On November 10th, we marked the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht, “the night of broken glass,” when Jewish homes, shops and synagogues were ransacked across Austria. Jews were shipped to concentration camps and beaten to death and synagogues burned. With the sounds of the Jewish windows shattering, Kristallnacht became an eerie premonition of the disaster to follow.
But in Judaism the sound of breaking glass is more commonly associated with the end of the Jewish wedding ceremony. This sound, which commemorates the destruction of the ancient Jerusalem and the beginning of thousands of years of exile, is today greeted with joyous shouts of mazel tov by family and friends, as the happy couple proceed to their reception.
How can the breaking of glass in one case symbolize that which is irreparably damaged, while in the other acknowledge that things do break, but in their shattering a world of new possibilities can emerge? It is because in each case we choose to remember differently and memory is always about choice.
We can choose to remember in ways that stir our anger and rage, or we can choose to remember in ways that provoke sadness and pain. We can also choose to remember in ways that challenge us to take from the past those lessons which we need in order to become who we most want to be, and to create the world in which we most want to live.
That choice confronts us in the aftermath of a fight with a loved one, a hurt they have caused us, or in how we recall those hurts that have threatened the very existence of entire communities.
The last hundred years have witnessed genocidal wars on virtually every continent. From United States. No, they are not all the same. But spending time delineating how they are different has not brought us any closer to keeping them from happening time and again either. Perhaps some new choices about how we remember them will.
Those choices are especially significant when it comes to how we remember the Holocaust. And they have never been more important than right now, as we become the first generation who will live without the survivors themselves. The passing of the generation that experienced the atrocities of the Shoah, or of any genocidal war, leaves those who follow them with two profound challenges. First, we must acknowledge that continuing to remember as we have for the last 70 years will become increasingly impossible without the presence of the survivors themselves.
Second, to appreciate the opportunity we now have, precisely because we ourselves were not the primary victims, and to remember those past hurts in ways that not only maintain our connection with the past, but help us build a better future. Kristallnacht offers a real opportunity to ask ourselves about the memory choices we make, whether in our personal lives or the lives of the communities and countries we call home. Admittedly for some, the wounds of the Shoah are too deep and fresh. But for someone like me, a fourth generation American Jew with no family that I know of affected in the Shoah, how should we remember? Will we remember past hurts in ways that bind us to the pain and constrain our ability to move forward, or in ways that recall the suffering, even as they celebrate the new futures born of them? Perhaps now is the time to move beyond remembering how our glass was broken and begin to break our own glasses as a reminder that we are much more than victims. Perhaps now is the time to make choices about remembering the past in ways that not only recall what happened in the past, but contribute to our ability to create a better future.
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is the editor of Remember for Life: Holocaust Survivors´ Stories of Faith and Hope, and is the President of CLAL—The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.