Torched Synagogue in Siegen, Germany during Kristallnacht — National Archives, courtesy of USHMM Photo Archives

Reflections on the Long Damn Summer of ’42 — On the 80th Anniversary of Kristallnacht

By Robert Leonard Berkowitz

Delivered November 11, 2018 at a jointly-sponsored event by the Jewish Historical Society and Holocaust Council of New Jersey

Had I been living in the Squirrel Hill section of Pittsburgh on my way to the Tree of Life Synagogue two Sabbaths ago and were my mother still alive, I would begin by sharing a personal story that happened on the morning of 10/27 when a self-proclaimed neo-Nazi and white nationalist gunned down eleven innocent worshipers in the deadliest attack ever on the Jewish community in this country.

However, since I was sitting at my desk in Connecticut on that tragic Sabbath morning putting the finishing touches on this presentation, I am going to begin by sharing a personal story that happened on the morning of 9/11 in Lower Manhattan when three thousand innocent souls lost their lives at the hands of Al Qaeda terrorists consumed with blind hate of western democratic values, and espousing a virulent strain of anti-Semitism echoing back to the darkest days of Nazi Germany.

On that pristine blue-sky morning, I was in Grand Central Station on my way to a meeting at the World Financial Center, a complex of office buildings connected by pedestrian bridges to the Twin Towers. I was running late.

At a quarter past nine, as I was about to step onto the 42nd Street subway shuttle, I noticed everyone on their cell phones. That was unusual back then. I instinctively checked mine.

There was a voice mail from my eighty-year-old mother in Florida. Among the few words I could make out from the panicked and shrieking voice were, “where are you?” and, “it’s happening again.” I feared my father had another heart attack.

He was fine. My mother was another story, at least for the few eternal minutes until she heard back from me. Her distress was understandable. Aware I was working on a consulting project for a client at the World Financial Center, she confused it with the Twin Towers.

Years earlier I worked on an upper floor of the South Tower. From my office window I had a breathtaking view of the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island and downtown Jersey City, where my immigrant grandparents first settled nearly a century before.

I would often describe to my mother that wondrous view of those historic landmarks of freedom and safety that thrilled and relieved my grandparents as their steamships navigated into New York Harbor.

That image stuck vividly with her, as did the one of the sun-drenched first ridge of the New Jersey Watchung Mountain Range, where my grandparents and their newly-arrived relatives first gathered for their annual family picnics.

My mother was proud I had achieved the American dream my grandparents aspired to their entire adult lives.

United flight 175-South Tower (9:03 am)

However, until she heard my voice that 9/11 morning, all she could see was the horrific image of United Airlines flight 175 ramming into the South Tower a few floors from where I would often describe that panoramic view.

Days later, as my mother began to shake loose that grotesque image and accept she had not lost me, I asked her what she meant by, “it’s happening again.”

“Did I say that?” she replied in a surprised voice.

“Were you thinking of Pearl Harbor?” I prompted. That seemed a fair assumption, as it was the last time America had come under surprise attack by a foreign power.

“Oh no, I wouldn’t have thought that,” she said pausing, “Pearl Harbor was shocking and terrifying, but that’s what got us to finally declare war on that madman Hitler…That’s what gave us hope.”

Then came a long pause as the memory haltingly and painfully surfaced. “Oh no,” she repeated, pausing again, “It was what followed.”

“What followed?” I asked knowingly.

In a somber voice my mother just said, “That Summer.”

But, was my mother thinking of “That Summer” when she said “it’s happening again?” Perhaps, she was thinking of the ’93 bombing of the Twin Towers, or more likely, the premature death of my brother the year before? She didn’t seem to know.

Aware that my mother was still emotionally raw over the unexpected passing of my brother, I was inclined to believe, when she uttered those haunting words, “it’s happening again,” she was reliving that devastating loss, and not that long-ago summer.

However, years later, as I began to research “That Summer,” I stumbled on a heavily-quoted Jewish New Year sermon delivered in a special 1942, High-Holiday section of the Newark Evening News — the city’s then largest circulating newspaper and “paper of record” for my family.

