Stories out of broken glass

By Janet R Kirchheimer, November 11, 2011
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This week marked the 73rd anniversary of Kristallnacht and the first I spent without my father.

Kristallnacht is referred to as the "night of broken glass". But it was much more than that. November 9 and 10 1938 was the beginning of the end of most of European Jewry.

In two days of Nazi-sponsored riots across Germany and Austria, about 270 synagogues were burned, 7,000 businesses and homes damaged or destroyed and 100 Jews killed. Up to 30,000 Jews were arrested and deported to concentration camps. My father was one of them. A 16-year-old living in Niederstetten, Germany, he was sent to Dachau.

He died this July and, in mourning his loss, I've thought about how the Holocaust will be remembered, or if it will be remembered at all. Survivors of the Shoah are dying each day, yet how can the next generations remember something they haven't experienced?

He told me that to get a hat in Dachau was to be lucky

One way is to tell our stories, as we do on Pesach, when we recall slavery in Egypt and liberation from bondage. Now there are Holocaust memorial services arranged by organisations working to keep the stories alive. Yet the children who are now of the age to go to these services will be the last to meet survivors. The telling of the Holocaust cannot only be for them, then. It is a duty for all of us - a part of the ongoing Jewish story.

Judaism does not want us to stand idly by. There is a midrash that says that, when the Jews left Egypt, they were afraid to cross the Red Sea. Only one man, Nachshon, marched into the water and, when it reached his nose, the sea split, allowing the people to cross. We must have the courage to jump in and contribute towards a more just society.

I don't believe we can learn "lessons" from the Holocaust - for example, that some people were good while others were evil. Six million are gone. The only lesson is to ensure that a Holocaust does not happen again. But we have an obligation to remember the victims and make certain that their stories are not lost - not just the stories of the horrors, but of their lives before the Shoah and the extraordinary efforts to rebuild after.

My father told me the story of his experiences on Kristallnacht; that his parents, brother and sister hid in the cellar all night, that his synagogue wasn't burned down because it was next to a Christian-owned building. He told me he didn't know why he was told to report to the town hall the morning after that first night. When he was arrested, the policeman said his town needed a quota of ten Jewish men. My grandfather was paying his taxes in the next room. My father was afraid he would want to take his place.

He told me he was taken away in a truck that had a sign on it urging him to "Drink Coca Cola", that he was photographed, fingerprinted, had his head shaved, examined by an SS doctor and beaten by an SS guard, then handed a cotton blue-and-white striped uniform. He told me that to get a hat was to be lucky, that one night he took the long underwear off a man who had frozen to death, that Dachau was a testing ground for the Final Solution.

He told me that a 16-year-old boy figured out that he could stay warmer by volunteering for jobs and that each Jew was designated by the Nazis as a Schutzhaftjude - protected Jew. I learnt that picking up a pair of glasses that belonged to a fellow prisoner, after he'd been beaten by an SS officer, and returning them to him was sometimes all one could do.

He said that getting caught tying newspaper around your legs to try to stay warm could get you shot by the SS, that he always had hope he would get out, that some prisoners went crazy and were killed, and that Jews had to pay for the damages done by their countrymen on Kristallnacht. He remembered every detail, "like it happened yesterday". Can you believe I still dream about it, after 70 years, he would say.

My father taught me many things: how to ride a bicycle, change a tyre, what his life was like in Germany before the Shoah and how to live after such tragedy. The most important thing he taught me was that life goes on and every day is precious. My father and I were together or spoke each year on Kristallnacht, and he told his story. It is now my turn.

Janet R Kirchheimer is a teaching fellow at the US-based National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and author of 'How to Spot One of Us', a collection of poems about the Holocaust.

    Last updated: 10:42am, November 11 2011