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April 17, 2014 / 17 Nisan, 5774
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Kristallnacht: A Family Recollection

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Seventy-five years ago on November 10 the Nazis unleashed a wave of terror, destruction and death known as Kristallnacht upon Germany’s Jews, a fearsome presage of the Holocaust. On that day, the childhood of my then-12-year-old father, Kurt Lion, of blessed memory, was abruptly and savagely ended.

As he later would tell me, November 10 dawned for him “like any other day and we had no idea of what was about to befall us.” Anti-Semitic rhetoric and laws had been incrementally inflicted on Jews since Hitler’s ascent to power in 1933. Under the 1935 Nuremburg laws, Jews were expelled from “Aryan” public schools. My father and other Jewish children from his farming region were forced to commute to a Jewish school in the market town of Freiburg. He found himself in frequent fights with bullies, and quickly learned to stand up for himself.

On that November 10, my father as usual took the train to Freiburg for the 10-mile journey. Leaving the train, he heard a raucous mob and saw a pall of thick smoke. Curious, he walked closer to the burning building and was horrified by what he saw. A crowd had gathered before Freiburg’s synagogue and was applauding as flames consumed the building. Firemen stood idly by their trucks, smirking. On the cobblestones was a pile of burning prayer books, Torah scrolls and furniture, dragged from the synagogue. No one did anything to stop the destruction.

Confused, my father headed toward his school and there found the teachers dismissing the students, urging them to disperse inconspicuously. Since he was far from home, a teacher suggested he lie low in Freiburg’s public gardens. After some hours, my father, alarmed at not knowing what was happening, left the park. He approached the home of family friends to seek advice. As he rounded the corner, he stopped dead in his tracks. Several policemen stood outside the house, watching the Jews. Mind racing, he quickly retreated back to the park and hid there for the rest of the afternoon. At dusk, he returned to the station and boarded the train for Ihringen. Once there, it was as if he had entered a nightmare.

He saw that Ihringen’s two-story, seventy-year-old synagogue had been burned completely to the ground. It had been a beautiful building, with intricate wall carvings, an ark filled with nine Torah scrolls, an elaborate wall-hanging depicting the twelve tribes of Israel and windows that let in sunlight through sparkling stained glass. My father had spent countless hours there, beside his father, Philip, praying and learning. Now it was gone. In the darkness, he glimpsed two boys whom he had tangled with previously. They were in Hitler Youth uniforms, laughing and joking about what had happened.

“We really showed those Jews,” he heard one say. “It’s good we got rid of a few.” Fearing the worst, he ran home and found his mother, Rosa, sitting despondently at the kitchen table with his aunts. “What happened?” he asked. In an anguished torrent, they told him of the horrors that had occurred that morning.

Shortly after my father had left the house that morning, uniformed SA Brownshirts banged on the door, forcing their way into the family home. Yelling that they had come for the “traitorous Jews,” the Nazis hustled my father’s father, age 66, out into the street. They did the same to the ten other Jewish men still remaining in Ihringen, including my father’s uncles – Marx, Hermann and Benjamin, all also in their sixties. During World War I, some of them had served with distinction in the German Army, with Philip receiving an Iron Cross for valor. Now, at gunpoint, they were marched in front of the synagogue where SA men were positioned.

The locals, in the midst of their morning routine, gathered and listened to the SA commander announce over a bullhorn that “at long last the Jewish traitors will get what they deserve.” The Jewish men were forced to strip down to their underwear and stood humiliated as the Nazis mocked them. Neighbors, who in former times had been friendly to Philip and even sought him out for advice, looked away guiltily. Those who were younger and had been reared during the Nazi years laughed openly, relishing the spectacle. The village’s several fire-department water trucks were situated at the scene.

The SA men, some of whom were drunk, hoisted gasoline cans and began drenching the exterior of the synagogue. Others with crowbars disappeared inside to wreak havoc. The most vocal of the Brownshirts produced lit torches and with cruel smiles on their faces turned the synagogue into a wall of flames. The firemen did nothing, remaining alert, however, to ensure that the flames would not jump to adjacent non-Jewish property. Ironically, Philip and his family had raised money to fund their fire trucks.

The Jewish men stood helpless as their beloved synagogue was destroyed. When the flames died down, the Stormtroopers bundled the heartbroken Jewish men into a military lorry and took them to an unknown destination.

* * * * *

My father heard this account and understood at once the full magnitude of the horror. The torched synagogue had once been the center of a 300-member Jewish community. But in recent years Jews had steadily left, fleeing abroad or moving to big cities where they could live more anonymously. Now, Ihringen’s Jewish world was gone.

“What are we going to do?” one of his aunts wept helplessly. My father recalled that despite his shock, he knew at that moment what he needed to do. He had to take care of things the women could not. He went to each family’s barn and tended to the livestock. All the cows needed to be milked and given fresh feed and water. At his Uncle Marx’s barn, he noticed a pony looking wild-eyed and panic stricken, spooked by the events. My father found a handful of oats and fed it to him, walking him around the barn. Forcing himself to be calm for the animal’s sake helped him soothe his own welling sense of panic. By the time he returned to his mother’s kitchen, he knew he was now the man of the family. He would cheerfully keep his mother’s and aunts’ spirits up while he took care of things until the men’s fates were known.

The Nazis had shut down all Jewish newspapers but from what he had witnessed and through word of mouth he knew the destruction was widespread.

The fuse for the pogrom’s explosion was lit on October 18 when the Nazis, seeking to make Germany judenrein, expelled over 12,000 Polish-born Jews residing within their borders. The anti-Semitic Polish government accepted only 4,000 back. The remaining Jews found themselves languishing in villages and train stations along the Polish-German frontier. The largest concentration of this misery was at the Zbaszyn train station where 7,000 people had little food and were forced to sleep on the cold stone floor. At least five committed suicide.

