Sweeping away the broken glass

Today is the 79th anniversary of Kristallnacht — the Night of Broken Glass, the start of the Holocaust.

On Nov. 9, 1938, Hedi McKinley was 18 years old, an only child living with her parents, poor storekeepers, in Vienna, Austria.

“We had heard rumblings about what was going on in Germany,” said McKinley. “But my father was a World War I veteran. We felt ridiculously safe.”

Her father, Karl Faludi, had been wounded, taken by the Russians, and spent four years as a prisoner of war in Siberia. “In 1918, they had just opened the doors and said, ‘Go.’” He’d walked home to Austria, over 1,000 miles.

“It took him a year to get home. I was born a year after that,” said McKinley.

Adolf Hitler annexed Austria in March 1938. “Jews became hunted,” said McKinley. “My family lost their store right away. There was a big sign, saying, ‘Don’t buy from Jews’ … Everybody lost their livelihood.”

“On November 9, Kristallnacht, our apartment was taken away … It was 10 degrees below zero, extremely cold. Two young boys, about 16 years old, came and knocked at our door and said, ‘Out!’ We were on the streets. They let us take nothing. We were out on the streets without our winter coats.”

McKinley is 97 now. She considers herself lucky to have managed to get to England, and then the United States, eventually bringing her parents with her.

She will be featured with other Holocaust survivors in a ceremony on Tuesday, Nov. 14, at 7 p.m. at the University at Albany’s Page Hall, the 25th Kristallnacht Interfaith Commemoration.

Shelly Shapiro, director of the Holocaust Survivors and Friends Education Center, is the force behind the commemoration. “It’s an effort to bring everyone together, to stand together against prejudice,” Shapiro said.

“Prejudice leads to genocide,” she went on. “What you can do to protect our country is to fight bigotry.”

Shapiro also said, “The other half of the story about hatred today is this is not new. But because of all the different media, everything is louder. It seems to get you from all sides. The haters have gotten a louder voice but they don’t dominate this country.”

A former teacher, Shapiro talks to students who come to the center. She shows them a picture of herself, standing with recipients from across the country, each the winner of an FBI award for community leadership. “It’s a diverse group,” she notes. “That’s what we are. Every kind of person you can imagine lives in this country … We are not represented by those voices of hate.”

Each year, as part of the commemoration, a free movie is shown about “people who took in Jews when they would have been murdered … You learn that you stand up,” said Shapiro.  This year’s film is “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” which tells the story of Antonina Zabinski and her husband, Jan, keepers of the Warsaw Zoo who saved 300 Jews by hiding them at the zoo at a time when helping a Jew was punishable by death.

“If you see prejudice, stand up … That’s the lesson from the past,” said Shapiro.

We wholeheartedly endorse her message.

Representatives of many faiths — Roman Catholic, Protestant, Baha’i, Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, and Sikh — will be part of the Kristallnacht commemoration. One of the representatives is Dr. Paul Uppal, the executive secretary of the Guru Nanak Darbar Sikh Temple in Niskayuna, which serves about 300 families in the Capital Region. Most of the world’s 30 million Sikhs live in Northern India where the religion was founded about 600 years ago.

At around the time Columbus sailed for America, Guru Nanak founded Sikhism in northern India, where Hinduism and Islam were the major religions, said Uppal. “He was a Hindu but he rejected polytheism. And he questioned the gender inequality in Islam. He thought we needed a synthesis of faith.”

Uppal summed up the tenets of Sikhism this way: “Pray to God, believe in one god without idol worship. Believe in gender equality — that was a novel concept at the time; he dared to say women and men should be completely equal … Our central tenet is: All religions are good. What’s important is how to live your daily life. … Muslims and Christians are in the conversion business. We do not convert people.”

He also said, “We have no position on abortion … the gurus are silent on that issue. Our faith rests basically on equality, fighting for justice, one god without idol worship. We have no statues, no monuments, no pictures in the temple. We pray to our holy scripture.”

The Sikhs, too, were hunted down and killed. “They were severely persecuted by Islamic dictators … not unlike the Jewish persecution, about to extinction,” said Uppal.

Uppal, like other Sikh men, wears a beard and a turban. “That was initiated by our Tenth Guru in the 1600s … He wanted to create a physical identity, so as not to be oppressed anonymously.” The Tenth Guru’s message was: “We won’t hide our identity. If you want to kill us, go ahead,” said Uppal.

Since the 2016 presidential campaign in the United States, “The social climate has been very toxic,” said Uppal. “We use our congregation to spread love.”

Uppall spoke passionately about a group his temple belongs to, Schenectady Clergy Against Hate, which, similar to the ceremony Shapiro has organized in remembrance of Kristallnacht, includes members from many faith traditions.

Asked about non-believers or atheists, Uppal said, “We don’t have any barriers … There is a case to be made: God is not really doing a very good job — scientifically, I can appreciate that argument.”

He also said, “It’s better not to believe than to believe and not obey the tenets. It’s better not to be hypocritical. Whatever you do, be true to yourself … Who are we to judge?”

Hedi McKinley’s ebullient spirit transcends the brutality she and her family suffered at the hands of the Nazis. She shares her story to enlighten others. She does not know what happened to her parents from the time she left Vienna to the time they were reunited in England. “The topic was so difficult and so heart-breaking, we never discussed it,” she said. “We took the attitude to look to the future.”

McKinley credits her father for her own indomitable spirit. Despite his hardships, he always had an infectious laugh. When he came to this country, she said, he’d be given free movie tickets because the theater manager liked to spread laughter throughout the audience.

McKinley herself says she became a social worker — she had originally planned to be a doctor — because of what she experienced during the Holocaust. For years, she wrote a column, “Mental Health Notes,” for The Altamont Enterprise with practical advice for solving life’s problems.

“I wanted to do something worthwhile,” she said of becoming a social worker.

The lesson she takes from the Holocaust is this: “I have become a very strong anti-religion advocate. It’s insane to hunt down people because they believe in a different god than you do. People have been killed by the millions because of religion … Religion has done more evil and caused more death and destruction ... It seems nuts to me.”

So we urge the religious and the non-religious alike to revere the human spirit and the uniqueness of each one of us. We are, as Shapiro said, a diverse nation. Prejudice against any of us reduces all of us.

Kristallnacht is a good time to reflect on this.

Whenever any of us sees a sign of hatred — a painted swastika or a Confederate flag — or whenever we hear a slight to someone who is vulnerable — a person with disabilities or a poor or homeless person — or to someone who is unlike us — of a different race or religion or ethnicity or gender identity — we should speak up.

We are reminded of the oft-repeated thought expressed by Martin Niemoller, a Protestant pastor in Germany, a critic of Hitler who was put in concentration camps for the last seven years of Nazi rule.

“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist,” Niemoller said. “Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.”

 

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