What motivated Righteous Gentiles to risk their lives to save Jews from the Nazis? What drives people today to risk their own lives to save others?
Every year, the days between Passover and Independence Day are a period of rumination for me regarding the purpose of personal, familial, and national memory. Twenty-four years have passed since my son Uriel Yitzchaq of blessed memory, an infantry officer in the IDF, passed away, and I wonder what elements of my family story, prototypical of the Jewish-Israeli narrative of this generation, shall be remembered in my family in the years to come? What part of the heroic account of the “Holocaust and Renewal” generation shall remain in the collective memory of later generations?
While investigating an eminent Sephardi family named de Botton from the Ottoman Empirein 1989, I wrote to all the Sephardi communities abroad in search of any of their descendants. As a result, I received a two-page letter in French from a woman named Bouena Sarfatty Garfinkle who was living in Montreal. She mentioned de Botton, the orchestra conductor, and various others who all had been transported to Auschwitz and perished there. When in the U.S., I opted to visit this unique woman and to record her recollections. When she heard that I taught a course about the fate of the Sephardim during the Holocaust, she handed me 200 pages of Ladino verses (coplas) that she had written about Jewish life in 20th century Salonika and about the fate of the community during WWII. These verses provide an amazing entrée into the history and fate of a community destroyed during the Holocaust.
(This article is based on a longer article published under this title appearing in the journal B’shvil Hazikaron, Vol. 13 (November 2012), pp. 18-25.)
The 1938 pogrom in Germany known as Kristallnacht, the peak of the Nazi regime’s radical anti-Jewish program, was an existential turning point for German Jewry. Immediately following the pogrom, about 30,000 Jewish males were arrested and incarcerated in concentration camps, released only upon producing a visa for foreign travel. The Nazi regime moved, in practice, from a policy of segregation of Jews from the general German population to a policy of complete severing of Jews from societyand economic life, intended to force them to emigrate.
In late 1942, three young men who spent their days studying Torah in the serene confines of The Jewish Theological Seminary determined they could no longer stand idly by as their worst fears were confirmed: Hitler intended nothing less than the total annihilation of Europe’s Jews.
During the night between Nov 9-10, 1938, a pogrom took place in the streets of Germany and Austria in which hundreds of synagogues were set ablaze and close to 100 Jews were murdered. Through that night and the following day, about 30,000 Jewish males were arrested and sent to concentration camps, the first systematic, wide scale arrest of Jews. Martin Buber, who was then already in Jerusalem, wrote an article several weeks later declaring the end of the German-Jewish symbiotic relationship. Indeed, Kristallnacht is perceived as marking a new era of persecution of Jews, and is often considered to be the opening event of the Holocaust.