Kristallnacht was “the spark that ignited the Holocaust,” according to Consul General of Israel to the Midwest Roey Gilad.
That description was also printed on the program cover for the Chicago area’s Kristallnacht commemoration held Monday, Nov. 9 in Skokie.
One other sentence on the program cover read: “We promise to remember, we promise never to forget.”
Hundreds of people packed the North Shore Center For the Performing Arts Monday to do just that — to remember Nov. 9, 1938, to never forget that somber date in history.
The commemoration ceremony was sponsored by the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center, the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
“We are commemorating today 77 years since Kristallnacht,” Gilad said. “This event, more than any other event, symbolized the beginning of the Holocaust.”
As recounted by Gilad and others, Kristallnacht was a flashpoint of violence against Jews in Germany where synagogues were burned, stores were vandalized and looted, hundreds of Jews were assassinated and thousands were sent to concentration camps.
Kristallnacht translates to “night of broken glass” because of the vandalism and the outbreak of violence resulting in shattered glass that could be seen on the ground.
Monday’s commemoration alternated between spoken words and the voices of cantors and choirs singing mostly quiet and somber music.
“Seventy-seven years later, we remember the horror, we remember the stories, and most of all, we remember what came next,” said Gov. Bruce Rauner in a message displayed on a large screen on stage.
“We must never forget that in a place where democracy once flourished, the capitol of European intellectualism, even there, the greatest evil of human history was able to emerge,” Rauner said.
In addition to Gilad, the ceremony was attended by the consul general of Turkey and a representative of the consul general of Germany as well as elected leaders and dignitaries. A representative for Chicago Superintendent of Police Garry McCarthy also spoke.
“It’s often the case that we think we know all there is to know about these events,” said historian Dr. Robert Watson, an author and professor of American studies at Lynn University in Florida. “Great scholars have devoted their lives to studying them. For 70 years we have been writing about it … But as a historian, I submit there is more we don’t know.”
According to Watson, a lot of the “soft parts” of history have disappeared, a lot of the true humanity that lay behind the harder facts.
What makes us distinctly human, he said — “the love letters, the poetry, the musical scores, the games children played” — are mostly gone.
“For us to truly capture the essence of these events, we have to breathe this life into them and try to capture as many stories as possible,” Watson said. “And there’s much work left to be done.”
Sandra Blair and Wendy Heiman-Nunes told one of those stories as they remembered their father who died at age 94 last December.
A Holocaust survivor and first-hand witness to the events of Kristallnacht, Jack Heiman actively raised funds for many Jewish and non-Jewish causes including the creation of the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center, his daughters said.
“While we were blessed with so many years,” said Blair, “we miss him more than you can imagine. For those of you who did not know him, our father was an authentic, compassionate, kind, loving and decent man.”
Born in 1928, Hellman was an only child in Germany. He revered his parents. Jewish and Christian cattle dealers and farmers worked side by side in the town in which he lived before his life turned upside down, his daughters said.
“Then came the night that would forever change our dad’s life and that of millions of other Jews,” Blair said. “Nov. 9, 1938.”
“The soul-piercing violence of this night, the broken windows, the burning of the Torahs, the destruction of the synagogues so filled with cherished memories, shattered our dad’s life,” Blair said. “And shattered any remaining sense of safety on the part of Jews throughout Europe.”
Heiman and his immediate family somehow survived, making it safely to the United States to begin new lives.
“Like many of the fortunate survivors, our dad seized the opportunity presented by this forced exit from his beloved homeland,” Heiman-Nunes said.
His daughters said he went on to serve as a sergeant in the U.S. Air Force in World War II and then built a successful handicraft business. More importantly, they said, he gave back.
“He never, ever forgot the generosity of his parents and his aunts and his uncles and of (those) who saved his life and so many others,” Heiman-Nunes said.
To his daughters, Nov. 9 is a special day; the Kristallnacht commemorations have become their dad’s way of saying to all people “wake up.”
“For those of you who knew my dad, Heiman-Nunes said, “you could hear him say this: ‘Wake up. Let the memory of shattering glass and devastated lives wake you up from passivity. If we forget, we may be doomed to repeat. Wake up. Wake up to your blessings. Listen to what is happening to those around you, those less fortunate around you. Give back.'”