Seventy years on, Kristallnacht still haunts me

In November 1938, a vicious attack was launched on German and Austrian Jews in a chilling foretaste of the Holocaust. Harry Bibring, who was 13 at the time, recalls the night the true horror of Nazi anti-Jewish hatred hit home.

By Alex Kasriel, November 6, 2008
Over two nights of violence, 95 Jews were killed and thousands of homes, businesses, and synagogues were ransacked

Over two nights of violence, 95 Jews were killed and thousands of homes, businesses, and synagogues were ransacked

Harry Bibring was a 12-year-old boy living in Vienna when he was caught up in the horrific events of Kristallnacht. Now 82, and living in London, having come to Britain on the Kindertransport, he recalls what happened to him and his family 70 years ago:

"We were living in a flat in the 6th district, which is not the main Jewish area of Vienna - it wasn't the equivalent of Golders Green or Stamford Hill, but probably something like West Hampstead. I lived there with my sister Gertie who was 15 and my parents. I was about to celebrate my barmitzvah.

"My father had a menswear business which did very well. But the business went right down over the summer as persecution of Jews was increased. Jewish children had been thrown out of their schools - I was put in a school that I hated, as the non-Jewish

pupils and teachers hated us. Cinemas were not open to Jews. We were barred from the park where we used to play in football, and the ice rink where I spent half my time because I loved skating, was closed to Jews.

"I knew that we were second-class citizens; that we weren't wanted. But I couldn't understand why. My sister understood a lot more than I did. But there had been no physical effects of antisemitism, until now.

"Because we had a reasonable business we could afford the luxury of a radio. On this radio on November 8 and 9 there was this terrible propaganda. They said the Jews were going to pay for this act of murder against Ernst vom Rath in Paris [a junior Nazi diplomat who had been shot by a Jewish teenager].

"It was all really heating up but my father gave my sister and me the impression that everything was fine. He was the greatest optimist. He was trying to protect his children. He said: ‘Perhaps you better not go to school tomorrow.' Well this was the best news in a long time because I hated school.

"As the evening drew in from the back of our block of flats we could see our own synagogue had been set on fire. But I was happy - I was not going to school and I went to bed with that thought in my head.

"The next day, the 10th, I was having a lie-in and the telephone rang. It was my father's employee (he had had to get rid of everyone else). He said to my mother: ‘Where's Mr Bibring?' She said he had left for work this morning. But the chap said my father wasn't there. You can imagine how my mother reacted. She told us: ‘Daddy's not gone to the shop - I don't know where he is.'

"Everybody had the same story - all the men had disappeared. While she was still worrying about this, there was a knock on the door. Two Nazi officers were there and they said: ‘Yes this is a Jewish lady and two Jewish children.' They used the assassination in Paris as an excuse. They told my mother to pack a bag with some nightwear and her handbag and to follow them with her children. We were taken from our flat and they put a paper seal over the lock. The first sight that I saw when we got outside was Chasidic men on their knees being made to scrub the pavement. What upset me most is that they were old men and a crowd of people was kicking them, laughing and pulling their beards - they were totally being abused. That vision has stayed with me for the rest of my life. I couldn't understand how people could find fun in doing that.

"We were taken to the Nazi headquarters where other women and children were gathered and we were told to wait. After a while there were about 50 people. The Nazis officers came back and took us to the flat of a woman who my mother didn't know - a single woman living in a large flat. We were all shoved in there - we were placed under house arrest. I was bewildered. I kept on asking my mum: ‘Why are they doing this?' She told me: ‘It's all because of this man who murdered this man in Paris.'

"The ladies got together in a huddle and said: ‘What have we got to eat?' The women in the flat had enough food for herself but not for everyone else. My sister came up with an idea - she was a cheeky devil. She suggested everyone put their money together and she'd see what she could buy.

"She went down to the local store. She was away for about three quarters of an hour and I remember my mother pacing up and down wondering how much longer she was going to be. She came back with food - basics like bread and milk.

"We were stuck in that flat for 10 days. Then a strange thing happened. The Nazis came back and told us: ‘You can all go home.' All this time my mother had no idea where my father was. As we arrived home, so did my father! He had been in a jail, in a cell made for two, with 11 or 12 other men. He'd been released roughly at the same time as us.

"The four of us went overboard with excitement. My father said he'd come back from the shop and the shop wasn't there any more. It was a shell. Every window was broken, every piece of stock was looted; all the furniture was taken out.

"He said: ‘This is far more serious than I thought it was going to be.' He said we would have to emigrate. I thought this was a good idea. Going to Shanghai - a big trip far away across the sea. I was over the moon.

"The only thing was, we would need to buy tickets for that and our bank accounts had been frozen. So my father went off to pawn my mother's jewellery and everything else we had.

"After he did it, unfortunately he was robbed on the way to the travel agency. It was the first time I saw my father cry. I don't know if they were Nazis or not, but he knew then that we were destitute. That was the point when it really hit home how serious things were for us.

"My father decided that me and my sister should go on the Kindertransport and explained that we were going to start a new life in England. The plan was that he and my mother were going to follow us.

"I since found out that they came to take my father to a camp in November 1940. He had coronary troubles and he had a heart attack. They brought him back to my mother and he later died. My mother lived with my widowed sister until they were taken away to Sobibor [concentration camp] in June 1941.

"I'm often asked: ‘Can I forgive?' But it is nothing for me to forgive. The people for me to forgive are all dead. I will never forget. My son is much more unforgiving, but I don't believe in carrying this on.

"I do volunteer work for the Holocaust Education Trust, going around schools telling my story. I want to do my bit combating racism. Usually I make some impression on school children.

"I went to visit the school [in Vienna] where they kicked me out all those years ago. The kids I saw were just a bit older than I was at the time. These children, for them Kristallnacht and the Holocaust is history like the Napoleonic wars are for us. We can't possibly blame them or their parents."

The night of broken glass

Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass, took place in Germany and territories controlled by the Nazis on November 9-10, 1938. The attacks on Jews and Jewish-owned property were a co-ordinated reprisal for the assassination of a junior Nazi diplomat in Paris. On November 7, Herschel Grynszpan, a 17-year old German Jew, enraged by his family's expulsion from their homeland, walked into the German Embassy in Paris and fired five shots at Ernst vom Rath. In response, over two nights of violence, 92 Jews were murdered, and 25,000-30,000 were arrested and deported to concentration camps. More than 200 synagogues were destroyed, and thousands of Jewish businesses and homes ransacked.

Last updated: 4:38pm, September 23 2009