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The Night of Broken Glass MAG
In the autumn of 1938, German soldiers under the Nazi regime unleashed hell upon Jewish citizens. At first, soldiers dressed in the browns and blacks of horror destroyed Jewish businesses. But as the white sun rose to its zenith, indifferent to the impending carnage below, a surging, multi-hued mob of citizens melted with the pink flesh of the Jews, leaving only red in its wake.
That day has come to be known as Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass. Bodies in the streets lay on top of broken glass, and the mob's eyes glazed over. There were no men on that day when 30,000 Jews were taken to concentration camps and mothers wept, covering their children's heads with their hands, trying to stop the sledgehammers.
There were no men. Only demons.
Every year, as the anniversary of Kristallnacht approaches, the rabbi at my temple holds a special service. There are no books or singing. No one is required to dress nicely, and the rabbi doesn't stand on the bema as he normally does. Instead, he sits among us.
As people start to pour in like lost butterflies, the rabbi plays with something in his hands. He smooths a long piece of what looks like parchment, then wrinkles it only to smooth it out again. Not until the last person sits, not until it is totally quiet, does he speak.
“This,” he says, feeling the parchment, coarse like shaved bark, “is what is called a wimpel.”
He unrolls the wimpel and lays it over the pew. “Before World War II, German Jews would have these made, by hand, after a baby's birth. A scribe would toil carefully for days, going over the letters of the baby's Hebrew name with a fine pen. Even one mistake meant he would need to start over.”
The rabbi's long pianist's fingers trace the letters etched in the material, each groove telling its story, each stain a drop of sweat.
“The wimpel for these people represented a little piece of something more. For those parents, the wimpel was a way of insuring their child's history, a record of existence that could never be destroyed. The wimpel was a little bit of self.”
Each year as he explains this, for some reason, the sun always goes down. But today as he talks, the sun seems to want to stay, glittering through the mosaic glass, casting the rabbi's shadow over the congregation.
“This wimpel belonged to a boy named Arnold. When the soldiers came, when the mob broke out, the Jewish people did not know what to do. The town that was once their home, the people who were once their friends, had become something …” the rabbi pauses, as if the word just won't come, “else.”
“Before the siege, Germany had decreed no Jew could attend public school. So Arnold's parents sent him and his sister on the train to the next town.” As the rabbi speaks, his shadow begins to fade. Outside all is purple and pink and red, turning blacker with each word.
He continues softly, “Arnold and his sister were just coming home on the train as the city was attacked. And as the train came to a stop, as Arnold and his sister stepped off and looked into the distance, they saw plumes of smoke coming from the synagogue.
“Arnold grabbed his sister's hand and ran, dropping their school books, past the mob and the soldiers, to the temple.”
As the rabbi says this, the sun gives up and goes down, drenching us in darkness. But before it does, as the rabbi takes off his glasses and sighs, I realize for the first time how old he is.
“Arnold, letting go of his sister's hand, ran into the burning synagogue and rescued his wimpel, this wimpel, which was meant for the day he would become a man.”
And then the rabbi stops. He looks into the congregation, his eyes somewhere else, back there in the cold in 1938.
“There have always been those who want to destroy us, to feed us to the hungry mobs, to burn us to the ground, to rip out our hearts.” The rabbi looks at the wimpel.
“But we will survive.”
The rabbi doesn't say so, but services are over. One by one, people stand and leave. He rolls the wimpel up carefully, so as not to damage it further, and sits under the Torah holding it, his eyes and heart shattered like broken glass.
As I leave services every year, I wonder about Arnold. I think how maybe he didn't realize what he was doing at that moment, running into the flames as his sister looked on, glass covering the ground like little shards of evil. Maybe he didn't realize that by pulling the wimpel off the Torah, the sacred text already burning with a flame threatening to devour the entire Jewish race, as he ran outside, stomping out the fire etching circles into his wimpel, his little bit of self, he had just insured our survival.
But I like to think that as this 10-year-old boy put on the wimpel reserved for his bar mitzvah, shedding forever his boyhood, his innocence, he knew.
And I hope that when the time comes, I will know too.