My first exposure to the Holocaust came sitting around my grandparents’ dinner table as a young boy in Sioux City, Iowa. There were family stories of hiding from the Nazis before the war, Kristallnacht and escaping Germany. There were stories of relatives being sent to places with ominous sounding names. I became familiar with names like Westerbork, Auschwitz and Sobibor long before I made my bar mitzvah.
When I was living in Los Angeles, I had a chance to work at Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation. I did so thinking I was going to pay off a large karmic credit card debt. I started out as a volunteer, then went through training to conduct survivor interviews and I ended up working in the campaign office. Sometimes, when you want to give, you get something so much more valuable in return.
While working as a volunteer I met a survivor named Ziggy H. He gave me the greatest gift I could ever imagine. He taught me the value of being Jewish.
When I went to the training sessions to learn interview techniques and protocols for conducting the Shoah Foundation interviews, it was Ziggy’s testimony I watched. It changed my life.
Sometimes the survivor retells a story. They are fascinating and insightful and give you perspective, historical context and inspiration. Sometimes the survivor relives the story. It gives you chills.
There are times the weight of the memories is too much, and the composure can crack. In Ziggy’s case, there were three instances he told his story through tears which would never be able to wash away the images.
The first time, chronologically, was of his experiences surrounding Kristallnacht. But, before I tell you of that let me tell you very briefly, in a few sentences about the second and third time, so you will understand how deeply he was touched by the events of Kristallnacht. The second time he broke with emotion was in describing the death of his brother in Auschwitz. The third time Ziggy shed tears of joy. After the war he learned his mother had survived her own Auschwitz and death march experiences. Ziggy traveled from Berlin to the steps of her house in an Italian village. He waited until the sun came up before knocking on her door so they could be reunited. He didn’t want to wake her.
So what happens at Kristallnacht that is as emotionally charged as losing his brother in Auschwitz and finding his mother alive?
Ziggy H. was born in Berlin in 1925. He was to “make” (his words) a bar mitzvah on the week of Kristallnacht. Kristallnacht started Wednesday, Nov. 9, and went into the morning of Thursday, Nov. 10. On the afternoon of the 10th, Ziggy went to the synagogue with his father and brother to see what had happened. What they found there will come as no surprise. The synagogue had been destroyed. Windows were broken, furniture hacked and chopped and smashed. His lips quivered and his eyes tightened as he described the ark that had been emptied. His beloved Torahs were gone and the desecrated contents were in ash heaps. He wept. He regained his composure and continued. The camera never blinks.
The synagogue had a non-Jewish caretaker who lived a few blocks from the building. As this man saw what was in store for the synagogue, he raced ahead of the crowd. He took a Torah out the back and hid it in a large shed behind the synagogue where he kept his tools and supplies. Thursday evening he informed the rabbi he had saved a Torah. That night the rabbi went to Ziggy and his family to tell them, Ziggy could “make” his bar mitzvah Saturday morning if they wanted. In a shed. He told them he had no idea what might happen. It could be dangerous. It could be lethal. I don’t know how long Ziggy and his family pondered what their actions might be. Tears welled up in Ziggy’s eyes as he spoke with enormous pride of “making my bar mitzvah” on Saturday, Nov. 12, 1938 – in a shed behind the synagogue
He talked about his Torah portion, which sounded vaguely familiar.
As I watched, I was thinking about my own bar mitzvah back in Sioux City in 1966. On a Friday in November. Nov. 11, to be exact. Because God wanted to be sure I did not miss this lesson, when you look at those perpetual calendars you will see 1938 and 1966 fall exactly the same.
I had the same bar mitzvah as this incredible survivor. I looked forward to my bar mitzvah as had Ziggy but for different reasons. For me it meant an end to Hebrew school. No more Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday classes with that rabbi I didn’t much like. It meant some neat presents or worse, U.S. Savings Bonds. It meant a small dinner party at my parents’ club for family, some who had escaped Hitler’s solutions. For Ziggy, it meant following his Jewish lessons and the values of being Jewish. It meant following his religion, even, literally at the risk of his life. He risked everything to be Jewish and “make” his bar mitzvah. I risked absolutely nothing. I took it all for granted.
I thought I better re-examine my Jewish identity. And, when I did, I saw the beauty of the Jewish religion and the strength of a Jewish family.
And, in today’s world, how important it is to NOT take being Jewish and celebrating our Jewish life for granted. The space does not allow me to write about all the obstacles we face as a people, or a nation of Israel, but, we cannot take being Jewish for granted.
After watching the testimony and making my startling observation, I went up to Ziggy and we talked about November bar mitzvahs. A week later I found myself at Geary’s in Beverly Hills. I saw something I wanted. It was a figurine of a 13-year-old boy reading the Torah making his bar mitzvah. When I next went to the Shoah Foundation, I gave Ziggy this small gift. I explained what he had given me was so much more.
Kristallnacht. The night of the broken glass. Or when it all became crystal clear to me how important is my Jewish religion. Thank you, Ziggy. z’l.
Jeff Lewis of Scottsdale is a member of Temple Solel. He was born in Sioux City, Iowa and this year marks the 50th anniversary of his bar mitzvah. While living in Los Angeles, he worked for the Shoah Foundation, first as a volunteer, then a trained interviewer, and finally in the development department. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.