Let there be light

Let there be light

The March of the Living goes virtual during this pandemic-inflected, ugly year

Holocaust survivor Edward Mossberg of Morris Plains and his granddaughter, Jordana Karger, light a memorial torch in Auschwitz-Birkenau on Holocaust Remembrance Day on the 2016 March of the Living. This photo, by Yossi Zeliger, is the cover image of the book “Witness: Passing the Torch of Holocaust Memory to New Generations,” compiled by Eli Rubenstein with March of the Living.
Holocaust survivor Edward Mossberg of Morris Plains and his granddaughter, Jordana Karger, light a memorial torch in Auschwitz-Birkenau on Holocaust Remembrance Day on the 2016 March of the Living. This photo, by Yossi Zeliger, is the cover image of the book “Witness: Passing the Torch of Holocaust Memory to New Generations,” compiled by Eli Rubenstein with March of the Living.

An evil darkness already was spreading across Europe well before November 9, 1938.

But the transition from cultural anti-Semitism to state-sanctioned genocide happened on that night of fire and shattered glass — Kristallnacht. Over the next two days, the Nazis burned and smashed the windows of more than 1,400 synagogues and Jewish shops and institutions in Germany and Austria.

On November 9, 2020, the embers of Kristallnacht that spread only darkness will be marked by a unique international campaign, #LetThereBeLight.

Sponsored by March of the Living — the largest annual international, experiential Holocaust education program in the world — this project invites individuals, institutions, and houses of worship to keep their lights on during the night of November 9 as a symbol of solidarity and mutual commitment in fighting anti-Semitism, racism, hatred, and intolerance.

“Kristallnacht was the first inkling of Nazi brutality to the Jews of Germany, so we decided to call the program ‘LetThereBeLight’ to use light as a force against the darkness that Kristallnacht represents,” said Eli Rubenstein. The award-winning Holocaust educator and filmmaker from Toronto is March of the Living’s director of education.

One of more than 200 worldwide institutions to be illuminated as of November 1 is the main synagogue in Frankfurt, which was one of the few not destroyed on Kristallnacht. Those signed up thus far from New Jersey include Temple Beth Ahm Yisrael in Springfield; Shomrei Torah Wayne Conservative Congregation; Maimonides Institute for Medicine Ethics and the Holocaust in Freehold; and Mount Freedom Jewish Center.

People of all religions and backgrounds are invited to write personal messages of hope on the campaign website, www.motl.org/let-there-be-light. The messages will be projected on the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem.

“Hitler’s message was hatred and creating divisions, and we teach the opposite message,” Mr. Rubenstein said. “The central symbol of the Jewish people is the menorah, which spreads light.”

The personal messages gathered through the website are a covid-19-era version of March of the Living’s Plaque Project, which began spontaneously on the first march in 1988 along the 3.2-kilometer-long railroad tracks from Auschwitz to Birkenau. The grim path has been trodden by some 260,000 students and 300 survivors from 52 countries on Yom HaShoah.

“Someone came up with the idea for participants to place plaques with the names of family members who perished, and also messages of hope, tolerance, peace, love, and kindness,” Mr. Rubenstein said.

“Thousands of these plaques have been left on the Auschwitz-Birkenau tracks. When we realized we couldn’t have the march this spring — for the first time since its inception — we didn’t want to interrupt that tradition, so we offered an opportunity to do this virtually.”

Eli Rubenstein of Toronto is the director of education for the International March of the Living.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin was the first to contribute a virtual plaque, followed by more than 18,000 people from 60 countries. The plaques were projected on Yom HaShoah on the guard tower of the infamous death camp. “We will continue the plaque project to enable people everywhere to send out messages of hope on Kristallnacht,” Mr. Rubenstein said.

On the evening of November 9 at 7 (Eastern time), a 90-minute program will air on the Jewish Broadcasting Service (jbstv.org), Jerusalem Post’s website (jpost.com), and the website of the International March of the Living (motl.org).

Among presenters will be Kristallnacht witness Norbert Strauss of Teaneck; Auschwitz-Birkenau survivor Irving Roth; John J. Farmer Jr., director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics of Rutgers University and its Miller Center for Community Protection and Resilience; Dr. Joel Finkelstein of the Rutgers Center for Secure Communities; and Stephan Kramer, president of the State-Agency for the Protection of the Constitution in Thuringia, Germany.

“We started planning a Kristallnacht virtual program two months ago when we realized that our in-person sessions cannot happen this year,” Mr. Rubenstein said.

Why is it so important not to miss a year, especially when the world’s attention is on pressing matters such as a raging pandemic and a divisive presidential election?

March of the Living’s co-founder and vice chairman Prof. David Machlis of Englewood, an economist at Adelphi University, pointed to the shocking results of the U.S. Millennial Holocaust Knowledge and Awareness Survey released on September 16, 2020 by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany — more familiarly known as the Claims Conference.

This first 50-state survey on Holocaust knowledge among Millennials and Gen Z revealed a low level of Holocaust knowledge.

“Nationally, there is a clear lack of awareness of key historical facts; 63 percent of all national survey respondents do not know that six million Jews were murdered and 36 percent thought that ‘two million or fewer Jews’ were killed during the Holocaust,” the report tells us. “Additionally, although there were more than 40,000 camps and ghettos in Europe during the Holocaust, 48 percent of national survey respondents cannot name a single one.”

Dr. Machlis noted that 19 percent of the Millennial and Gen Z survey respondents in New York — yes, New York — believe the Jews caused the Holocaust. In New Jersey, that number was 13 percent. Moreover, 54 percent of New Jersey respondents said they had seen Holocaust denial or distortion on social media or elsewhere online.

“These are the numbers that keep us working 24/7 on our projects,” Dr. Machlis said. “The Holocaust is not just a Jewish issue; it is a universal issue. One-third of March of the Living participants are not Jewish. We all must learn from the past so that a more tolerant and just society will evolve for the betterment of all humankind. That’s my mission statement.”

Rutgers University’s Miller Center for Community Protection and Resilience partnered with March of the Living several years ago. Dr. Farmer, the center’s director and a former New Jersey attorney general, has been on the march many times.

He said that Kristallnacht was an ominous turning point. “On November 9, 1938, the anti-Semitic propaganda to which the Jewish population had been subjected for years was transformed to open violence, sanctioned by the state.

“Commemorating that dark day in human history is particularly significant today, as the hatred that has been rising over social media has begun erupting into violence against the Jewish and other faiths. It is imperative that such darkness be refuted by light: the light that will shine on houses of worship throughout the world tonight, and the light of truth that shames all forms of hatred.”

Dr. Farmer wrote that the Miller Center is working to protect vulnerable populations as diverse as the Muslim community in Brussels, the African-American community in Louisiana and Mississippi, and the Sikh community in Wisconsin.

“The extremists spreading hate over social media may be small in number and marginalized for the moment, but the example of Kristallnacht should arrest any temptation to dismiss them,” he said. “For just as Kristallnacht and what followed resulted from intensely controlled and intensifying messaging of hateful propaganda, so the extremism of today is the product of a social media environment that reinforces every form of prejudice, that converts general proclivities to fixed convictions.”

Mr. Rubenstein pointed out another reason that the Kristallnacht and other March of the Living initiatives must go forward, despite the pandemic-induced inability to gather in person.

“On the march, there is an element of comfort for the survivors to transmit their stories to the next generation,” he said. “The students give the survivors hope and the survivors give the students wisdom. But these are the last generations to hear the stories from the survivors themselves.”

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