Paying it forward

Paying it forward

Wayne man coordinating Kristallnacht/genocide program

For Wayne resident Eric Mayer, the invitation to coordinate a Kristallnacht memorial focused on genocide prevention was an offer he could not refuse.

Not only is he guided by Jewish teachings – “As Jews, we are commanded to help our neighbor and be a champion of justice and human rights,” he pointed out – but as a witness to Kristallnacht whose life was saved by non-Jews, “I feel one has to ‘pay back,’ he said.

The synagogue on Berlin’s Fasanenstrasse was built between 1910 and 1912 in Romanesque style with oriental ornamentation, following a competition in which the design of the architect Ehrenfried Hessel was chosen. It was badly damaged on Nov. 9, 1938, and further ruined during the war.

The title of the Nov. 9 event is “Kristallnacht”“November 9, 1938: The Unkept Promise of Never Again,” with a further subtitle reading “Cambodia”“Guatemala”“Rwanda”“Darfur.” It will be held at the New York Times Center in New York City. Mayer’s involvement began in July, when he was approached by Jonathan Alter, senior editor of Newsweek. Alter, who will serve as emcee of the event, told Mayer that a group called The Blue Card was planning to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht. He wanted Mayer to coordinate the evening.

“I said I was too busy,” said Mayer, president of the International Academy for Genocide Prevention at Columbia University. “But he told me, ‘You owe it to them.'”

The Blue Card is a nonprofit organization founded in 1934 in Germany to help Jews fleeing that country. According to its Website, the organization got its name from the original blue cards that were issued to those it helped. Each time a donation was made, a stamp was put on the card. In 1940, the organization was re-established in the United States to continue aiding refugees of Nazi persecution resettling in America. The group provides both emergency funds and regular stipends to needy Holocaust survivors.

Eric Mayer created this menorah to memorialize both Kristallnacht and the victims of the Holocaust.

Mayer, who came to the United States in 1947 and has lived in Wayne since 1966, spent his childhood in the German city of Worms. At age 11 – the Holocaust having claimed the rest of his family – he was able to flee to France, where he was taken in and protected by gentiles. His wife, Edith, was saved by Quakers in 1941, he said, crediting the intervention of Ridgewood-raised journalist Varian Fry.

On Nov. 9-10, 1938, a Nazi government-sanctioned pogrom against the Jews of Germany claimed the lives of some 100 Jews. Many others were injured and thousands were deported to concentration camps. During the rampage, Jewish homes, shops, and synagogues were damaged or destroyed. From the glass littering the streets came the name “Kristallnacht,” or “Night of Broken Glass.”

Mayer, who said he witnessed the atrocities committed on that night, called it “a kick-off to future genocides.”

“The head of The Blue Card wanted to take advantage of the coming of Kristallnacht to express concern over what’s happened since then,” he said.

The upcoming commemoration, which is being co-sponsored by the University of Quebec, which houses the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies, is “an attempt to raise awareness,” said Mayer. He said he has been “working feverishly” with Elie Rubinstein, director of The Blue Card, to organize the event.

Ambassadors from Cambodia, Guatemala, and Rwanda have been invited to attend.

“It was decided not to include Bosnia because of ethnic politics,” said Mayer, who noted that he was asked to participate because “I am fairly successful at organizing.”

Mayer – whose résumé chronicles active involvement in organizations that combat HIV/AIDS, fight hunger and poverty, champion human rights, and further stem cell research – said he is driven by his “philosophy” to help others.

“Strangers saved my life – people that I can never repay,” he said. “Now I help others.” He told of a meeting with former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, who cautioned him not to become bitter. If you do, Gorbachev said, “things will happen that you will not be able to prevent.”

Speaking at the event will be former Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy, now president of the University of Winnipeg, whom Mayer described as widely respected and “friendly to Jewish causes.” The Ramapo College Choir, whose members brought home awards from this summer’s International Festival of Academic Choirs in Prague, will perform musical selections.

Mayer said that New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg will issue a proclamation marking the day, and the Tibetan representative to the Americas will read a message from the Dalai Lama. In addition, participants will see a film on Kristallnacht produced by the International Rescue Committee. According to Mayer, invitations to the event have been extended to Cardinal Edward Egan, head of the archdiocese of New York, as well as to the religious leaders of major New York churches.

“We want to get people involved,” said Mayer. “We don’t want to hold an affair for thousands of people,” he said, noting that he would rather target several hundred “and convince them that’s it’s time to do something – help fight hunger or support human rights organizations. We want to encourage hands-on involvement.”

For more information, call Elie Rubinstein at (212) 239-2251.

Eric Mayer created this menorah to memorialize both Kristallnacht and the victims of the Holocaust.
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