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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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11 Comments »

  • frosh says:

    Wow, this is a really great excerpt.

    In my mind, it raises two very different points.

    1) In relation to Henri and his family feeling German prior to the 1930s, I feel this is a story that would have re-occurred several times in Jewish history. For example, I think prior to the Spanish inquisition, Jews would have felt as much a part of the Spanish kingdom as their Christian neighbours. The real question is, where and when will this reoccur next?

    2) Not wishing to get too political, but it is interesting that many of the people who would support indigenous land rights in Australia (as I do) are unwilling to support the same principle for indigenous Jewish land rights in the Land of Israel.

  • Haha, what!? Indigenous Jewish land rights in Israel? :-)

    Are you aware that, for around 1500 years, there was virtually no Jewish presence in the land of Israel at all? Are you aware that the only people here to have lost their homes are Palestinians? Are you aware that the Palestinians are now living under occupation? I have no idea what sort of Jewish land rights you’re referring to, but whatever there is, it’s pretty paltry when compared to the real suffering that’s going on in this country.

  • frosh says:

    Hi Simon,

    It looks like you may be a prime example of the type of people I was referring to in point (2) of my above comment.

    Of course that assumes you support Indigenous land rights in Australia… do you?
    (please answer, this is not a rhetorical question)

    In response to your comments:

    “Are you aware that, for around 1500 years, there was virtually no Jewish presence in the land of Israel at all?”

    – Which 1500 year period precisely are you referring to? Who was the demographic historian who provided you with your information? Mahmoud Abbas?

    “Are you aware that the only people here to have lost their homes are Palestinians?”

    – I am not aware of this, because the implicit statement is obviously false. Clearly Palestinians are not the only people to have lost homes. If you make the slightest effort, you will discover that your statement is ridiculous. In the 20th century, both Palestinians and Jews have lost their homes. You will also find that Jews lost their homes prior to the 20th century.
    (I note that this paragraph is a little confusing because the term “Palestinian” underwent a radical change in definition in the latter part of 20th century – I have tried to use the term as it is has been used since this change in definition).

    “I have no idea what sort of Jewish land rights you’re referring to…”

    – I was referring to consistency of the general principle that Jews having a right to live in Israel with the principle of indigenous land rights. For years, Jews in Europe were insulted by their European neighbours with “Go back to Palestine!” Now the descendents of these neighbours insult Jews with “Get out of Palestine!” Have you now internalised this late 20th century insult?

    I look forward to your reply to my question on your attitude toward Indigenous land rights. Mostly, I hope our comments will attract people to read Howard’s excellent excerpt, which is far less political than our conversation.

  • Jews in Europe, for years, were treated as second-class citizens (although it’s not true that they were specifically told all the time to move to Palestine), and now there are many equally stupid people who tell the Jews that they have to go back to Europe and America, and so forth. I’m not really sure what this proves, when you consider that the overwhelmingly massive bulk of the Jews living in Israel today came from Europe or America or other Arab countries. I therefore have to ask you again: What indigenous land rights are you referring to?? Does it relate to the idea that, two thousand years ago, we had ancestors who planted seeds on this patch of earth? So what? The Palestinians here can still point to where their parents homes used to be! How can those two phenomena even be equated?

    I don’t need to answer your question about Aboriginal land rights because it’s not relevant to what you then went on to say about the land rights of indigenous Jews in Israel. I am well aware of the fact that Jews have maintained a presence in the land of Israel, but I don’t need to listen to Abbas in order to know that their presence here was minimal until the end of the 19th century. This is beyond dispute. I am simply disputing your implicit assertion that people who pick up and move to Israel have more of a claim to the land (by virtue of their birth) than do those who, you know, actually lived in it.

  • frosh says:

    Hi Simon,

    You write

    “It’s not true that they were specifically told all the time to move to Palestine.”

    I never said “all the time” – resorting to straw man arguments is unnecessary.

    Furthermore, the propensity to make sweeping statements without any evidence is not a virtue.

    To the extent that Jewish population in the Land of Israel was small until the 19th century, one could say the same for Palestinians (again, it is confusing, as this term has undergone a radical definition change, and there was no Palestinian Arab national identity until far later in history).

    I asked you a simple yes/no question about indigenous land rights, and even this you refuse to answer. It is entirely relevant to my original comment to which you took issue with. Given that you will not even answer a yes/no question, it shows that you are unwilling to have a conversation, but would rather issue a series of monologues. As such, there is no need to continue with this false ‘dialogue.’

