Born on December 31, 1934, in Kippenheim, Germany, Inge Auerbacher is one of the youngest survivors to remember Kristallnacht. She was the last Jewish child born in her tiny village and one of the few children to survive Terezin, a concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. After being liberated by the Soviet army at the age of 10, Auerbacher and her parents came to America, where she worked as a chemist for 38 years and became a well-known author and lyricist. She has received honorary doctorates and two of the highest civilian awards in Germany. She’s spoken at the U.N. and traveled all over the world to tell her story of hope and overcoming unimaginable adversity. Auerbacher was just three years old on Kristallnacht, the fateful night that would forever alter the trajectory of Jewish history.
On November 9-10, 1938, riots broke out across Germany, Austria and the Sudetenland border of Czechoslovakia. A 17-year-old Jewish student, Herschel Grynszpan, had shot and killed a German official because his parents had been forced out of Germany for being Jewish. To retaliate, Germans killed almost 100 Jews and rounded up 30,000 Jewish men, sending them to concentration camps.
Auerbacher told The Jewish Press, “They were always looking for something to hang on the Jews … You always felt anti-Semitism, you felt it in the air, even before Kristallnacht … My parents listened to the radio … they would listen to Hitler screaming and hollering about the Jews being our bad luck and responsible for what we’re going through now. They started to make laws with a lot of propaganda: the Jews are this, the Jews are that. You didn’t feel safe anymore, but the crucial point was on Kristallnacht. That’s when you were really sucked into it … When they put the men in camps, then you really knew, this is it.”
Auerbacher’s grandfather, who was visiting Kippenheim with her grandmother from Jebenhausen, was suddenly arrested by Nazis early in the morning of November 10, while he was saying his prayers at shul. Her father was still sleeping when police came to the house and ordered him to report to city hall. Auerbacher recalled, “He had to go and it was getting scary. What’s going on? … We didn’t know where they were going … All the Jewish men from the age of 16 were arrested.”
Auerbacher continued to describe her experience: “We were standing in the living room and they (Nazis and hoodlums) were throwing these bricks through the window … one brick nearly hit my head, my mother pulled me away. My mother, my grandmother and I, and the maid who then ran away, went to the backyard shed to hide. They were throwing bricks, banging on the entrance door, we were scared they were going to come in, and we stayed there until it was quite dark and this banging stopped.” They ran to their Jewish neighbor’s house, which Auerbacher explained, “was also full of glass, that’s why you call it Kristallnacht, the crystals, you know, the glass, all over the floor, everywhere.”
One morning, a townsperson brought a basket with belts and ties to Auerbacher’s home, which he said was “from your men.” It was not until Auerbacher’s father and grandfather were released from Dachau a few weeks later that they found out where they had been. Auerbacher described what her father told to her mother: “They had to give up their clothing and wear those blue and white striped pajamas, the prison uniform, without any underwear, and stand in the bitter cold for hours … My father wanted to blow his nose and they hosed him down with ice cold water. He told them, ‘Look I fought in WWI, I was wounded.’ ‘Oh, you can throw away your Iron Cross medal, it doesn’t mean anything’ … They got, of course, unkosher food. They got some of these, they used to call them blood sausage, probably made from pork. That’s when my grandfather said to my father, ‘I can’t eat this. It’s not kosher.’ So my father said to him, ‘You better eat it. You want to stay alive.’ They were in the same barrack, barrack number 16 … Just because they were Jewish, they were there. And they started to mistreat them. Some people were beaten.”
Auerbacher grew up in a modern Orthodox home and synagogue was the centerpiece of their lives in the rural farming area of Kippenheim. They were part of a tight knit Jewish community of about 60 families, almost all of whom were religious. Auerbacher lived very close to shul and saw it destroyed on Kristallnacht. “My mother said she saw the 10 Commandments torn from the synagogue. Other people have said it was done afterwards, so I don’t know who’s right, but the tablets were taken down … They desecrated the whole inside building. They tore the benches, and we had like a balcony for the women, they made a mess of that … they ripped the Torahs apart … We have a few pieces of the Torah that were desecrated totally, partially burned … there were only like shreds of it.” She added, “Christian children were in there, watching all of this … Nobody tried to stop it, it was good for them. They wanted the Jews out.” The interior of the synagogue was restored in 2003, and is now an educational center. Fortunately, it was never completely burned to the ground, like thousands of other synagogues across Europe, because it was in such close proximity to Christian homes.
When Auerbacher looks back at Kristallnacht, one person in particular stands out to her, Dr. Weber, the doctor who delivered her. Auerbacher remembers hearing about him screaming out his window, “Leave them alone! Don’t touch them!” when he saw Jewish men being badly beaten. “He was good to the Jewish people at that time … But the saddest thing is, when he delivered me, he was already a member of the Nazi party. He would come in Nazi uniform to the house when my mother was very sick.”
Auerbacher knew a woman who worked as a translator when they had the Nuremburg trial of doctors, and explained, “I don’t know exactly what he did, but after the war he was arrested and put in prison for war crimes for many years.” She then asked a question especially pertinent to an era like the Holocaust, “How do good people become bad?”
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Inge Auerbacher’s poem November 9, 1938, from her book I Am a Star:
It was a cold morning in November,
A day that I was always remember.
We were awakened from a peaceful sleep,
The flames of terror had begun to leap.
“Open the door, police, let us in;
Don’t run or hide, you cannot win!”
We had avoided the truth and closed our eyes,
The knock on our door had caught by surprise.
“All Jewish men are now under arrest,
Report to City Hall and join the rest!”
Grandpa attended services each day,
Now, from his prayers he was torn away.
The train rolled on toward incarceration,
Dachau, barrack number sixteen, their destination.
ARBEIT MACHT FREI was their only greeting,
To hide the reality they would be meeting.
They wore blue and white striped uniform,
Beaten and hungry they faced the storm.
In the village only women and children were left,
Followed by rampage of tremendous ruin and theft.
Our temple became the prime target of hate,
Mama saw tablets ripped from their normal state.
The Commandments lay broken on the ground,
Heralding darkness with their crushing sound.
Broken glass crashing, echoed all day,
Our house was no place for us to stay.
In our living room, a stone grazed my head,
We ran for shelter in a backyard shed.
The volcano had exploded and began to spew,
In its path lay the destiny of every Jew.
(Arbeit macht frei translates as “Work means freedom.”)