My mother and I were very familiar with the Rabbi who delivered it. He married my cousin — the daughter of survivors of Anschluss and Kristallnacht. We also went to hear him speak the evening President Kennedy was assassinated — my first 9/11 experience. That Sabbath sermon, delivered on November 22nd, 1963 was as powerful and inspiring, as it was comforting. The Rabbi had a special way of finding hope where there was tragedy.

Newark Evening News — September 12, 1942

I showed my mother the article about that earlier 1942 Rosh Hashanah sermon. In physical decline, but mentally acute as ever, she glanced down at the article headlined, “Jews Hopeful as New Year Dawns,” somewhat confused as what to expect. Cautiously, she began to read down the column.

According to the reporter from the Newark News, the rabbi reviewed the history of Jewish suffering through, “the old eyes of the Jewish people,” who have, “wept bitter tears in many lands where persecution of Jews prevailed in such tragic measure.” He revisited the distant past when, “Our body has been crucified a million times…” The rabbi reminded his congregants that through all those years, “death and destruction have followed us like the shadows of our existence.” My mother shook her head, each time more knowingly and solemnly, as the words of the sermon thundered ever-more loudly off the page. Then came the words, “Yet never in our history has there been a year as destructive and as torturous as that which has passed.” As my mother absorbed those foreboding words, her bony, arthritic fingers began to tremble.

Author’s mother, Mildred (circa 2013)

As she continued down the column, her eyes froze at the sight of the bold-print subtitle, Lost 9,000,000. She drifted away in pensive thought, seemingly lost in the memories of that dark summer. She could not read on. She did not need to. Slowly, the dam of painful memories cracked and crumbled, until the swelling up of tears in her “old Jewish eyes” could no longer be held back.

That Rosh Hashanah sermon - likely the most shocking and tragic in Jewish history - was delivered, after the sun had set behind that first ridge of the Watchung Mountain Range, on the 11th of September of “That Summer.”

As I worked on the essay, The Long Damn Summer of ’42, friends and neighbors would approach me at local coffee haunts, glance down at the pile of notes strewn across the table, and quiz me: “So, what’s it about?”

Since I didn’t think it possible to answer that question in the few words expected in such casual settings, I would say it was about my cousin Allie, a Jewish boxer from Newark, New Jersey, who fought for the lightweight title of the world, when my relatives in Europe were fighting for their lives.

Although that answer was as truthful as far as it went, it didn’t capture the essence of the story. I finally came up with a six-word subtitle, An Untold Story of Stolen Dreams, that I felt best capsulized it.

However, as I began to work on this presentation, I found myself continuing to struggle with that simple question and wrestle with more than a few answers — answers that would often tread well beyond the events of “That Summer,” but that seemed all-too material to them.

What I’d like to do this afternoon is share those answers (eight in all), as they were the stepping stones to my understanding of what the long damn summer of ’42 is really about.

So, “what’s it about?”

1. It is about a summer when more Jews were murdered than in any season of the Holocaust, or in any season of the long history of Jewish persecution:

— When the greatest number of Jews were rounded-up in ghettos in cities and villages in the Nazi-occupied territories in the most orchestrated, brutal and widespread series of pogroms in Jewish history.

— When the transportation supply chain of rail stations, freight and cattle cars, main-track lines and connecting spurs to the gates of the death camps was fully in place and operating at maximum efficiency and capacity.

— When the assembly lines at Auschwitz, Belzec, Treblinka, Sobador and Chelmo were operating at peak efficiency and capacity to carry out the mass murder and burial of a civilian population on a scale, and in a time-frame, unprecedented in human history.

— When the entire village of Lidice was razed, its population massacred, and most of its surviving children deported to Chelmo, where they were asphyxiated in gas vans.

— When depraved medical experiments on women were initiated on a large-scale at Auschwitz.

— And when Heinrich Himmler, the most powerful figure in Nazi Germany after Hitler, and considered architect of the Holocaust, directed that all 3.3 million Jews in Poland be eliminated by year’s end.

