Kristallnacht Commemoration shares survivors’ accounts in student project

To commemorate the 84th anniversary of Kristallnacht, also known as the Night of Broken Glass, four students enrolled in Dr. Jacob Labendz’s Holocaust course presented the stories of New Jersey residents who provided video testimonies after surviving that night.

On Wednesday, Nov. 9, Dr. Labendz and his students spoke at Beth Haverim Shir Shalom in front of a large crowd that included President Cindy Jebb, Ramapo alumni and other local Mahwah residents.

The commemoration began with a welcome from Rabbi Ilana Schwartzman, where she detailed many of the tragic events of Kristallnacht.

“Tens of thousands of Jews were terrorized in their homes, sometimes beaten to death,” she said. “Today we remember, and in so doing, take hold of our responsibility to nurture and to nourish life.”

Dr. Labendz then took to the podium where he went into detail about what happened during Kristallnacht and the importance of his students’ assignment. “We see it as our role to serve the broader community with engaging programs… This commemoration manifests the interrelatedness of these goals. What we do on campus matters,” he said.

“I think it is important for the students to see that they are enduring local legacies of the Holocaust,” Dr. Labendz said. “Everyone had different experiences… I think that should form how we think about justice and activism in the present.”

After Dr. Labendz finished his introduction, the first student to present was Amanda Williams, a political science major. Williams presented the story of Henry Steifel, who was born in Frankfurt in 1924, but moved to Queens, N.Y. to escape from Germany.

“[Steifel] drew a comparison that was so important to me,” Williams said of Steifel’s testimony. “He says that the kind of antisemitism he experienced growing up is nothing more than you can see in America today.”

Williams went on to explain that one of Steifel’s biggest regrets was not getting an education due to the Holocaust. “I think it heightens the importance of our class, knowing this is something he would have wished for,” she said.

Following Williams was international studies major Lionel Chen, who presented the story of Norbert S., Chen explained that Norbert S. was born when the Nazi Party was taking off and that his family had their restaurant burned down during Kristallnacht.

“Nazis broke into apartments and stores and broke everything that could be broken, and arrested all male Jews over 16 years old,” Norbert S. said in his testimony. “I was 11 at the time and my brother was 12, so the two of us were not arrested.”

Chen wrapped up his presentation by saying, “It really sends testament to the whole Jewish religion with how faithful they were during this time of trauma.”

After Chen’s presentation was Niall Steinberg, a history major. Steinberg reported on the story of David S., who lived north of Frankfurt at the outbreak of World War II. On the night of Kristallnacht, David S. was arrested with his father. The testimony recalled the Nazi Party destroying his entire house, breaking everything.

“The destruction of [David S.’] home is something that spoke to me,” Steinberg said. “It’d be hard to imagine the Nazis running into anyone’s home and destroying stuff.”

The final student presenter of the evening was Skylar McMahon, a history major. McMahon told the story of Jerry Westheimer, who was 11 years old when Kristallnacht took place. McMahon explained that Westheimer believed that antisemitism was just as, if not more, present in Austria than in Germany at the time of Kristallnacht.

After the four presentations, the audience was allowed to do a Q&A with the students. When asked about what she’ll do with this information now that the presentation is done, McMahon said, “I want to educate people, I want to educate myself, and more importantly, I want to spread that knowledge onto other people… To be able to learn about [Kristallnacht] firsthand is a privilege. It’s bittersweet because it’s very graphic information, but it’s so important to learn about because we cannot forget what happened.”

The commemoration concluded with Rabbi Schwartzman thanking Dr. Lebendz and his students for their presentations. “Thank you for being the receptacles of those stories. We affirm tonight our obligation to challenge antisemitism, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, persecution and bigotry of all kinds.”

“May we all find stories to tell, whether they are our own or someone else’s. May we find the divine spark in those stories and help to repair the world through them.”

Photo by William Jackson.