My eighth birthday turned out to be something of a flop. It was November 8, 1938 in Berlin, and my parents had presented me with a beautiful watch.
Nothing wrong with that, except that they normally gave me birthday presents to play with, like a red three-wheel bike to ride around the nearby park, and a gorgeous Punch and Judy show.
But I couldn’t play with a watch. My parents could spot my disappointment. “Never mind, Horst. We’ll get you something much better for your next birthday,” my father said, and I managed to produce a small smile of gratitude.
The following day, November 9, started with a loud knock at our door. It was just after 7am. My mother (Mutti) went to open it. Outside stood Herr Schultz, who was more or less in charge of the block of flats on the Invalieden Strasse, where we lived.
“Ach, Herr Schultz, come in, come in for a nice cup of coffee,” my dear Mutti said with a smile. “Nein, No, no, Frau Izbicki, I don’t have the time and have to rush away,” replied Herr Schultz. He was a member of the National Socialists — the Nazis — as his lapel badge made clear. His voice suddenly went low into almost a whisper.
My father (Papa) had now joined my mother at the door to hear what Herr Schultz had to say. “I have come to warn you that your shop will be done tonight at about 7 o’clock. That is all. Now, you haven’t seen me or spoken to me. Is that clear?”
“Yes, of course, Herr Schultz,” said Papa. But by now Herr Schultz was on his way down the flight of stairs, two stories down. My parents were shocked by the message they had been given. They sat down and drank coffee to discuss quietly what they should do.
The shop, which was just three buildings away, was laden with women’s underwear, stockings, bras and the like, and was due to open at 8am.
They decided to go to the shop as usual and thought of reducing the contents at the window and moving it to the store room at the back of the shop.
Herr Schultz was a Nazi but he was also a kind human being. My parents were grateful to receive his message, whatever its true meaning. But they readily understood that it could only have a nasty outcome for us and other Jewish people.
I always had a little nap after my lunch, and on this occasion I was woken up by the crashing of glass. I jumped up and ran to the window to see what had happened. Across the road was a leatherware shop.
Its windows, which had a large painted “J” (for Jude) on it, were smashed and glass lay heaped along the pavement.
An old woman limped along the road to see the damage and started to scream: “Jews should not be allowed to have shops. They should all be killed and make Germany a clean country!” Her screaming was in a crescendo, which helped to loosen a pointed piece of glass that had been left hanging.
It fell down and found the old woman’s head, cutting it cleanly in half. She lay amid the heap of broken glass in a pool of blood. She was obviously dead.
I hate to admit it now but although the scene sickened me, I started to believe in God for punishing a sinner.
Allow me to describe briefly the Ivalieden Strasse. It was similar to New Bond Street in London, with trams and buses and taxis zooming up and down between the Nord Bahnhof (the railway station) and the General Post Office. There were hotels (the Nordland was just one) and the university at the other end of the street.
My parents’ shop was small and next door to the post office. It attracted many customers, particularly Scandinavians who came to Berlin on holiday, travelling through the Nord Bahnhof.
At exactly 7pm, Just as Herr Schultz had warned, a large group of Hitler Youths accompanied by a platoon of SA troops came marching down the road towards the shop. Pavements and parts of the road were crowded with people who had heard of what was to happen.
The Hitler Youths started to throw big stones at the shop window. Nothing broke, and many people, bless them, started to laugh. The would-be window smashers marched a few yards to the butcher’s shop.
He asked what they wanted. The answer came quickly from one of the youths: “We just want some of your heavy weights to smash the Yid’s window near the Post Office,” he said. “Then you can all piss off out of my shop,” said the butcher who, for his honesty, was knocked to the ground and kicked.
His weights were stolen and taken to my parents’ shop. They were hurled at the curved window which eventually smashed. I screamed and screamed.
I was watching from our balcony and saw the Hitler Youths pick up pieces of the broken glass and throw it into the shop. I was convinced that my parents would be killed by broken sharp glass.
My grandmother, Oma, who was in the apartment, held me tightly but I continue to scream until all the lights went out. When I woke up, I was hoarse and my parents were holding me, kissing me and whispering kindnesses to me.
My hoarseness has remained with me ever since, and I consider it my “present from Hitler”.
John Izbicki is a journalist and author