The fate of the Tree of Life
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 — Rabbi Joachim Prinz
The murder of 11 innocent worshipers at the Tree of Life synagogue — the deadliest attack ever on the Jewish community in this country– occurred on the 80th anniversary of one of the most fateful events in Jewish history.
On that day in 1938, in what the New York Times described as possibly “the greatest mass deportation of recent times,” the Nazi government began deportation of 17,000 Polish-born Jews living in Germany and Nazi-occupied Austria.
In dragnet-style raids, men, women and children, including the elderly and infirm, were seized at homes and workplaces, hauled into police stations and forced to sign deportation papers. Wives and children wept as husbands were herded into vans and special “slow moving” trains. Like “sheep corralled for slaughter,” is the way The Times described the heart-wrenching scene.
Many panicked-stricken woman and children joined their husbands. Others, who were taken to different stations, ended up on separate trains. In some cases, children without parents were taken from schools and driven to the Polish frontier. The journey was long and harrowing. There was little to eat and no water to drink. Heads were beaten with truncheons for bending down to tie shoe laces.
Exhausted, hungry, near penniless, and with little more than a suitcase of personal belongings when they arrived at the border, deportees were assembled by SS frontier-guards armed with fixed bayonets, machine guns and whips. The border-crossing was even more harrowing. Many waded in ankle-high water in ditches. Women were made to run across open fields for a half-hour. Bones were broken. Elderly people collapsed under the weight of their suitcases. Those who faltered were whiplashed, jabbed with bayonets, or just trod on.
Unwelcome by the Polish government that had previously ordered the revocation of passports of Polish citizens living in Germany and Austria to prevent the influx of Jewish refugees in the aftermath of Anschluss, many of the deportees passed sleepless nights in crowded barracks, train stations, freight cars and the cold outdoors.
Some died of heart attacks due to exhaustion, exposure and stress. Others took their own lives. Hundreds suffered injuries that required hospitalization. Thanks in large part to Jewish relief organizations that helped feed, shelter and resettle the deportees, most survived the ordeal. However, only a few would survive the later round-ups and deportations to the killing centers of Auschwitz, Belzec and Treblinka.
One who survived both deportations was Zyndel Grynzspan. We know that because he was called to testify as the first witness at the trial of Adolph Eichmann to tell his story of the first one. That was no accident.
Though Eichmann had little to do with that October 27 mass deportation, Gideon Hausner, prosecuting attorney for the State of Israel in the trial, had another purpose in summoning Grynzspan to the dock. Through personal stories and a trove of documents, Hausner wanted to lay bare for the world the key actions and decisions that led to the mass murder of six million innocent lives solely because of their religion.
In calling Grynzpan as his first witness, Hausner believed that the mass deportation raids that began on Oct. 27, 1938, were the first of several stepping stones along the inexorable path to the Holocaust.
That is why Hausner called Morris Fleischmann the following day to describe the horror of Kristallnacht — the most orchestrated, violent and sweeping pogrom in Jewish history until the Holocaust. Fleischmann, one of the few surviving leaders of the Austrian Jewish community, told of Jews in Vienna herded into school rooms and bludgeoned with truncheons by SS guards. He recounted a crazed Adolph Eichmann, flushed with rage, threatening Jews who had taken refuge at a community center that, “Things cannot go on like this. We will take steps to get rid of Jews.” Kristallnacht was the second stepping stone.
That is also why two days later Hausner submitted as evidence a report of a meeting chaired by Reinhardt Heydrich, head of the SS, at which it was decided to round-up Jews in cities and towns near rail stations as the first step in the “Final Solution.” Concentration was the third stepping stone.
And that is why a few weeks later Hausner submitted as evidence a letter penned by Eichmann in August, 1941 that read, “I beg to inform you that this emigration should be avoided in the light of the final solution which is being prepared for the European Jews.” Deportation to the gates of the mass-killing centers was the final stepping stone.
Flash forward to Pittsburgh
Shortly before neo-Nazi Robert Bowers entered the Tree of Life synagogue, he made two posts. The first read, “Why Hello there HIAS. You like bringing hostile murderers to dwell among us.” The second one, posted within hours of the mass murder read, “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw the optics. I’m coming in.”
Both posts refer to HIAS, the acronym for the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society. Founded in 1881 initially to help Jews fleeing pogroms in Russia, it played an oversized role in the rescue and resettlement of Jewish refugee who were victims of Nazi persecution, including many of the Polish-born German Jews swept up in the October 27 deportations.
More recently, HIAS has become the international arm of the American Jewish community to help rescue and resettle refugees and other displaced peoples of all backgrounds who are victims of persecution and violence. One of its many initiatives, in what has become the greatest worldwide refugee crisis since the 1930s, is assisting refugees at our southern border and helping them start a new life in America.
The week before Bowers executed his Sabbath-day murder of Jews, HIAS held National Refugee Shabbat — a time to reflect and act on behalf of the millions of refugees in search of freedom and safety. It was fitting that the Torah reading for that Shabbat was Lech Lecha — an accounting of the dawn of the Jewish experience wandering in search of freedom.
That National Refugee Shabbat event calls to mind the first Passover Seders that HIAS held at Ellis Island, and in its Great Hall on Lafayette Street in Lower Manhattan, for the newly-arrived throngs of Nazi-persecuted Jewish refugees — those fortunate, thanks to HIAS, to be free to celebrate the biblical holiday of the Exodus.
Presumably, Bowers did not know he was committing the deadliest attack on the American Jewish community on the 80th anniversary of a mass deportation that would devolve into the premeditated slaughter of a people on a scale unparalleled in human history.
But we need to know.
Rabbi Joachim Prinz, one of the most passionate champions of civil rights in the 20th century, reminded us why we need to know when he spoke right before his friend Martin Luther King delivered his “I have a Dream” speech more than 55 years ago. With the Lincoln Memorial at his back, Prinz recalled those darkening years in Germany presaging the Holocaust.
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 problem.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.
Prinz concluded that short, powerful speech with a crying plea to his fellow citizens that “America must not become a nation of onlookers.”
Now more than ever. The fate of our great nation, our humanity and the tree of life depend on it.
Robert Berkowitz is the author of 9/11 and the Holocaust, and The Long Damn Summer of ’42. Both essays can be found on Medium.com. He lives in Guilford.
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