By Rabbi Alex Lazarus Klein
In 2009, I was invited by Georg and Wilma Iggers to participate in a Kristallnacht commemoration in Gottingen, Germany. Georg, who died in 2018, originally from Hamburg, Germany, had narrowly escaped calamity, attaining visas to the US just a few weeks prior to what he always insisted being called “The Pogrom” (while glass was shattered on that night, the given name glosses over the full extent of the atrocities). Wilma, whose family was from Czechoslovakia, came to the US in a similar time frame. She is nearing a hundred and still going strong at Canterbury Woods.
The event was organized by the University students and took place by the former synagogue, one the Nazis had burned 71 years prior. The 150 Jewish residents of the town subsequently deported and murdered. A beautiful memorial had been built in the shape of a Jewish star. I stood that night listening to speeches given in German, and while I did not understand the words, I felt the emotions and at the conclusion, sang the famous words of Hannah Szenes: “Oh Lord, My God, I pray that these things never end, the sand and the sea, the rush of the waters, the crash of the heavens, the prayer of the heart.”
In Germany, the memorials continued for nine weeks after that day, to January 27th, the International Holocaust Remembrance Day, marking the liberation of Auschwitz, and the beginning of the end of the Nazi atrocities. This week we marked the 75th anniversary of that event, as leaders from around the world gathered in Israel to remember that heart breaking period of human history.
How fitting it is that this is the week we read in the Torah from Parashat Bo, the section of the Torah where the plagues reach their climax and our people can finally see the end of their hundreds of years of persecution. While we cannot look directly into our ancestor’s faces, we can imagine the euphoria they felt as they, for the first time in their lifetimes, felt hope.
Unfortunately, the struggle to end oppression did not end in the crossing of the sea, just like it did not end with the liberation of Auschwitz. As the President of Germany, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, announced at the largest political gathering in Israel’s history, “Our age is a different age, the words are not the same, the perpetrators are not the same perpetrators but it is the same evil, and there remains only one answer: Never again.”
The Iggers found this out the hard way when they arrived in the South and encountered the struggle of the African American community. Indeed, they had gone from laws Nuremberg to Jim Crow, an irony that was not missed upon them. They proceeded to help desegregate the libraries and school system in Little Rock, Arkansas where they made a home early on in their married life. Georg continued to fight for freedom throughout the rest of his life.
How fitting that this Shabbat also marks the beginning Black History Month. In memory of Georg and in memory of all those who suffer from atrocities all the world over, let us join hands and march toward freedom.
Rabbi Alex Lazarus Klein is the spiritual leader at Congregation Shir Shalom in Williamsville.