  • Well, I’m pleased that we are able to agree on something.

  • Jon says:

    I find the above exchange interesting.

    On the one hand, the situation in Israel is different to Australian aboriginals in the sense that Jews were returning to their ancestral home after 1500 years and not continually living on the land (except for a relatively small, but important presence), something fairly unique (I can’t think of another example of a people returning to its land after being exiled hundreds of years beforehand). On the otherhand, to say that Jews have no rights simply because they left some time ago, ignores that Eretz Yisrael has been a central component of Rabbinic and Halachick discourse well beyond the exile to today. In short, it has always been a central part of Jewish consciousness.

    Whilst the idea of a Palestinian people largely emerged as a response to the Zionist enterprise in the early 1900’s (that’s Benny Morris’s view), there is no question that they had a strong attachment to the land, and constituted the majority of the population in Israel/Palestine up to 1948.

    In truth, both Israelis and Palestinians have connections to the land, and denying each others attachments is silly.

  • frosh says:

    Hi John,

    I am essentially in agreement with you that “both Israelis and Palestinians have connections to the land, and denying each others attachments is silly” as well as your overall comment.

    Just to clarify, in 1947 (according to official UN figures) Jews were a clear majority in the area in the land assigned to the Jewish state under the UN partition plan, and Arabs were a clear majority in the assigned to an Arab state under that same plan.

  • Jon,

    What you say is very true, and I wouldn’t consider denying the attachment to the land that is felt by Israelis. Israelis not only have a right to live here, but the land belongs to them in the truest sense. To suggest, however, that it belongs to all Jews is a fundamentally mistaken perspective. The fact that our ancestors lived here, once upon a time, does not give us an automatic right to uproot people from their homes and move into them ourselves. I am currently writing from Jerusalem where, I am sorry to say, such a thing is happening as we speak. The local authorities, in an effort to “unify Jerusalem”, are forcibly ejecting Palestinians from their properties and moving Jews into the vacated lots.

    I find it distressing that a Jew from NYC, or from Melbourne, might consider themselves to be possessed of the same claim to this land as the Palestinians have, and to be so blasé about “reclaiming” it. That is not an attack against Frosh – I’m not suggesting that he is so stupid as to believe something like that – but it’s an argument that I hear time and again from people whose sole connection to Judaism is a misplaced nationalism.

    Both Israelis and Palestinians have an equal claim to this land: you put that very well. Let’s hope the government appreciates that, the next time they’re trying to figure out where to put some Israeli immigrants.

  • Jon says:

    Frosh – yes I agree Jews were the clear majority in the land assigned to the Jews by the UN in 1947. I was essentially referring to the whole land – ie – Israel, West Bank, Gaza.

    Simon – I strongly agree with you re: your comments “the fact that our ancestors lived here, once upon a time, does not give us an automatic right to uproot people from their homes and move into them ourselves”. Obviously, due legal process must be observed, and someone can’t just pop up on a hilltop with a caravan and claim its my property, without actually legally owning it.

  • Joe in Australia says:

    Simon Holloway wrote: Palestinians here can still point to where their parents homes used to be! How can those two phenomena even be equated?

    You’re accepting the Palestinian narrative uncritically. Some Palestinians can certainly do this; others are relatively recent immigrants who were born elsewhere. Yasser Arafat, for instance, that late doyen of the Palestinians, was actually born in Cairo.

    My main objection to the Palestinian blood-and-soil narrative is that civil rights shouldn’t depend on where your parents or grandparents were born. But if you’re going to advance that argument then you need to recognise that there was massive Arab immigration to the region, just as there was Jewish immigration. In fact, the Palestinian National Covenant defines Arabs as Palestinians if they lived in now-Israel before 1947 (Jews are deemed “Palestinians” if they lived there “before the Zionist invasion”, which I expect means no later than the late 1800s). Simply assuming that an Arab in Israel is “native” while a Jew is an interloper is the shallowest sort of racism.

    I could pick away at your counterfactual historical statements, such as the blindingly-false claim that “for around 1500 years, there was virtually no Jewish presence in the land of Israel at all” or that “the only people here to have lost their homes are Palestinians” because I can’t see that they are relevant, either way. Israel has been around for 64 years now; there are undoubtedly people alive right now whose great-great-grandparents migrated to the State of Israel. It’s time to recognise that people displaced from Israel at that time no longer have recognisable ties to the area, just as people displaced from Pakistan, or Bangladesh, or the Sudetenland, or any of the other population movements of the time – most of which which were far, far larger.

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