Rabbi Yitzchak Wagner made a stop at the Chabad of Santa Clarita Valley on Tuesday during his tour of the United States to speak about Jewish life in Germany.
Wagner is the first German-born rabbi since the Holocaust, and his lecture, “The Jews are Back: 80 Years After Kristallnacht, Has Germany Changed?” focused on the history of his hometown Krefeld, Germany, following Kristallnacht.
During the 19th century, the Jewish synagogue of Krefeld was built to look like any other church, and according to Wagner, this was because, even then, they were concerned about anti-Semitism.
“Why does everybody hate us?” Wagner asked. “It’s very easy, because we are different.”
Across Germany, the nights of Nov. 9-10, 1938, were known as the “Night of Broken Glass” as Kristallnacht is also called. It was one of the very first violent acts against the German Jewish population ordered by Adolf Hitler. Nazis torched synagogues, vandalized Jewish neighborhoods, schools and businesses, killed 100 Jews and sent nearly 30,000 more to concentration camps.
“The nights of November 1938 were a test trial for the Nazis,” Wagner said. “They wanted to see if the world would respond, but the following days there was silence — nobody said anything. The Nazis understood, ‘We can burn the Jews, and the world will be quiet, as well.’ Unfortunately, they were right.”
Nearly 70 years after the destruction of Krefeld’s synagogues, they rebuilt and “history has changed,” Wagner said. Now, there has been a resurgence of Judaism not only in Krefeld but also across Germany, according to Wagner.
Last year marked the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, and to celebrate change, the German president lit Europe’s biggest Hanukkah menorah at Berlin’s iconic Brandenburg Gate, alongside Berlin’s community rabbi, on the exact spot where Hitler stood 80 years prior.
According to Wagner, there are now more than 200,000 members in German Jewish communities, and although anti-Semitism still exists today, nine out of 10 times he is stopped on the streets because of his Jewish appearance, it is positive.
“We hear a lot of the negative news constantly about anti-Semitism and what it’s like being a Jew in Europe today,” said Rabbi Choni Marozov, co-director at Chabad of SCV. “What’s nice is to bring confidence to Jewish people about the bright future there is.”
Herman Zayon is part of the first generation of Jews after the Holocaust. Zayon, a local resident who attended Wagner’s presentation, was born at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, after it became a displaced persons camp, and moved to America as a child.
When he went back to Germany for the first time in 1968, he did not have good experiences with some of the German people after they realized he was a Jew who fled Germany after the war.
“I felt that it would take a lot more generations to cleanse and erase that mentality,” Zayon said. “It’s enlightening to see that Germany has gotten to where it is today and made so many strides. I’m very pleasantly surprised.”
Local resident Phil Levy was stationed in Grafenwoehr, Germany, for the U.S. Army in the 1970s for three years. As an American Jew, he says there were a lot of people who treated him very positively, but there were still quite a few “rumblings of dissent.”
“To see that this whole Jewish community in Germany is resurging is very heartwarming,” Levy said after Wagner’s presentation. “And, to see the courage that these people have to rebuild their lives there and seeing them come back (to Germany), is phenomenal.”
The Chabad of SCV’s next lecture will feature a Holocaust survivor and is scheduled Sunday, June 2, according to Marozov.