Crime and Punishment, PART I.

The commemoration of Crystal Night, (German, Kristallnacht), the night of November 9-10, 1938 with its anti-Jewish brutality continuing for a few additional days and this year’s Veterans Day, fall together on November 11. Because of this unusual coincidence of the anniversary of one of the darkest days in Jewish history and one of the most redeeming acts in that same slice of history coming together, let me invite you to reflect on both these historical events.

First, let me summarize what these two anniversaries commemorate. Kristallnacht or the Night of Broken Glass was a pogrom against the Jews throughout Nazi Germany. The Nazis, more particularly the Nazi paramilitary organization SA, also called the Storm Troopers or Brown Shirts, torched over 1,000 synagogues, vandalized and looted Jewish homes, schools and 7,500 Jewish businesses, killed 71 Jews and arrested some 30,000 Jewish men. Because of this significant number of prisoners, the concentration camps of Dachau, Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen had to be expanded to accommodate them. The name Kristallnatch or in English, Night of Broken Glass, refers to the litter of broken glass left in the streets after these pogroms.

The pretext for the violence was the assassination of Ernst vom Rath, a German diplomat, by Herschel Grynszpan, a Polish Jewish student. Grynszpan engaged in the murder as a retribution for the Nazi deportation of Polish Jewish residents in Germany to a no-man’s land at the border of Germany and Poland where the Jews were unceremoniously dumped. Grynszpan’s parents were among the group and so, understandably, he was very upset and worried.

German Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, having consulted with Hitler on how the assassination could be antisemitically exploited, urged a group of SA during a large SA rally to engage in violent reprisals against the German Jewish population. The pogroms were to appear as spontaneous antisemitic demonstrations by the German population.

It is no exaggeration to state that this anti-Jewish violence was the overture to subsequent governmental bureaucratic anti-Jewish steps leading to the Wannsee Conference in 1942 and the decision taken there to end the so-called Judenfrage or “Jewish Question” by means of “the Final Solution,” i.e., the Holocaust or the systematic murder of the Jews of Germany and its occupied countries.

Veterans Day, to be commemorated and celebrated on the 11th of November, is an official United States public holiday, observed annually, that honors military veterans, that is persons who served in the United States Armed Forces.

This said, I personally feel deeply indebted especially to those American veterans who fought in World War II. Statistics inform us that 16.5 million men and women served in the Armed Forces during WW II of whom 291,557 died in battle and 670,846 were wounded. While I was liberated by Soviet Russian forces who, along with Great Britain, were our allies in that war, I am deeply grateful to all the allied forces who defeated the Nazis and liberated us, concentration camp prisoners, whose days were numbered. We, too, would have been murdered had it not been for these brave Allied soldiers who gave their all to defeat the Nazi enemy.

By juxtaposing the two historical events, grieving over one and celebrating the other, we touch upon something much deeper that meets the eye – namely the problem of evil, a problem that to this very day has not been resolved.

Why does it exist? Who is its author? Why does it continue to persist? What can and should be done against it? Etc. While for me it would be either pure foolishness or the height of human hubris to claim to have the answers to this quandary, a sober reflection might help us make some sense of it all.

In Part II of this blog, soon to follow, I will try to throw some light on the origin and continued existence of evil both from a theological, anthropological and psychological viewpoint.


I would like to take this moment to include my next public speaking engagements, which you can also view here:

Thursday, November 8 – in the evening
Asheville’s AB-Tech College

Excerpts from my Holocaust experiences and comments.

Friday, November 9 – Shabbat evening service
Bet HaTephila Temple in Asheville

Talk/Sermon regarding Veterans Day and Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass).

I Remember the Rose and the Coincidences…

Scene 1.

Surfing the net the other day I ran into an obituary-type article about David Wyman’s death on March 14, 2018. Professor Wyman is the author of The Abandonment of the Jews, Pantheon Books, 1984, a Holocaust-related remarkable work dealing with the USA’s reluctance to assist the death-endangered Jews in Europe during the German Nazi regime.

The excellent article was written by Pierre Sauvage, film maker who, among others, produced the movie Weapons of the Spirit, dealing with the good people of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, a small town in south central France. These fine women and men, endangering their own lives, hid Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany and thus saved the lives of approximately 3,500 women, men and children. Pierre Sauvage, the film maker himself, was one of these saved young people.

Having lived with my family in Le Chambon from 1964 to 1969, I was privileged to have personally known most of the folk filmed by Sauvage, including the hero of the saving action, pastor Andre Trocme of the local congregation of the Eglise Reformee de France, honored at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.

I had the joy and privilege to personally know Professor David Wyman, having been invited by him to give a lecture at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst where he taught. I recounted on that occasion some of my personal experiences as Jewish prisoner in seven slave labor and concentration camps during my teen years.