2. It is about two extraordinary and largely untold events that, especially for my family, book-ended that long, damn summer:

Author’s Collectible

— The first fell on a sabbath evening in May 1942 when my cousin Allie Stolz, a 23 year-old, second-generation Jewish boxer from Newark, fought for the lightweight title of the world at Madison Square Garden in a 15-round bout that ended in one of the great injustices in boxing history — a bout that for my family and Jews from Newark and Jersey City was as charged with boundless hopes and expectations as the Barney Ross-Jimmy McClarnin Polo Grounds fight in 1935 was for the larger American Jewish diaspora, and the 1936–38 Joe Louis-Max Schmeling Yankee Stadium fights were for American blacks.

Sanctuary of B’nai Abraham, Iset of Rabbi Prinz -Courtesy of Temble B’nai Abraham and

— The second event fell on the Sabbath eve of Rosh Hashanah on that 11th of September, when Rabbi Joachim Prinz, speaking to 2,400 hopeful congregants in the sanctuary of Newark’s largest synagogue, B’nai Abraham, delivered a sermon that disclosed, for the first time in a public forum, the breadth and depth of destruction of European Jewry — what later came to be known as the Holocaust.

To quote from the part of the sermon that appeared just below that Newark News subtitle 9,000,000 lost that my mother so recoiled from:

We are a small people. However, since the beginning of the war we suffered casualties that can be compared with those of large nations. During the last three years the Jewish people have lost 9,000,000 men, women and children who have fallen on the battlefield of faith. Every day throughout the last year … Jews have been shot, beaten to death, starved, dissected alive, raped, burned, hung on meat hooks, destroyed in every painful way known only to the scientific minds of the German Gestapo…

3. It is about a summer that witnessed bold acts of courage and character:

Allie Stolz

— There was Allie’s refusal to bend to the wishes of the mob that controlled boxing, even if it ruined his life-long dream of becoming the lightweight champion of the world.

— There was Rabbi Prinz’ refusal to bend to the wishes of the State Department to remain silent until the mounting evidence of mass extermination could be fully confirmed — something he could not do when the evidence was all but undeniable, and time was of the essence to evaluate, plan and execute all feasible, if belated, rescue operations.

— There was the nameless Polish Catholic family who at great risk to their lives hid my Cousins Tunia and Poldi — medical clinicians who had miraculously escaped the notorious Janowska labor camp in Lwow, Poland.

Bishop Andrey Sheptytsky — Wikipedia

— And there was Bishop Sheptytsky, head of the Ukranian Greek Catholic Church who surely inspired that family. Sheptytksy, a resident of Lwow, issued secret instructions to his secular and monastic clergy, directing them to provide safe haven for Jews on church property and to assist in smuggling them out of the country. He provided safe haven for hundreds of Jews in his home and in the Greek Catholic monasteries under his auspices. Alone among the church leaders in Nazi-occupied Europe, Sheptytsky issued several pastoral letters protesting Nazi atrocities and forbidding members of the church, on pain of excommunication, from aiding and abetting in the murder of Jews.

When, Rabbi Prinz said near the conclusion of his 1942 Rosh Hashanah sermon, “We have seen the Christian world rise to the knowledge that persecution to any group must mean persecution to the world,” he must have been thinking of Bishop Sheptytsky.

4. It is about a summer that saw dreams born of hope and fear painfully morph into nightmares:

— Gone was Allie’s lifelong dream of becoming the lightweight boxing champion of the world and an exemplar of the Jewish fighting spirit when it was never more needed.

— Gone were the dreams of thousands of Jewish fans who packed Madison Square Garden, the more than 4,000 from Newark and Jersey City and the tens of thousands more from the greater New York Metropolis glued to their radios, hoping that Allie would send an unmistakable message across the Atlantic that “Allie and the Allies” were on their way.

UJA “Victory in ’42 Campaign” Ad — Jewish Chronicle, May 1, 1942

— Gone were the dreams of the Newark and Jersey City Jewish diaspora who in the Spring “Victory in 42” United Jewish Appeal campaign raised unprecedented funds to keep their European brethren alive, hoping to buy time until their liberation by the Allied forces from Nazi “labor camps.”

