#19: Broken Swastikas: The Shared Burden of History (Rabbi Joseph Edelheit & Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman)

Rabbi Zimmerman talks with Temple Israel’s former Senior Rabbi Joseph Edelheit about his most unusual donation to Temple Israel: a swastika. In its original context, it was one of five hakenkreuze (broken crosses) that adorned the St. Mary’s Cathedral in St. Cloud. Rabbi Edelheit shares the story of the interfaith collaboration that led to the removal of these swastikas, and how the Jewish community must remain committed to dialogue across difference. Please subscribe to TEMPLE TALKS and review the show. Comments and questions can be directed to TMoss@TempleIsrael.com. Talk with us! An excerpt from this week’s Temple Talks follows below.
An edited excerpt from this week’s Temple Talks follows below. 

Rabbi Zimmerman

We wanted to talk today about the swastika that you just sent to temple. And I opened it up recently and I guess I didn't expect my reaction to be so visceral. Not only is it a swastika, but there's wheat hanging out of it. It looks so innocent and yet it isn't.

So tell us the story of the swastikas, how you worked so hard to get them removed, and the whole St. Cloud story around the swastikas.

Rabbi Edelheit

They were on the outside of the building of St. Mary's cathedral in downtown St. Cloud.  The cathedral burnt to the ground and was rebuilt between 1927 and 1931. They used the plans of a third century cathedral Basilica in Rome. It had hakenkreuze, the broken cross, represented on five stone circular frames, and you're correct with wheat. These were on the upper part of the outside of the building. And they remained on the building, but now they were not hakenkreuze. They were swastikas because the swastika became the universally known recognized symbol of the national socialists after 1935. 

I want to make sure no one misunderstands the Catholic church did not put up swastikas. They put up a third century of the common era, old, old pre-medieval Christian symbol called the broken cross. That same symbol—used by Hindus and used by native Americans—became swastikas once the national socialists took over.

Rabbi Zimmerman

That is so important.

Rabbi Edelheit

When I retired from Temple Israel, I took a position at St. Cloud State, which was a part of a settlement of a tragic federal class action lawsuit, Zamora et al, where a group of faculty sued the single campus St. Cloud State and the state university system over allegations of antisemitism in employment practice.

That case was not litigated but settled. As part of the settlement, $1.5 million was set aside to create a Jewish presence on the St. Cloud State campus. Ari Zmora, an Israeli, was the named plaintiff in this suit. He brought Israeli television to St. Cloud and they televised the hakenkreuze swastikas on the church. So, Minnesota has Catholic churches with swastikas.  

There were a group of activists, professors from the human relations department who would take their students down to the church to protest these swastikas.

When your friend Joseph Edelheit was hired, one of the first things they asked is, can you do something about the swastikas? So I went and, as you well know, I knocked on the door and became friends with the priest, the rector of the cathedral. No one had ever talked to the priest or met with the parish council.

I established a relationship with him and he said, “apologetically and with shame, we know they have to come down. The parish has grown very small. We can no longer afford to replace them, take them down and replace them. We want to, but we can't do it anymore. How much will it take? He gave me a number.”

I made a few calls and raised 80% of it for him, from members of the Jewish community. He raised the rest. What was important was he invited me to teach a class to his church. It was the first time he had ever been in dialogue with a rabbi. They then planned and had five new outside pendants made to meet the standards of Rome and the hakenkreuze were taken down. I was given one of them as a gift for helping remove it.

I was also invited to participate in the service where the new pendants were sanctified by the Bishop. I was the first non-Christian ever to be asked to preach in the cathedral of St. Mary. 

Rabbi Zimmerman

So what did you say? What did you say to the congregation? 

Rabbi Edelheit

I talked to them about what it means to bear the burden of history.

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