Stranded at that station was a couple who had lived in Germany for twenty-seven years and had a teenage son, Hershel Grynszpan, living in Paris. Through a heart-rending postcard sent from the station, he learned of his parents’ plight and the expellees’ dire situation. Enraged, Hershel bought a pistol and on November 7 went to the German Embassy in Paris, demanding to speak to the ambassador, pretending he had an important document to deliver. He was met by career diplomat Ernst vom Ram. Shouting “Here, in the name of 12,000 persecuted Jews, is your document!” he shot the Nazi.

Vom Rath was rushed to the hospital and the German Embassy immediately relayed the news to Berlin. Hitler dispatched his personal physician to Paris to care for the diplomat, who hovered near death for two days. On the evening of November 9, Hitler was commemorating the anniversary of his 1923 Beer Hall Putsch. During the event, word came from Paris that the diplomat had died.

Propaganda Minister Goebbels and the Nazi leadership had long laid plans for a mass action against the Jews. Grynszpan’s desperate act provided them the perfect excuse. Goebbels called police and Nazi party leaders, setting phone lines buzzing across the country, and told them to begin “spontaneous” demonstrations.

The German media helped whip up anti-Semitic hysteria, holding the Jews collectively responsible for the assassination and claiming it to be part of a greater Jewish conspiracy against the Reich. Goebbels gloated at the ferocity of the savage rampage, writing: “As was to be expected, the entire nation is in an uproar. This is one dead man who is costing the Jews dear. Our darling Jews will think twice in the future before simply gunning down German diplomats.”

On the night of November 8-9, the Nazis, even before the diplomat died, began murdering Jews who had been incarcerated in the concentration camp at Buchenwald. At least seventy were killed.

Starting just after midnight on November 10 and continuing throughout the day, paramilitary Stormtroopers of the SA Sturmabteilung (Storm Division) – some in their uniforms, others in civilian clothes – attacked Jews and Jewish property in a frenzy of destruction. Within minutes of midnight, nine of Berlin’s synagogues were set on fire. In Vienna, murderous SA thugs rampaged across the city. Nineteen synagogues and some seventy other Jewish institutions were torched and clouds of smoke shrouded the city. A reported 22 terrified Jews committed suicide amid the terror.

A wave of violence and murder swept across Germany and Austria. From the largest of cities to the smallest of hamlets – anywhere there were Jews or Jewish property – destruction was wrought. All told, more than 1,000 synagogues were ransacked and burned, at least 91 Jews were murdered, and tens of thousands of Jewish homes and businesses were vandalized. The Stormtroopers rounded up 30,000 Jewish men and imprisoned them in the concentration camps of Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald and Dachau.

* * * * *

After tense days not knowing her husband’s fate, Rosa at last learned that the men had been imprisoned in Dachau, some 225 miles to the east. My father manfully shouldered the burden of caring for his mother, his aunts, and their farms. He remembered, “That’s the way things were back then, we all just had to keep going.” And so he continued tending the livestock and fields “doing what we had to do to survive.”

After about six weeks, his father and uncles were released and returned home. Though my father was overjoyed at their return, the homecoming was tinged with great sadness. Philip’s health had been wrecked at the camp. It was very sad, my father recalled – “those months seemed to have aged my father by 10 years. His spirit was not broken but his health was.”

Before Kristallnacht, Philip had been hale and hearty but my father recalled how his complexion had turned sickly and how he suffered from a chronic cough and kidney difficulties. Philip somberly told my father of the terrible conditions at Dachau. The concentration camp guards had humiliated the Jewish prisoners; they were forced to stand for hours at a time in the wind-lashed camp parade ground and ordered to engage in calisthenics as the guards howled with laughter. At times they were forced to perform exhausting nonsense work, digging ditches only to immediately refill them and carrying heavy stones from one place to another for no reason.

His face stricken, Philip also told how the guards periodically executed “problem” prisoners and tortured others while the rest were forced to watch standing at attention. Philip had often given my father advice when he had to fight anti-Semitic bullies and now he had more. “Stay brave, keep your faith and don’t give up,” he counseled. “When you are cornered, say to yourself ‘Ivri anochi.’ That will help as things get worse.” And, indeed, life for Germany’s Jews did worsen.

Eleven months after Kristallnacht, the world was at war and the Jews remaining in Germany were trapped, including my father and his parents. In October 1940, they along with 15,000 other Jews from Southwest Germany were deported to internment camps in southern France. There my father lost his parents, his uncles and twenty-five other members of his extended family. Heeding his father’s advice of not giving up, he eventually escaped from a camp and joined the French Underground to fight the Nazis. At war’s end, considering Europe a graveyard for Jews, he emigrated to New York where he married and raised a Jewish family.

In all the years after the war, he returned only three times to his birthplace for brief visits, to show his family the home of his youth and to ensure that the village’s Jewish cemetery was treated respectfully. He refused to spend a night on German soil.

On his last visit some twenty years ago, my father took me to the place where his childhood synagogue had stood before its destruction on Kristallnacht. Now the site was just a vacant lot with a tiny plaque nearby to mark it. My father’s face was sorrowful as he reflected how important this site had been for the vanished Jewish community.

A village employee who had accompanied us said proudly, “Soon we will be placing a memorial stone here.” My father answered in disgust, “You burn our synagogues, force us out of our homes and try to exterminate us. And now you think a stone marker will make everything all right?” He shook his head. “We Jews are still here and will never forget.”

Now, seventy-five years after Kristallnacht and as my father’s third yahrzeit approaches, his words still echo in my mind.

“We Jews are still here and we will never forget.”

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