— Gone were the dreams of my grandparents that our relatives, trapped in Poland, would someday be free to join the annual family picnic at Crystal Lake Park, a pastoral retreat atop that breathtaking first ridge of the Watchung Mountain Range, where Cousin Allie, the newly-crowned lightweight boxing champion-of-the-world, would display his winning skills, where my Uncle Syd and Aunt Jeanie, who owned Syd’s on Chancellor Avenue, would supply the boiled hot dogs, and where Allie’s father Sam, tavern keeper of Allie Stolz’s on South Orange Avenue, would supply the beverages.

— And, most of all, gone were the dreams of so many relatives in Europe that someday they would awaken from their living nightmare and find themselves havened in America.

5. It is a story about the witting and unwitting who had a hand in stealing all those dreams:

— There was Frankie Carbo, the cigar-chomping “shadow commissioner of boxing” and mob thug, who ran the numbers rackets for the Lucchese crime syndicate, and who credibly put a fix on Allie’s 15-round title fight that the vast majority of the fans who packed the Garden, the major sports writers who covered it, and the referee who cast the only honest vote, all knew Allie had won. The two judges who cast the deciding votes against Allie had identical scores for each round. One dubious-eyed reporter called that a “miracle.” Both judges were rumored to have been paid two Benjamin Franklin’s each. Presumably, all four bills were smudged with cigar-stained fingerprints.

— There was Hitler-admirer Charles Lindbergh, and his legion of “America First” followers, who lobbied to prevent America’s entry into the war which, had it happened earlier, could have saved the lives of millions. In gratitude, the Fuhrer honored Lindbergh with the Service Cross of the German Eagle three weeks before Kristallnacht. He never returned it.

— There was Fascist demagogue Father Charles Coughlin and his 30 million weekly radio listeners who tolerated, and even embraced, such rants as, “sending Jews back where they came from in leaky boats.” Coughlin was eventually kicked off the air because of his pro-fascist and anti-Semitic ravings.

— There was the U.S. Congress that refused to loosen its restrictive and racially-biased immigration laws and quotas, even voting down a 1939 “work-around” bill to allow twenty-thousand German refugee children into the country — fateful choices amounting to death sentences for countless asylum-seeking Jewish refugees.

— There was the U.S. State Department that used its discretionary authority to place such staggering and intimidating eligibility and documentation requirements on overwhelmed and panicked visa applicants that only a limited percentage of the pitifully-small immigration quotas was ever filled.

— There was the more than two-thirds of the American public that, according to polls taken in the late thirties by Gallop and Fortune, opposed the admission of asylum-seeking refugees and, specifically, refugee children.

— There were the leaders of the democracies of the world who convened in Evian, France in the summer of 1938, in a belated, last-ditch effort to address the beleaguered plight of the hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees, but who refused to raise their collectively-meager immigration quotas — a decision that would enter into the Nazi calculus months later to abandon its policy of the removal of Jews by forced emigration, and replace it with ever more brutal “cleansing actions,” including compulsory resettlement, ghetto concentration, mass executions by bullets, and finally, systematic extermination by poison gas.

— And most of all, there were the nameless many in Germany and the Nazi-occupied territories — the police, paramilitary forces and local civilian collaborators directly complicit in carrying out those “cleansing actions,” the virulently antisemitic Nazi party members and fellow travelers who cheered them on, the civil servants who planned them, the industrialists, entrepreneurs and shopkeepers who profited from them, and the vast population of knowing bystanders — all without whom the Final Solution would have remained just a morbid fantasy of Hitler and his depraved cronies.

6. It is a story about the misplaced guilt of the powerless:

Author’s mother Mildred — 1939
Letter written by author’s 17 year-old mother to relatives in Austria- June 15, 1938

— That of my grandparents and mother who, despite tireless efforts to help to secure life-saving affidavits of sponsorship and transit visas for the Austrian wing of the family, never forgave themselves for being unable to do the same for their many more relatives in Poland.

