Wednesday, December 5, 2012
IN MY OPINION (Column)
The Night of Broken Glass
By GERT K. HIRSCHBERG
Last month we silently observed the 74th anniversary of what turned out to be the biggest slaughter in the recent history of all humanity, and it was all caused by one madman. November 9, 1938 was the infamous date and in the years I have written this column, never have I used the pronoun “I”. Today I have chosen a column of my personal experiences and observations, since I was a victim, albeit a non-suffering witness, in the greatest of all human sufferings which affected the twentieth century. There are few people left who were the direct witnesses to this historical event.
I was the twelve year old only child of an upper class Jewish family living in a well-to-do neighborhood in Berlin. Since Hitler had not allowed Jewish students in public schools, I was enrolled in a private Jewish school called Kalinsky School in an affluent and picturesque suburb called Dahlem.
Prior to leaving for school, I had heard that our temple, a formidable, large synagogue, had caught fire during the night and had burned down.
During a recess in school, one of my school friends had told me that his family’s temple had also burned down during the night. We both expressed what a coincidence that was. Two temples burned down in the same night. Then we returned to class. An hour later, the school closed and sent us all home. I and all my classmates were delighted. We did not suspect what had occurred. My trip home was a short subway ride and when I arrived on Kurfuersten Damm, I saw the remnants of a store with windows shattered and a crowd that was watching. (Jewish owned stores had to be so identified.) One member of this crowd took something out of the store but he was stopped by other more honorable bystanders. The land that gave us Hitler, Himmler and Goebbels also gave us some decent people (Adenhauer, Willie Brandt and Angela Merkel.)
Upon arrival at home, my mother told me we were going to an apartment about two miles from our home. It seemed that the Gestapo, the secret and feared police force, had arrested all Jewish males who could be found. The apartment to which we were headed was owned or rented by two sisters. No males aboard. It had been German law for many years that the government had to have records of where people lived. Hence, the Nazis knew where men lived. The scheme of the Nazis was to arrest any Jewish male who could be found, whether a tenant or resident. Thus, it was considered safe to proceed to any non-male residence.
It was a startling sight for a twelve year old to see seven or eight adult males in sleeping bags like a juvenile pajama party.
I was secretly hoping that my father and I would be arrested. After all, I could have my father all to myself in a camp. Best of all, I would have no school. A few days later, the all-clear was signaled (I don’t know how) and we all returned to our homes.
A few days later, the arrestees were released and returned to their homes. No, this detention in camp was not the infamous death camps which, a few years later, formed the Holocaust. The worst was yet to come but not for my parents and me. Our visa was somehow hastened, and we sailed off via a combined freighter and passenger ship on March 9, 1939 on a voyage to Los Angeles through the Panama Canal.
Then followed a new life for a twelve year old. There was Bell High School, U.S.C. Trojan Football, the army, the Philippine Islands, law school and a great marriage and three children. Ironically, Hitler proved good to me.
The events of November 9, 1938 have been called Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass. Two hundred synagogues were burned down, eight thousand Jewish stores were demolished. Why? This was in response to the assassination of Ernst von Rath, a low level employee at the German Embassy in Paris by a son of a German-Polish Jew who objected to the deportation of his parents. The irony of this incident was that Ernst von Rath, a German citizen, was himself under suspicion by the Nazis for his anti-Nazi sentiments and was hence investigated.
When Hitler took over in Germany, there were approximately 600,000 Jews in Germany. They were well integrated and occupied positions of leadership in government and commerce. As they were stripped of their leadership roles and freedom, only 300,000 remained by the time we left Germany. Why did 300,000 stay so long? Simple. Everyone, including my parents, believed that Hitler was a temporary anomaly which would soon dissipate. Chamberlain in Britain and Daladier in France thought the same. When Hitler’s staying power finally became evident, it was too late.
Copyright 2012, Metropolitan News Company