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The Stones Cast by the Oppressors Became the Keystone: Emil Fackenheim, the 614th Commandment and Kristallnacht

Ari Bursztein
| 13/11/2009

Kristallnacht is lodged in Jewish memory as a turning point in the active anti-Semitism that led to the Final Solution. In recent years, I have studied the philosophy of Emil Fackenheim, considered to be the greatest thinker on the subject of the Holocaust. Fackenheim delved for many years into the views and basic concepts that preoccupied post-World War II Jewry: mitzvot, revelation, theology, etc. Paradoxically, towards the end of the 1960’s, when he became more intensely immersed in the subject, Fackenheim did not link theology or Providence to the Holocaust. True, in his 614th Commandment, obligating each Jew to prevent Hitler’s ultimate victory by bringing Jewish children into the world and by aliya to Israel, there are theological and even revelatory connotations.

In this, Fackenheim appears to call for an additional Commandment to be added to the Torah, but his intent is to call for a change in human behavior. In his important book To Mend the World, (Emil Fackenheim, To Mend the World, Indiana University Press, Bloomington & Indianapolis, 1982). he establishes the Holocaust philosophically as a world-shattering event. After the Holocaust the question is not ‘where is God,’ but how can life go on altogether. Morality, ideology, philosophy – amidst their complete collapse, how can one continue to live?

And yet we have continued. The task that Fackenheim takes upon himself is to rebuild and especially to offer a formula for repairing the broken shards left by the Holocaust. To return to the 614th Commandment, we realize that the Holocaust is indeed an event of revelation. Auschwitz commands the anti-Auschwitz. Auschwitz commands? Is that not the role of God? Did God command through Auschwitz? What kind of revelation is Auschwitz? Can any one respond positively to this revelation? I believe the answer lies in the fact that Fackenheim’s expression “the commanding voice at Auschwitz” is spoken metaphorically. It is not necessary to analyze either the phenomenology of the act of commanding or the Divine revelation. God does not take an active role at Auschwitz, or at least Fackenheim does not say He does.

The meaning of “the commanding voice at Auschwitz” is this: the fact of Auschwitz and its breach of the boundaries of human behavior that existed up till then, is what commands its opposite. There was no need for such a Divine commandment prior to Auschwitz, but after the fact, God demands that we draw the correct conclusions. It seems to me that the deeper meaning of this concept can be understood through an amazing story that took place on Kristallnacht which I chanced upon towards the conclusion of my research for a book on Fackenheim (Ari Bursztein, Mending the World after the Holocaust: The Thought of Emil Fackenheim, Jerusalem: The Leo Baeck Institute and the Bialik Institute, 2008). It is even possible that Fackenheim was present when it occurred. I attempted to verify the story through various sources, but did not succeed in doing so. It is nonetheless worth re-telling; its meaning and symbolism for the people of Israel is so great that it merits a place in historical research on the period.

In 1872 the Hochshule fuer die Wissenschaft des Judentumopened in Berlin, operating as an academic institute for Jewish Studies (the German universities refused to open departments of Jewish Studies) and as a rabbinical seminary. Many well-known professors of Jewish Studies and rabbis were educated and taught at this institute. From 1933 until November 9, 1938, the Hochshule served as a social, spiritual and religious center, existing under the intolerable conditions imposed by the Nazi regime in Berlin. Unlike other Jewish institutions of higher learning in Germany, the Hochshule succeeded in remaining open until 1942. However, after Kristallnacht, the institute waned – many students were arrested by the Gestapo, and others who could, fled Germany.

This is where our story begins, and I will begin it from its end. In 2004, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, a rabbi by the name of Hans Harf passed away. I knew Rabbi Harf from before my aliya to Israel. On one of my visits in the 1990’s, he said to me: “I know you are studying the work of Emil Fackenheim, and I have good news for you. I can provide you with many personal details about him; he is a close friend of mine. We still correspond. We studied together in the Hochshule.” This of course was very interesting to me, and I began to research the people who were Hochshule students in the months leading up to Kristallnacht. Mentioned in Fackenheim’s autobiography (Emil Fackenheim, An Epitaph for German Judaism-From Halle to Jerusalem, The University of Wisconsin Press, 2007) are Leo Baeck, as uncontested leader and lecturer in Midrash; Ismar Elbogen, lecturer in Jewish History; Moshe Sister, lecturer in Bible; and students Günter Friedländer, who managed to obtain visas to South America for a good number of other students; Heinz Fischel, Manfred Braude, Karl Rautenberg, Fritz Winter, Hans Harf and others. Some of these who managed to escape Germany became influential in the post-Holocaust Jewish world.

This backdrop serves to expand on the fate of each of these people after Kristallnacht. At the time of the funeral of Rabbi Harf, a number of eulogies were published in the local Jewish press. One of them stated: “The formative event in Rabbi Harf’s life that led him to Jewish activity was Kristallnacht. As he often said, it was also the formative event for many teachers and students at theHochshule who were present at the pogrom that took place on the night of November 9, 1938.”

What happened there? Was preoccupation with Jewish activity the result of a typical reaction to anti-Semitism? Yes, but it was not that simple. The eulogy goes on to shed light on what happened on Kristallnacht. Many Hochshule students were present that night (Fackenheim does not mention the event in his autobiography). Teachers and students alike were paralyzed with fear. Cries of “Death to the Jews” were heard and all thought their end was near. Windows were smashed, stones were hurled at a dizzying rate. Leo Baeck took control within the building; he gathered the students and teachers together and ordered them to each pick up a stone that had been thrown from without. In an authoritative voice he said – We swear today that each one of us takes one stone thrown by these who persecute us, and at the first chance we can, to escape and settle in other countries; and each stone will become the cornerstone of a synagogue or Jewish school.

I asked Rabbi Winter’s widow to verify the story. She confirmed that her husband related it numerous times. This is so far my only evidence of its truth. Traveling to South America from Germany, Rabbi Winter passed through Cochabamba, Bolivia and established a synagogue there, which stands to this day. Later, in Montevideo, he was one of the outstanding rabbis of the New Jewish Community (NCI), at which scores of Conservative rabbis have served and which houses a museum in memory of those who perished in the Holocaust.

It seems that others who were present that night in the Hochshuledid similar things. Beyond the historical truth of the story, it no doubt stands as a symbol of Jewish behavior throughout history – to transform mourning into joyousness, destruction into building, repairing the broken shards in order to mend the world.

Dr. Ari Bursztein is a lecturer and researcher in Jewish Thought at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. His book Repairing the World After the Holocaust: The Philosophy of Emil Fackenheim, was published by the Bialik Institute and Leo Baeck Institute in 2008.

Image Credit: Adam Jones, PhD

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