Author’s father, Bernard (circa 1944)

— That of my father Bernard, who fought in four major World War II campaigns, earned the Silver and Bronze Stars for his heroism in the invasion of Southern France and daring reconnaissance missions in Italy and Germany- efforts that helped save hundreds of thousands of starving Jews languishing in death camps - but who never stopped regretting that he was unable to liberate a single relative.

Dr. “Tunia” Kunke

— And that of my Cousin Norbert “Tunia” Kunke who, in the spring of 1945 as American troops were beginning to liberate the Nazi death camps, telegrammed my family in America the bittersweet words, “Only I and brother alive.”

The last time Tunia saw his mother Klara, she was in a freight car on her way to the Belzec death camp. Fortunate to have engineered an escape that saved his life and that of his younger brother Poldi, but helpless to save the life of his mother, sister and father, he remained emotionally scarred and haunted for the rest of his life. Tunia, as well as Poldi, suffered the greatest consequences of the “misplaced guilt of the powerless.”

There is an expression loosely borrowed from the Talmud and quoted in Schindler’s List that, “He who saves one person saves the entire universe.” My family struggled to console themselves in having saved more than a few universes, but it was the many they were unable to save that shadowed them for the rest of their lives.

7. It is a family story about a few of the millions of good and ordinary people, “those many universes of one,” who just wanted to live their lives, pursue their innocent passions and share the simple joys of family life, like all of us, and whose stories need to be told time and time again.

Tante Rosa

— There was my grandmother’s older sister Tante Rosa, and her son, also named Norbert, to whom I owe my given name Robert. Both were caught in the deadly cross-hairs of Anschluss and Kristallnacht.

Norbert died during those hellish nine months of 1938. Following his death, Tante Rosa, a naturalized U.S. citizen, returned to America physically and emotionally spent, wanting nothing more than to die. Her wish was fulfilled a few months later.

— There was Uncle Leon, to whom I owe my second given name Leonard. Uncle Leon was a gentle and sweet bachelor whose great passion was his priceless stamp collection.

Despite his own uncertain future in Poland in 1941, Uncle Leon shipped that collection to his younger brother David, who was barely surviving in Vienna and desperately seeking to emigrate to America to be with his children. It was a time when the Nazis halted forced emigration from Austria and begun mandatory “resettlement to the East.” It was also a time when the State Department, in one of the cruelest ironies of history, dramatically curtailed its issuance of visas, arguing, as one of its justifications, that among Jewish applicants with families still in Nazi-occupied territories, possibly lurked Nazi agents posing a risk to national security.

Whether David used that stamp collection to bribe a Nazi clerk to issue him an exit visa from Austria, or to persuade a U.S. consular officer he was not a Nazi agent and grant him a transit visa to America, it saved his life.

Cousin Ruth Ritterbrand

Sadly, the following summer of ’42, Uncle Leon, his two sisters, Celia and Klara, pregnant Cousin Ruth, her two young children, and nieces Danchi and Nellie, among other family members, were rounded-up and herded into freight cars that terminated at the gates of the Belzec death camp.

Cousin Ignacy Rotlein

— And there was Cousin Ignacy, a brilliant chemical engineer in his early forties and at the prime of his career, who was esteemed the “Einstein” of the family. In letters written from the outskirts of Warsaw in early 1940 he asked my family in America to help our Polish relatives emigrate. One letter, written on the eve of the Jewish holiday that commemorates the biblical story of the Exodus, struck an urgent and foreboding note:

Because it is before Passover… and great international tensions, one doesn’t know what the morning will bring.

Member of Einsatzgruppen “Mobile Death Squad” prepares to shoot adult Jewish male at edge of a mass grave filled with the bodies of previous victims.
Photo credit: Library of Congress, courtesy of USHMM Photo Archives

Ignacy knew well that Jewish holidays were not a good time. The prior September his Uncle Edward was dragged from his home on Rosh Hashanah. Several days later he was shot, along with forty-three other prominent Jewish citizens of the city of Przemysl, and dumped into a mass grave by the Nazi mobile “death squads.”

