It is difficult to pinpoint the exact date when the Holocaust began, but Kristallnacht (“the Night of Broken Glass”) is by all accounts a key milestone leading up to the destruction of European Jewry.
Eighty years ago this weekend – on November 9-10, 1938 – a wave of anti-Jewish pogroms engulfed Germany, Austria and the areas of Czechoslovakia under German rule. Nazi storm troopers and Hitler Youth members destroyed 267 synagogues and plundered an estimated 7,500 Jewish-owned businesses. Roughly 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and sent to concentration camps, and the Nazis said 91 Jews were killed in the course of those two days (though the actual figure was much higher).
It was the first act of organized violence against Jews to be carried out under the Nazis.
Emanuel Marx, Susan Warsinger, Yossi Kohn and Lore Mayerfeld were all living in Germany at the time, and watched as their homes were invaded and their fathers dragged away. Marx and Warsinger have vivid recollection of the events of those days, while Kohn and Mayerfeld – too young to remember on their own – have been able to reconstruct what happened based on testimonies shared by their parents.
All of them had the good fortune of escaping Germany before it was too late. They share their stories with Haaretz here...
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‘No shouting, no screaming, no violence’
Age 11 at the time, Emanuel Marx was old enough to remember the events of Kristallnacht very clearly. At about 7 A.M., two Nazi storm troopers knocked on the door of his family’s rented apartment in the center of Munich. His father, who opened the door, was ordered to leave the family and accompany them.
“He was still not dressed,” recalls Marx, “so he asked them for a few minutes to wash up and get ready. They accompanied him to the bathroom and toilet, and then took him away. There was no shouting, no screaming, no violence. Nothing. My younger brother and I were very frightened but didn’t say a word, and when my father disappeared behind the door, my mother told us to go get dressed and go to school – as if nothing had happened.”
Marx and his younger brother obeyed their mother. But on their way to school, a 10-minute walk from their home, they noticed that the synagogue next door was engulfed in flames and smoke. “A stranger came up to us and said we should turn around and go home, and that’s exactly what we did,” says Marx.
He remembers that the area around the school and synagogue was cordoned off, with policemen and firemen hovering around. “Apparently the firemen were told not to extinguish the flames, but just to make sure they didn’t spread to other properties,” he recounts.
The Jewish school Marx attended was not destroyed, but it was vandalized and temporarily closed for two months. While he and his brother stayed at home waiting for their school to reopen, their father was incarcerated at Dachau.
“He showed up one day another person, a broken man, and he never fully recovered,” Marx says. Initially, his father wanted nothing more than to share with his family stories of the suffering he had endured in the concentration camp, but, as Marx admits, “We were children and lost interest.” After that, his father never spoke of Dachau again.
About six months after Kristallnacht, Marx and his younger brother were put on a train to England as part of the Kindertransport – an operation aimed at rescuing Jewish children in Nazi-occupied Europe. His father, meanwhile, was again imprisoned and told that if he wanted to be released, he must leave Germany within 24 hours. Marx’s parents escaped to British Mandatory Palestine in January 1940, with their two sons joining them soon afterward. “But when we were finally reunited with them, they were no longer our parents really,” Marx reflects. “We children felt that they had sent us away – which is exactly the opposite of what they really did: They parted from us with a very heavy heart.”
After fighting in the Israeli War of Independence in 1948-49, Marx would go on to become one of Israel’s most preeminent anthropologists. In 1998, he received the prestigious Israel Prize for his groundbreaking studies on the Bedouin. Marx, who lives in the north Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Hasharon, has three children, nine grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
Kristallnacht was such a traumatic experience for him that he never about spoke about it for more than 70 years. He decided to break his silence after he was asked to contribute a chapter on the subject to a recently published book titled “Marking Evil: Holocaust Memory in the Global Age” (Amos Goldberg and Haim Hazan, editors, Berghahn Books, 2015). But Marx says that, contrary to what he assumed, writing about the traumatic events of his childhood “hasn’t cured me.”
‘The rock scraped his hand’
Susan Warsinger remembers that she and a younger brother, with whom she shared a room, woke up excited because November 10 was their mother’s birthday. But before they could begin to celebrate, there were bricks and rocks crashing through the windows of their apartment in the town of Bad Kreuznach, southwest Germany.
“We were really scared, so we ran across the hall to our parents’ bedroom,” recalls Warsinger, who lives today in Chevy Chase, Maryland. At one point, she recounts, a rock came through a window, hitting the crib beneath it in which her newborn baby brother was fast sleep. “That was the most frightening thing of all,” she says. “The rock scraped his hand, but aside from that he was OK.”
Her family lived on the first floor of a four-story house; the town rabbi and his family lived one floor above them. Before her father was arrested, he managed to get his wife and children up to the top floor, which served as an attic and where they spent the next few days until the violence subsided. They were also joined by the rabbi’s wife and children.
