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Broken Glass, White Bull – an extract from Howard Goldenberg’s latest book, “Raft”

August 16, 2009 – 2:00 pm11 Comments

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by Howard Goldenberg

On November 9, 1938, Heinrich Korn is nine years old.

William Cooper is 77 years old.

Shaike Snir has not yet been born.

Heinrich Korn and his family are proud Germans. Heinrich’s father is proud to serve his Kaiser and his Fatherland in World War I. Heinrich (nowadays, Henri) says he only ever begins to feel his Jewishness in the autumn of 1938, when he is excluded from his school in Wupertal-Elberfeld because he is not Aryan. At this moment, the Nazi government creates Henri the Jew.

***

At 11.00 o’clock on the night of November 9, Henri is awakened by noises from the street. He joins his parents at the window and witnesses unimagined scenes of savagery. Below, by the pagan light of flickering torches, throngs of their fellow citizens, normally reserved and formal people, are cheering and singing wildly.

Henri sees uniforms, ordinary householders, gangs of youths. He hears sounds of crashing and the endless splintering of glass. In the moments between the sounds of destruction he can make out some of the singing: ‘Let the blood flow!’

On all sides in the crowd there is a hideous joy.

From the hallway below them, Heinrich and his parents can feel the thump of approaching booted feet. The footsteps come up the stairs and reach their first-floor landing. Heinrich sees his parents, ‘grey with fear.’ The footsteps stop at the Korn threshold. Then they hear a woman’s voice ring out, harsh and urgent: ’The Korns are decent people, good Germans, of good character!’

All sound stops. After long seconds of silence the boots clatter down the stairs.

The voice belongs to their neighbour, Frau Lewitzki, previously no friend to the Korns. Frau Lewitzki has two sons, both members of the S.S. It is they who have given their mother forewarning of the ‘spontaneous’ demonstration. It appears that neither the local Nazis nor the Lewitzki sons have noticed how similar their Polish surname is to Levi, Levitzki, and other Jewish names.

***

A friend and classmate of Henri Korn, Leo Trosky, dies during Kristallnacht: when the mob invades the Trosky flat, Leo’s parents fight back, the mob seizes them and flings them through the window to their death below. Then they take hold of the child and throw him too, to die on the pavement, a nestling flung from its nest.

Early in the morning of November 10, Henri Korn creeps into the street to a scene that ‘mere words cannot describe.’ Some seventy years later, Henri tells me he cannot speak of it without losing his composure: ‘The streets were littered with smashed furniture and thousands of shards of glass… candelabra, brassware, cutlery, bed linen. An upright piano!

Dwellings had been ransacked, women were weeping and men were wandering around aimlessly…

One image haunted me: an old grandfather clock, split in two by an axe-wielding maniac.

How strange that we had been spared the horror, thanks to the intervention of Frau Lewitzki.’

‘Later I slipped out again. In the city centre, people were in a state of great excitement as the synagogue was burning… I ran towards it with all speed…

A large crowd was milling around, mostly working-class women, dressed in their blue aprons, whom I remember as being big and fat. Their faces were twisted with hatred… they waved their fists, screaming “Get rid of the Jews!”

A woman was attempting to salvage the Torah scrolls and a torch was thrown at her, setting her clothes alight.

People laughed and applauded at a human in flames.’

‘Suddenly one woman looked down at me and exclaimed, “This boy is a Jew. I know his face!”

Immediately six heads swivelled and their eyes stared menacingly down at me. I fell on my knees and crawled among the many legs, managing to escape. I was shaking and hid under a bench, expecting to be pursued by an angry mob but nobody came. The burning synagogue must have offered a much greater attraction.’

‘Apparently those efforts to burn the synagogue down failed that afternoon, so the evening brought the experts, who eventually managed to destroy it. The next day, 11 November, I was drawn to see the ruins… and the gutters of nearby streets were littered with hundreds of torn fragments of Torah scrolls.

For days after, cold and blustery north winds dispersed the Hebrew-inscribed remnants across the city.’

Henri stops. He comes back to the quiet and complacent peace of Selwyn Street in Elsternwick. In his beautiful diction, he explains: ’You know we Germans felt utterly abandoned by the world of civilized people. Some American Jews – not many – a few twittered in protest.

American public opinion was hostile and Jews were  cowed.

In Britain, Oswald Moseley was describing Kristallnacht as “a necessary event”, needed to teach Jews a lesson.