That fear of “what the morning will bring” that so worried Ignacy came to pass sixteen months later when he and his wife Janina were rounded-up, along with more than a quarter million Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto, and herded into crowded rail cars that terminated at the gates of the Treblinka death camp.

That murderous liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto that began July 23 on Tisha B’Av, the saddest day of the Jewish calendar, and ended September 21 on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, marked the seasonal end of the long, damn summer of ’42.

8. Lastly, the Long Damn Summer of ’42 is about “not forgetting

Letter written from Nazi-occupied Poland in February 1940, by author’s cousin, Ignacy Rotlein

In a prophetic plea for remembrance near the end of one of Cousin Ignacy’s letters, he asks my grandmother — his Tante Helene - to “please not forget us.”

However, this story is about more than “not forgetting” loved ones that perished. It is also about “not forgetting” the lessons of the Holocaust in the hope that we and future generations do not relive even a shadow of that history.

And there are many lessons.

However, three strike a deep nerve in me not only because of what my family endured in the years leading up to the long damn summer of ’42, but because they may be the most instructive if that dark history is never to repeat itself.

The first is the need to speak out loud and clear against self-serving demagogues who cynically stoke the flames of fear, resentment and hate by demonizing and scapegoating religious, ethnic and racial minorities — a need that has become ever more urgent with the recent neo-Nazi murder of eleven Jewish prayer-goers. I am not believer in the “Great Man Theory of History,” but it is hard to imagine the Holocaust in the absence of a demagogue like Hitler who had the uncanny ability to rouse his followers and the masses to a raging madness of unbounded hate and violence to serve his megalomaniac appetite for power and self-glorification.

The second is the need to unequivocally stand-up against those whom, out of fear, anxiety, bigotry and narrow self-interest buy into the false narrative of victimhood. It was the complicity of silence of the knowing many who allowed a demagogue like Hitler to secure enough sway over far fewer in number to accomplish one of the greatest crimes against humanity in history.

That second lesson has never been more powerfully expressed than by Rabbi Prinz at the 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom in a speech that has been captured in the extraordinary documentary “I Shall Not Be Silent” by New Jersey natives Rachel Fisher and Rachel Pasternak. With his back to the Lincoln Memorial Prinz recalled:

Left- Prinz speaking at 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom. Right- Prinz and King meeting with JFK —

When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problems. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence. A great people which had created a great civilization had become a nation of silent onlookers. They remained silent in the face of hate, in the face of brutality and in the face of mass murder.

Which brings me to the third lesson — the crying need for genuine empathy of “the other” — a deeply reflective and soul-searching empathy that moves the “knowing many” to compassionate and moral action based on a feeling of shared humanity. And by that, I mean a shared humanity where one feels equally pained and moved to moral action by such contemporary atrocities as:

—The murder of nine Afro-American churchgoers at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charlotte by a white supremacist,

—The killing of forty-nine patrons of a gay night club in Orlando by an ISIS supporter,

— The murder of eleven Jewish worshipers at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh by a neo-Nazi,

— And the callous treatment of asylum-seeking refugees at our southern border where children have been torn from parents and placed in detention camps by our own government.

It should not be lost to historical memory that had enough Americans in the 1930s felt such depth of empathy for the millions of asylum-seeking Jewish refugees to set aside their anxieties, fears, resentments and prejudices of “the other,” countless lives would have been saved.

That third lesson has also never been more strikingly articulated than by Rabbi Prinz when in 1960 he explained, as President of the American Jewish Congress, why he and forty of its officers and members picketed a Fifth Avenue Woolworth store to protest lunch-counter segregation in the South. As Jews,” Prinz said, “we are animated by our prophetic tradition which asserts that we are all the creatures of one God.”

And he reiterated that lesson of the crying need for empathy three years later when he reminded us in that same powerful speech delivered at the 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom that:

In the realm of the spirit, our fathers taught us thousands of years ago that when God created man, he created him as everybody’s neighbor. Neighbor is not a geographic term. It is a moral concept. It means our collective responsibility for the preservation of man’s dignity and integrity…

It was that lived life of a deeply-reflective and soul-searching empathy, drawn from the raw and painful scars of the Jewish historical experience and those sacredly-held principles of “the refusal to remain silent” and “neighbor as a moral concept,” that sent Prinz to picket lines in the early days of the civil rights movement to protest racial discrimination with the same passion that sent him to the pulpit in Berlin to protest and sound the alarm bells of the metastasizing antisemitism in the early days of Nazi Germany.

