Midshipman Arlen Aspenson was wiping out more than grime as he swabbed fresh paint over the walls at an Annapolis homeless shelter yesterday.
The Jewish youth was symbolically reversing the Nazi terrors that occurred 53 years ago this month -- and at the same time, honoring the armed forces that protect against violations of freedom.
"This (past) weekend is the anniversary of Kristallnacht, with all its destruction to the Jewish people in Germany and Austria," said Aspenson, 20.
During the weekend of Nov. 9 and 10 in 1938, Nazis burned and destroyed Jewish homes and synagogues in Germany and Austria. The damage was so extensive the event became known as Kristallnacht, or the Night of the Broken Glass.
"We're trying to do somethingconstructive to respond in a small way to that evil, that violation of freedom of religion, to make a difference," said Aspenson.
The purpose of "Project Healing," as the repair work was dubbed, was to strengthen society on the historic anniversary of a day when society was torn apart, the young man said.
He and about a dozen other midshipmen, Catholics and Protestants as well as Jews, remembered Kristallnacht -- and celebrated Veterans Day -- by volunteering at The Helping Hand, a shelter for homeless men and women.
As they laid plum-colored carpeting, moved furniture and painted walls at the oldest shelter in the county, they talked about the weekend in 1938 when Nazi storm troopers and sympathizers rampaged against the Jewish community.
"From the Jewish perspective, we are in a small way trying to build up society, historically responding to what happened so long ago,"says Rabbi Albert Slomovitz, a chaplain at the Naval Academy who organized the event.
"I don't know if that's really possible, historically, but symbolically it's very important to do that."
The day was made more meaningful because it fell on Veterans Day, said midshipman Ben Buring.
"Where other people tore down, we want to build up," said Buring. For the 19-year-old, the day's significance extended to the fact that as military men, the midshipmen could remind the public of the meaning of Veterans Day, of the importance of the militaryas a tool to help preserve civil rights.
His father, a doctor andlieutenant commander, had arrived back in Boston after serving in Vietnam to be spat upon and called a baby killer, Buring said.
"I don't think the public is as disgruntled as it once was with the military," he added, "but this is a chance for us to remind each other of what this day really means, and the freedoms for which American servicemen have died."
Asked Slomovitz, rhetorically: "What do we do on Veterans Day? For the most part, nothing. This project allows us to remember that our veterans were and are fighting for those basic constitutional freedoms we all enjoy."
In Nazi Germany, those freedoms simply didn't exist, continues Slomovitz. Society had broken down. That makes Kristallnacht more than simply a Jewish tragedy, says the rabbi, a lieutenant commander.
"It's really a societal event: This is what society can turn into when these basic freedoms are taken away, a night of shattered glass when police stood by and even assisted the atrocities, pointing out synagogues and homes to the rioters."
Many historians see Kristallnacht as the transitional phase from the existence of anti-Jewish laws in Germany to the actual death camp.
"The reaction of the world (to Kristallnacht) was fairly tepid, and so it continued," Slomovitz says.
Kristallnacht and Veterans Day will always be linked by the calendar, but to the rabbi, they should also be linked philosophically.
"Something should be done to show our respect for our basic freedoms," he says. "We cannot be the neighbors who stood by while homes and synagogues were burnt. By working inthe shelter, we are in some way reaffirming our democracy at its most basic level."
Visiting military bases or taking part in social projects or inter-faith ventures, anything that symbolizes our Bill ofRights, can help us appreciate those freedoms, Slomovitz suggests.
He recommends that people remember Veterans Day this week by helping fix up a church or synagogue or registering people to vote.
"Anything that takes us from passive observance to active participation in this holiday will help us appreciate what we have," Slomovitz says.