As hate crimes rise, Merrick temple recalls Kristallnacht
It was the start of Hanukkah, and 5-year-old Isaac Schnitzer had placed a menorah in his bedroom window in Billings, Mont., to celebrate the Jewish holiday.
Suddenly, a large cinder block crashed through the window, shattering the glass and destroying the menorah.
The incident was one of several aimed at Jews, African-Americans, and American Indians in Billings in the early 1990s. But instead of shrinking in fear, the community fought back - led by Isaac's mother, Tammie Schnitzer, who is on Long Island this week to talk about combating hate as the world marks the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the beginning of the Holocaust.
A Billings newspaper published a picture of a menorah, and before long some 10,000 of the pictures were displayed in the windows of homes and businesses in the city of 80,000 people, Schnitzer said. Residents took other actions, massing inside an African-American church to show solidarity and painting over slurs spray-painted onto the house of a local American Indian.
The Billings community demonstrated "a beautiful response to extremism," Schnitzer said in an interview.
Schnitzer spoke Tuesday night at the Merrick Jewish Center at an event commemorating the anniversary of Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass. On Nov. 8 and 9, 1938, Nazis throughout Germany and parts of Austria killed dozens of Jews, burned more than 200 synagogues and prayer rooms and rounded up some 30,000 people they sent to concentration camps.
Rabbi Charles Klein of the Merrick Jewish Center said the synagogue invited Schnitzer to speak Tuesday night and Monday at the synagogue's Hebrew school because racial, ethnic and religious hatred is growing nationally and locally.
"We see a ratcheting up of hatred based upon any number of factors," Klein said. "We see people on Long Island who are different who have wound up dead," he added, referring to Ecuadorean immigrant Marcelo Lucero, killed in Patchogue in 2008 in a hate crime.
"It is time for more people to take a stand that would stop some of this," he added. "No one stepped forward to stop Hitler and to stop Nazism, and the result was the worst chapter in all of history."
Schnitzer has given talks around the country, was part of the inspiration for a TV movie, and was appointed by President Bill Clinton to a hate crimes advisory committee. She said the Jewish community in Billings initially wanted to hide the attacks that were taking place against it, but eventually realized they had to go public and fight back.
"Hate truly was dividing my community," she said. But "the Billings story has a message for everybody. No, you can't eliminate fear and you can't eliminate fear-based problems. But you can create a platform to discuss it and to educate people. To talk about it is so much better than to hide it."