There is no better exemplification of the learned lessons of the Holocaust than the life teachings and practice of Rabbi Prinz.

This past summer in Berlin, Jews and Muslims joined together to express solidarity in the wake of growing antisemitism and Islamophobia in Germany. Led by rabbis and imams, Jews paired with their Muslim counterparts on tandem bikes and pedaled from the imposing Holocaust Memorial to Bebelplatz, the city square where, a few months after assuming power in 1933, the Nazis set fire to more than 20,000 books, including those of Rabbi Prinz, to purge the country of its “un-German spirit” and “Jewish Intellectualism.”

Bebelplatz Memorial —

At that city square, there is now a pane of thick glass set in a cutout of the cobblestone pavement. Beneath that window is a subterranean room filled with enough empty book shelves to house the thousands of tomes that went up in flames on that “Night of Shame.” In the city square, there is also a bronze plaque embedded in the cobblestone, etched with the prophetic words of the nineteenth century Jewish-born, German poet Heinrich Heine. It reads:

That was but a prelude; where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people as well.”

I do not know the thinking of the organizers who planned the itinerary for that bike ride. However, it is hard not to see it as a nine-year trip back in time from the long, damn summer of ’42, past the “Night of Broken Glass” in 1938, when Rabbi Prinz’s synagogue was destroyed, to the dawn of Nazi power in 1933.

It is also hard not to reflect on that bike ride as a haunting reminder of how differently history might have turned out had the “knowing many” had the courage to speak out, organize and vote against the bigotry and hate that ignited that conflagration of books, or had enough compassion, empathy and humanity to harbor its victims before it was too late.

Shattered storefront of a Jewish-owned shop destroyed during Kristallnacht. Berlin, Germany — Jewish Virtual Library

It is especially hard today not to reflect on that bike ride as such a haunting reminder of what could have been, as we commemorate the 80th anniversary of the Kristallnacht — that outburst of mass evil that “broke the glass windows” of all moral and ethical constraints and allowed what Rabbi Prinz called, “a great people which had created a great civilization” to murder six-million, innocent lives solely because of their religion.

Painfully, we cannot rewrite that dark past. However, we can reflect and act on its lessons so it never becomes a prologue to the future.

Rabbi Prinz, after chronicling a year of unspeakable sorrow and tragedy, ended his 1942 Rosh Hashanah sermon with defiant confidence and hope:

Thus, we begin the New Year 5703, not with a trembling heart of a down-trodden persecuted people. Nor do we stand in mere defense. We are sailing on a sea of tears and blood, but we know that we have a sturdy boat beneath our feet. It is the ship of home and great confidence…

In that spirit let me end with these defiantly, hopeful reflections:

If we “refuse to remain silent” in the face of bigotry and hatefulness of “the other,” and live by the principle of “neighbor as a moral concept,” as passionately as Rabbi Prinz and Bishop Sheptytsky, then hopefully:

— My mother’s haunting words on 9/11 — it’s happening again — will never again come to pass,

— No spiritual leader will ever again have to recount, to his or her congregants, a year of unspeakable death and destruction of millions of innocent lives because of their race, ethnicity, or religion, as Rabbi Prinz was pained to do, in his 11th of September, 1942 Rosh Hashanah sermon,

— And we will find some redemptive meaning in the tragic story of the long, damn summer of ’42.

That, to me, is what this story is really about and why I have felt compelled to tell it.

Thank You.

— — — — — -

Robert Berkowitz is the author of The Long Damn Summer of ’42, The Fate of the Tree of Life, and Once Upon a Time in Queens: The Hope and Tragedy of the Deal of the Century. Both essays can be found on His email address is:

Robert was raised in Newark and nearby West Orange, New Jersey. He now lives in Guilford, Connecticut.

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