From Australia there was silence. Only William Cooper and his League acted.’

At the Jewish Holocaust Museum, Henri shows me the plaque that reads:

The Jewish Holocaust Museum and Research Centre honours the Aboriginal people for their action protesting against the persecution of Jews by the Nazi Government of Germany in 1938.

Nearby a photograph shows Heinrich Korn embracing a great-nephew of William Cooper.

***

In Mebourne, William Cooper reads the sketchy reports of Kristallnacht in the newspapers and he acts: together with Bill Onus, he organizes and leads a protest by the Australian Aborigines League to the German Consulate in Melbourne.

William Cooper is the son of an Aboriginal woman and a white Australian father. He is thus a ‘half-caste’ in the classification of humans that obtains in his own country and in Germany; he is not good enough to live in the mainstream.

Being of mixed blood, Cooper must be civilized and Christianized. He is taken from his home to a mission. There he reads the Bible and absorbs ideas of the equal value of all humans in the eyes of their Creator. He reads too of another people, dispossessed, dispersed and humiliated, and sees his people’s experiences in the in the same light as those of the Jewish people.

Cooper’s fellow protestor, Bill Onus, is another early Aboriginal activist; his son and grandson become  recognized urban Aboriginal artists.

The Onus grandson, Tiriki, works in close collaboration with Shaike Snir, an Israeli Aussie artist, art patron and entrepreneur, eccentric and activist.

***

Henri Korn and Shaike Snir are contrasting individuals. Henri is a neat man, formal even in his weekend clothes, considered of utterance. He gives birth to his words with careful deliberation from behind the bushes of his Bismarck moustache. His speech is dignified, precise as a physicist’s.

Shaike Snir is picturesque stringbean of a man with the beard of a prepubertal billy goat; informal, intimate and intense in utterance, he is a deadly serious joker.

After meeting the Onus family in 1989, Shaike engages endlessly with indigenous people and causes. His medium and his milieu are those of the artist. In 1995, together with two other Jewish painters, Shaike makes a pilgrimage to Mistake Creek in the Kimberley. It was here in the 1930’s – in the same historic moment as the massacres of Kristallnacht – that a massacre occurred of Aborigines.

A cow belonging to a pastoralist had gone missing; local tribespeople were suspected; children and women were rounded up and shot.

Later that day the cow wandered back.

It was a mistake.

When Shaike arrives he makes a gift to the local people. It is an art work of his own making, a white bull, echoing both the cow of the mistake and Picasso’s great painting of modern barbarism, Guernica. This is Snir’s act of Teshuvah and Zikharon, at once contrition and memorial.

He asks Hector Gandalay, a local leader – himself a painter – whether he can forgive the massacre.  If I do not forgive, says Gandalay, the evil spirit will take me.

Later, Shaike recruits painters and sculptors from around Australia to contribute to a large-scale touring exhibition on themes of memory and contrition. He calls the show ‘The White Bull’.

Snir does not rest, does not disengage, creating work after work on the theme of the white bull and the red heifer (an enigmatic sacrifice stipulated in the Old Testament for symbolic penance following sin); and working to this day with Tiriki Onus on a major project, recalling Bill Onus and his Kristallnacht protest.

As Shaike observes: Tiriki and I are good friends. Consider the racial elements: Tiriki is one quarter Aboriginal. His mother, Jo, is German, so he is half German. Tiriki is Aboriginal, I am a white man, a Gadya. Tiriki is German, I am Jewish.

***

My nineteen year old son is playing pool in a rough pub in inner suburban Melbourne, his customary kippah (skullcap) on his head. An Aboriginal man stares at him. At length, the Aboriginal weaves a path towards him and speaks: “You’re a Jew, aren’t you?”

Ready for anything, my son replies:”Yes, I am.”

“Well, us mob gotta learn from you mob.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean – you mob, you got your land back, you got your culture, you got our pride.

We gotta be like that.”

© Copyright Howard Goldenberg

Howard is the author of the sellout memoir, My Father’s Compass (Hybrid 2007, 2008). He is a GP who has made fifty working visits to outback communities. His new book, Raft (Hybrid 2009), tells the story of a doctor in a yarmulke who enters Aboriginal Australia. Raft is a reflection on what he sees, feels and learns; and how this sits with being a comfortable, white, middle-class Jewish citizen of Australia. Raft and My Father’s Compass both feature at the Melbourne Writers Festival (Aug 20-30, 2009).

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