Warsinger recalls looking outside and seeing the rabbi having his beard shaved off, in an act of public humiliation, before he was dragged away by the storm troopers. She says her own father, for whatever reason, was allowed to return to the family the following day. “It could be that they let him off because he was a friend of the mayor’s and they used to play chess together, or maybe it was because he was a Polish citizen,” she says. “We don’t really know why all the other Jewish fathers were taken away but ours was allowed to come back.”
After Kristallnacht, Warsinger’s parents paid to have her and her older brother smuggled over the border into France, where the family assumed they would be safer. It took 18 months before they were finally reunited with their parents, who meanwhile found refuge in the United States with the help of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) and a Quaker organization.
A teacher by profession, Warsinger eventually married a World War II veteran she met at the University of Maryland. They have three children and nine grandchildren. “All my children are contributing to American society,” she says proudly. “One is a cardiologist, another a dancer and another a nutritionist. Hitler didn’t accomplish anything he set out to do with my family.”
‘She somehow got to Dachau, bribed whoever needed to be bribed’
His parents sensed in advance that they were in danger and had already planned their escape to Uruguay before Kristallnacht, recalls Yossi Kohn, a retired orthodontist from Haifa.
Kohn was almost 4 when the pogroms began and he says most of his memories of the time are based on snippets shared by his parents. The family lived at the time on the first floor of a building owned by the Jewish community of Mannheim. His father, Avraham-Artur Kohn, served as the cantor of the town’s Orthodox synagogue, where he also taught Hebrew and was in charge of the local branch of the religious youth movement. On November 10, his father was taking his usual morning walk to the synagogue when someone stopped him and warned him not to get any closer because the building was on fire.
“My father came home and pushed us all into a corner on the second floor of our building,” Kohn recounts. “We heard footsteps coming up the stairs, and then the Nazi storm troopers burst in and began taking all our books and throwing them out the window,” where they burned them. “Then they grabbed my father and took him away. We only learned a few days later that he had been taken to Dachau.”
The family had been scheduled to board a ship from Hamburg on November 22, and had already paid for their visas and tickets. Kohn’s mother was not prepared to leave without their father, though. “So she did something very smart,” he recounts. “She somehow got to Dachau, bribed whoever needed to be bribed and succeeded in getting my father out so he could board that ship with us.”
In 1941, the family moved from Montevideo to Buenos Aires, where his father was hired as cantor of a synagogue attended by German-speaking Jews. In 1950, the family immigrated to Israel.
After their local synagogue in Mannheim was destroyed, Avraham-Artur Kohn’s choir songbook was discovered among the debris by members of the community who eventually immigrated to Mandatory Palestine. The book remained in their possession for the next 50 years, before it finally found its way back to the Kohn family. A page of the songbook is now on display in a special online exhibit prepared by Yad Vashem to commemorate Kristallnacht.
“The big question was what to do with it,” says Kohn, who has three children and six grandchildren. “The renewed Jewish community of Mannheim wanted it for its archives, but we decided to give it to Yad Vashem.”
‘The hospital specialized in German-made dolls’
She was only one-and-a-half-years-old at the time, so what Lore Mayerfeld knows about Kristallnacht, she knows from her mother.
“What I was told was that the Nazis came into our apartment and destroyed everything, and then they took my father away to a concentration camp,” says Mayerfeld, who now lives in Jerusalem. She was still wearing her pajamas and clinging to her prized possession – her doll Inga – when the Nazis barged into their apartment in the central German city of Kassel.
When Mayerfeld’s father was released six months later, her mother begged him to flee Germany since he was the only one in the family in possession of a visa to the United States. “He didn’t want to leave my mother alone, but she told him that if he didn’t leave we would all die,” Mayerfeld recounts. “So reluctantly, he went.”
It took another 18 months before Mayerfeld and her mother were reunited with him. Following a long journey through France and Portugal, they eventually boarded a ship bound for the United States.
Mayerfeld has three children, 14 grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren. “As an only child, that’s very special to me,” she says. In 1991, she and her late husband moved to Israel, where all three of their children live today.
For many years, Inga sat on display on a bookcase in her home. Mayerfeld says she did not allow her children to touch the precious doll. “There is actually a doll hospital in New York, where I had to take her to have parts of her body repaired,” she relays. “It was a hospital that specialized in German-made dolls.”
Eventually, Mayerfeld donated the doll to Yad Vashem, where she felt it would be “better appreciated.” The museum’s new online exhibition features several photos of Inga. In these photos, she is dressed in the very same tiny pajamas Mayerfeld wore when the Nazis broke into her home on Kristallnacht. Her mother had saved them.