It is this incident and the related coincidences I want to share with you in this blog. The exact date of my visit to the University of Massachusetts unfortunately escapes me but it must have fallen somewhere into the later 1980s.

So here we were, my former wife Carolyn and I, sitting in a small amphitheater. A good many students filled the venue and I was just about ready to step to the lectern after David Wyman’s introduction when he signaled me to wait. A few minutes later, a young female student entered the hall carrying a bud vase containing a single beautiful red rose. She placed the vase on the lectern at which point Wyman invited me to start. A beautiful gesture.

Scene 2.

On June 1942 the whole Jewish population, just short of 1,000 women, men and children, of my town of Teschen, (Cieszyn, prior to the Nazi occupation), in Polish Upper Silesia, was deported to Auschwitz where they were murdered. The Jewish young people, including myself, were sent to slave labor camps. My parents and my older sister miraculously survived and thus our nuclear family was reunited after the war’s end. There followed an exchange of our camp experiences and we learned from my father who had been in a sub-camp of Auschwitz by name of Blechhammer the following story.

In Blechhhammer in Upper Silesia, Nazi Germany had built a major synthetic-oil industry based on the vast Silesian coal resources. My father was part of the Jewish and other prisoner work force involved in the building of this huge industrial complex. Without being able to report specific dates – the prisoners had no calendars or time pieces! – he told us how on two occasions, when the refinery power house was ready to start operations, allied bombers at great altitudes appeared in the skies and precision bombed the power plant to smithereens.

Scene 3.

I left Europe because of the threat of a communism take-over of Czechoslovakia in February 1947. I Arrived in the US after a two years stay stay in Paris, France, while waiting for a US visa. Sometimes in the 1980s, while already in academia, I purchased David Wyman’s book, The Abandonment of the Jews where, on pages 288 to 307, I found the following material, presented here in abbreviated form.

Scene 4.

Two Jewish men escaped from Auschwitz on April 10, 1944. Their names were Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler. They reported to the free world what was going on at Auschwitz in terms of daily mass murders. The report spread to the Allied Governments and began to appear in the Swiss, British and American press. The message they brought to the West included an appeal for the immediate bombing of the rail deportation routes to Auschwitz, as well as of “the death halls of Auschwitz.” This would have temporarily slowed, if not completely halted, the assembly line murders that were taking place there.

The US War Department, however, was of the “opinion that the suggested air-operation was impracticable for the reason that it could be executed only by diversion of considerable air support essential to the success of our forces now engaged in decisive operations.” (Wyman, p.292) In late June 1944 the German “oil war” had moved to Upper Silesia, in a 35 miles radius around Auschwitz. Blechhammer was in the north-west sector of this area. Between July 7 and November 20, “fleets of from 102 to 357 heavy bombers hit it [Blechhammer] on ten occasions. On Sunday, August 20, late in the morning, 127 Flying Fortresses escorted by 100 Mustang fighters, dropped 1,336 500-pound high-explosive bombs on the factory areas of Auschwitz, less than five miles to the east of the gas chambers.” Only one American bomber went down; no Mustangs were hit. There were other air attacks on this industrial area. But no attempts were made to strike the killing operations of the extermination camp.

Despite the fact that these strikes on the oil important German centers took place only 5 miles away from the Auschwitz gassing and cremation installations of Auschwitz/Birkenau, the US War Department could write “that bombing Auschwitz would be possible only by diversion of air power from ‘decisive operations elsewhere.’ “ On a number of other occasions from July through October, a total of 2,700 bombers traveled along or within easy reach of both rail lines on the way to targets in the Blechhammer-Auschwitz region.” In none of these cases the killing centers of Auschwitz were bombed. There is no doubt that destruction of the gas chambers and crematoria would have saved many lives.

“Mass murder continued at Auschwitz until the gas chambers closed down in November.”

The US government’s refusal to bomb the killing installations in Auschwitz remains one of the unexplained and unresolved scandals of the Holocaust.

In any case, my father’s report about the destruction of the industrial complex of Blechhammer was corroborated and I am grateful to David Wyman to have thrown much needed light on this tragic scandal.

Scene 5

In 1993, Gail and I left beautiful but cold Maine and moved south. After residing in an area called High Country in Weaverville, North Carolina, we moved to our present address at 6 Westview Circle. Shortly afterwards, I met my new neighbor across the driveway. We got to know each other and after he told me about his GI activities during WW II, we immediately bonded. Julian, it so happened, was the bombardier on one of the Flying Fortresses that bombed the Blechhammer industrial complex, where nearby in the concentration camp, my father was imprisoned and coerced to work for two years building the oil refinery complex destroyed by the Allies.

My father’s story, David Wyman’s WW II research and important book, as well as his death, eulogized by Pierre Sauvage native of Le Chambon where we had lived, and Julian P. the bombardier, across my driveway, all this came together in a complex and wondrous story that is dear to me and seemed worth sharing with others.