For my parents, a strong Israel as the home of the Jewish people was the necessary answer to the lessons of Kristallnacht.
The incomprehensible brutality of the October 7 Hamas massacre resulted in the slaughter of some 1,400 Israelis and foreign nationals, the wounding of thousands more, and over 240 held as hostages. Many compare this act of mass murder with the events of Kristallnacht (the night of broken glass), on November 9, 1938, when Hitler’s Nazi mobs rampaged throughout Germany, attacking Jews and Jewish targets, killing many, and traumatizing all. The Kristallnacht pogrom marked the beginning of the Holocaust and the realization that the Jews of Europe were entirely helpless – they could not do anything to defend themselves or fight back.
In contrast, Israelis and Zionists, including many of us who are the children and grandchildren of Jews who escaped or survived the inhuman Nazi slaughter, are fighting back, with every fiber of our being. And this is the essential difference. When we say “never again”, we do not refer to a naive hope that the so-called enlightened or moral international community will prevent another genocide against the Jewish people – that illusion disappeared in 1939. To live as a free people in a dangerous and hostile world, we have no choice but to use our strength to defeat our enemies. We cannot bring the dead back to life, or erase the traumas of the Holocaust and the Hamas slaughter, but we can plant our flag firmly in our homeland, learn from our mistakes, and rebuild.
This is the most important lesson I learned from my parents – both were children living in Germany and witnesses to the horrors of Kristallnacht. My father, Henry Steinberg, was born in Berlin – one of eight children, four brothers and four sisters. Anne (Fuhs) Steinberg, my mother was from Halle. They both went from Germany to Britain through the Kindertransport framework that was initiated shortly after Kristallnacht that brought 10,000 Jewish children to safety in the 9 months until the outbreak of the war on September 1, 1939. The British government would not allow Jewish adults to come, so the children said goodbye to their parents and boarded trains on their own. Many did not see their parents and families again. The other “enlightened” democracies, including the United States, did not even open their doors to Jewish children.
After the war, my parents met in London and were married in 1948. My mother’s parents and older brother escaped to the crowded disease-infested Shanghai ghetto during the war, and afterwards, to California. After I was born, we joined them. My parents were very involved in the Jewish community and in support for Israel, where his father and one of his brothers lived. His four sisters (the aunts I never knew) – Miriam, Penina, Sophie, and Gerda – and my grandmother, Chana Steinberg were murdered by the Nazis in the Auschwitz concentration camp.
My mother was 11 when the Kristallnacht pogrom took place. She went to school as usual the next day. In her autobiography, she wrote “As I entered the classroom, the teacher sent me home right away as from that day on Jewish children were not allowed to attend German schools any longer. That was the end of my education in Germany.”
My father was 15, living in Berlin, and witnessed the Nazi rampage directly. In his autobiography, he wrote: “If anybody has the notion that most Germans were not Nazis, the Kristallnacht dispelled that myth for me and everybody else who witnessed it. In November 1938 I was 15-3/4 years old. I saw the crazed Germans. Like a raging mob, they were insatiable. They just kept going, from street to street, from synagogue to synagogue. Smashing, looting, and burning. The next day they made Jews clean up the mess. All I could think of while watching this was that they will pay for this.” With his older brother and others, he ran to the local shuls (small synagogues) to save the Torah scrolls, shofars, and other ritual objects from destruction.
My father had a basically optimistic personality, despite everything and like many others, my parents put Nazi Germany and the Shoah largely behind them, to the extent possible, making new lives for themselves and for us, as children. But when antisemitism surfaced in “liberal” California, he would remind us about what the Nazis did and of his memories of Kristallnacht in particular. In our house, long after the war, we did not buy German products – the memories were imprinted on all of us.
The world did not learn the lessons of the Shoah, as even my optimistic father understood. His message for the younger generation was to be strong, be proudly Jewish and fight for what is right. For my father, a strong Israel as the home of the Jewish people was the only answer to the lessons of Kristallnacht.
I think about him and his message every day, and even more so after October 7. And I try to reassure my mother (may she live to 120) that Israel will defeat our enemies, rebuild, and be wiser, stronger and better than before.