Kristallnacht Witnesses Commemorate 80th Anniversary

Rabbi Michael Myerstein, at the podium, introduces a panel of Kristallnacht eyewitnesses. (Photo provided)

In Jewish communities around the world, Nov. 9 and 10, 1938, represent a horrific turning point in the course of Jewish history. The looting and destruction of Jewish temples, homes and places of business known as Kristallnacht (also referred to as the Night of Broken Glass), is considered the beginning of the Holocaust. These dates in 2018, occurring only weeks after the deadly shooting that claimed 11 Jewish lives at the Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha synagogue in Pittsburgh, served as a grim commemoration of the terror that took place 80 years ago.

On Nov. 7, the Baltimore Jewish Council’s Holocaust Remembrance Commission hosted a panel of four Kristallnacht eyewitnesses, survivors who have called the Baltimore Jewish community home for decades, at Moses Montefiore Anshe Emunah Congregation.

Herta Griffel Baitch, Margot Gradenwitz Brilliant, Herbert Friedman and Martha Meier Weiman all shared detailed, but abbreviated versions of their stories fleeing the Nazis.

Baitch recalled her father being taken away to a labor camp on Kristallnacht and hearing the frightened cries of her family’s neighbors after the officers left her apartment. Friedman, only a teenager at the time, told of his mother, on her knees, begging the officers not to take him away. Weiman spoke about an enormous bonfire of Jewish prayer books across from her family’s home. Brilliant, with candor, discussed the developmental trauma she experienced from being separated from her parents as a young child. She’s not sure if she ever fully recovered.

Dozens were in attendance to hear the survivor’s stories, including Maryland General Assembly Dels. Dana Stein (D-District 11) and Sandy Rosenberg (D-District 41), Baltimore City Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer (D-District 5) and Baltimore County Councilman-elect Izzy Patoka (D-District 2).

Community members were drawn to the event for various reasons.

“I’m 83 years old,” said Marty Shayt, a Mount Washington resident. “My parents were not involved in the Holocaust, they had already immigrated to America. But I had a deep feeling, a Jewish feeling, to commemorate. This is where I should be at this time.”

Shayt’s Mount Washington neighbor Irvin Lustman said he attended to hear the stories of individuals who experienced Kristallnacht firsthand. “I wanted to find out, ‘how was it that night?’” he said. “We don’t come across that here in Baltimore. I wanted to be part of history. I wanted to find out about it.”

Several times, parallels were drawn between Germany in the 1930s and the United States’ current political climate. MMAE Associate Rabbi Seth Herstic began the event by saying “The horrific massacre of 11 Jews in Pittsburgh has reminded us all that the flames of anti-Semitism have yet to be extinguished in our world.”

Before introducing the panelists, moderator Rabbi Michael Meyerstein asserted, “We live in an age of fake news,” before assuring the panelists their “eloquent testimonies this evening will give truth to what truly happened 80 years ago.”

Less than two weeks removed from the massacre in Pittsburgh, Weiman expressed a need for American Jewry to continue fighting the battle against anti-Semitism.

“Our lives as American Jews have changed irrevocably since that day,” she said before citing the congressional campaign of white nationalist and Holocaust denier Arthur Jones as evidence that anti-Semitism is not yet a thing of the past. Although Jones’ campaign was unsuccessful, nearly 57,000 voters in Illinois’s third congressional district supported the candidate.

Baitch closed the panel conversation by expressing gratitude for the loving and generous Baltimore Jewish community that accepted her upon her immigration to the country.

“We have a wonderful Jewish community in this city. Unfortunately, the people who seek jobs and shelter in this country do not have the kind of resources and togetherness that our Jewish community has now and had then,” she said. “I feel so badly for these people. They have no one to advocate for them.”

Members of Baitch’s family who were in attendance expressed the importance of having her and other survivors tell their story.

“When my kids were in Hebrew school, there were a lot of opportunities [to hear survivors’ stories],” said Cindy Baitch Zaleon, Baitch’s niece. “As they grew up and got older, you don’t hear about it as much. But when the kids were little, they knew it was their job to retell the story.”

Baitch’s husband, Art, said “Language can become deadly,” and that it must be “instilled in our consciousness” that the atrocity of Kristallnacht could repeat itself if such stories aren’t told frequently enough.

“My daughter asked [Baitch], ‘how many times have you spoken to groups about your experiences?’” Art said. “She said, ‘not enough.’”

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