the lights and hid in their apartment. Looking through the window, he could see that “the sky was burning red with flames from our synagogue.” Things took a turn to the worse when Kristallnacht “arrived at our building”. He said: “We stepped away from the windows in terror. A period of silence followed which was broken by the breaking of glass.”

Later, on leaving the building, he saw the body of another resident, Mr Epstein. The caretaker told him that he died after jumping from his window. “I didn’t believe him”, Mr Knoller said. “I believe he had been helped to his death”.

A year later, at the age of 17, he “became the first of the Knoller boys to leave the country of his birth” and he made his way to Belgium. But he was eventually captured. In January 1945 he was sent on a death march, ending at the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp. As US troops approached he was transferred to Bergen-Belsen, where he was liberated on 15 April 1945.

Another survivor, Leslie Brent, was living in an orphanage for Jewish boys in Berlin in 1938 at the age of 13-years. He told how the residents had experienced “a dress rehearsal” for Kristallnacht two months before the pogrom, when an angry mob stormed the lobby and started vandalising the downstairs of the orphanage. The boys and most of the staff had sought safety on an upper floor.

One staff member, carrying a child, stood on the stairs and challenged the mob. He held out his hand and told them to stop: “I remind you that you have entered an orphanage”, he told them. “I implore you to leave immediately”.

Brent told the congregation: “Miraculously, they did so.”

He was one of eight children from the orphanage who were nominated for transfer to the UK on the Kindertransport. “Most of the other boys in the orphanage died in Auschwitz”, he said.

Their testimonies gave life to news reports from the time. Then, as now, the weekly Jewish Chronicle newspaper in London went to press on Wednesday nights for publication on Fridays. Its edition on Friday 11 November 1938 went to press on the first night of the pogrom.

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The Jewish Chronicle reported the start of the Kristallnacht pogrom in a Stop Press column in its editio of 11 November 1938.
Photo: JC Archives. Used with permission

In a “stop press” column, the paper was able to report the start of the assault. “Terror campaign against German Jews broke out yesterday”, it said in the broken telegram-style English that was common in Stop Press columns. “Over five thousand Jews arrested, mostly in Vienna, where 22 people committed suicide during the riots. In Berlin, Munich and many other cities Synagogues set on fire. Nine Berlin Synagogues destroyed. A number of Jewish shops wrecked”.

The address was given by Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg of the New North London Synagogue, Rabbi to Masorti Judaism. He spoke of his grandfather, who was a rabbi in Frankfurt-am-Main. He had been summoned to a synagogue to find it ablaze and in ruins. “Amid the destruction, the Ner Tamid – the eternal light – kept burning. People said it was a miracle, a sign from God.”

Eleven years later, his grandfather returned to “unrecognisable streets” and reflected on the two fires he saw on Kristallnacht: the fire of devastation and the fire of God, from the Ner Tamid.

“The fire of devastation destroyed synagogues throughout Germany”, he said. “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. . .

“Yet the light of God’s presence burnt also”, he said, citing the actions by diplomats in Europe and politicians in the UK and elsewhere who worked to provide sanctuary for Jewish children, including British Consul General Robert Smallbones who actions led to tens of thousands of people – including Rabbi Wittenberg’s family – receiving transit visa to Britain.

“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.”

He said that “those same two fires burn today” and he warned of “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.” The shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh last weekend was an example of this light.

“But God’s Eternal Light also burns”, he said, “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.”

He imagined a conversation with his grandfather, in which he asked him: “as you stood [on Kristallnacht] between those two flames, which did you think was the stronger?”

His grandfather replied in an ancient rabbinic sentence: “neiri beyadecha, veneirecha beyadi” – “‘My light is your hands’, says God, ‘Your light is in mine’.

“‘It’s up to you. Which of those flames is stronger lies in your grasp.’”

Rabbi Wittenberg concluded with a challenge to the congregation: “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.”

Music during the service included Christian hymns, including “Dear Lord and Father of mankind” and “Imortal, Invisible, God only wise”; and Jewish songs, including “Shema Koleinu” and “Enosh Ke’Chatzir”.

A combined choir from the choirs of West London Synagogue, Belsize Square Synagogue, the Belsize Square Synagogue Community Choir, the Belsize Square Synagogue Youth Choir and the Zemel Choir led the singing, supported by cellist Gemma Rosefield.

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Cantor Paul Heller from London’s Belsize Square Synagogue chants the El Malei Rachamim, the Jewish prayer for the dead, during a Service of Solemn Remembrance and Hope at Westminster Abbey on the 80th anniversary of the Kristallnacht pogrom.
Photo: Andrew Dunsmore / Picture Partnership / Westminster Abbey

The Cantor from Belsize Square Synagogue, Paul Heller, chanted the Jewish prayer for the dead, the El Malei Rachamim; and joined the choirs in singing Shema Koleinu, during which six memorial candles were lit by people including the Deputy Head of Mission at the German embassy in London, Julia Gross, and the Israeli Ambassador to the UK, Mark Regev.

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Julia Gross, Deputy Head of Mission at the German embassy in London and Mark Regev, Israeli Ambassador in London, light memorial candles during a Service of Solemn Remembrance and Hope at Westminster Abbey on the 80th anniversary of the Kristallnacht pogrom.
Photo: Andrew Dunsmore / Picture Partnership / Westminster Abbey

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, turned to Twitter to share his thoughts on the anniversary. “After 80 years, #Kristallnacht has lost none of its horror – nor should it”, he said. “With the resurgence in antisemitism, it’s also an urgently needed reminder that we must stand in solidarity with our Jewish friends and tear antisemitism up by its roots wherever we see it.”

In a longer article written for the Jewish News newspaper, he said: “We live in unprecedented times when hatred can be stirred up almost instantaneously through a misinformed speech or a provocative social media post. Persecution of minorities is not solved by the banning of inappropriate thinking, or even by suppressing their expression. In doing so we drive the hateful and the destructive underground and give it some status.

“Such thinking must be challenged openly and clearly to show not only its wickedness but also its foolishness.”