Chapter 5

 

Kristallnacht

 

It was the morning of November 9th, and many of the people that knew and respected my parents began to come to reassure us that we would surely be in no danger from the craziness and destruction that Jews were suffering in other cities across the country.

“Natan, you are such a good German, surely no harm will come to you or your family,” said one of his Christian friends, and my father wanted to believe.

“Natan, what we have heard on the radio that is happening to the Jews is only happening in the big cities. Berlin, Dortmund, and Essen -- the big cities where there are lots of wealthy Jews. Things have been good here, and surely you will all be safe in Haltern,” said another friend, with great pain in his voice. And my father wanted to believe. We were forced to rely on our neighbors for the news that they heard on the radio because we, like all Jews, were forbidden to own a radio. This prohibition had existed since the same time that all Jews lost their business licenses. It was yet one more way to degrade us.

“Natan, it won’t happen here, and you and your family will be okay. It is obvious that the Nazis are after the money, and that is why they are in the big cities with this nonsense. They are only going after the rich Jews,” encouraged yet another good Christian friend, and my father began to believe what these loyal friends and neighbors were saying to him.

Morning passed into afternoon, and afternoon into evening. More friends continued to come by to press reassurances upon my father, until the darkness of night came. And still, the cobblestoned streets remained quiet, and my father and mother quietly, albeit cautiously, rejoiced. Perhaps we would be spared after all. Though I was only a week past my eleventh birthday, I remained aware and nervous, but my parents reassured me. Still very much my Mama’s boy, I stayed close to her, finding comfort in the warmth of our kitchen, as I watched my mother cook our dinner, as well as receiving reassurance from her that life as we knew it would continue for us in Haltern. We ate dinner that night, with gratitude in our hearts, and I remember crawling into my parents’ bed exhausted and frightened. I was sleeping there between them because they wanted me close, and I freely admit I wanted to be there too. Looking back, I can understand why.

The peace of mind with which we slept on the night of November 9 was quickly shattered when more of my parents’ friends returned on the morning of November 10. The confidence with which they had spoken to my father only the day before, as they reassured their Jewish friend, was not as great the morning of this day; for all had been listening to the reports being passed by word of mouth and over the primitive radio of that time. The news was not good, and it was becoming apparent that the terror that had been inflicted on the Jews in the larger cities across Germany would quickly become a living nightmare in the smaller towns such as Haltern.

“Natan, you are a good German. You served Germany and you were decorated in the war. They will respect you and your family. No harm will befall you,” said one of my father’s former war comrades.

As the hours passed, we received more and more news of the horrible activities taking place in cities and towns closer and closer to us.  Yet, my father still nervously believed. At age fifty eight, having lost his license as a Master Butcher several years earlier, his sole concern now was the safety of my mother and me.

At ten o’clock in the morning we received word that they had destroyed and plundered the home of Abraham Weyl, the only rich Jew who lived in Haltern. His home was several blocks away from our own.

“You see, Natan. They are only going after the rich Jews,” said one of my father’s friends in an attempt to continue the charade.  We then heard reports of the next house being destroyed. Then it was the Herzberg house.  And then Herman Cohen’s house was pillaged and looted as well, and I could feel the tension building in the air, as if a storm were approaching us.

One of my father’s friends continued to attempt to reassure him and pointed out that we were not wealthy people, and that surely we would be spared for that reason alone.

At three o’clock in the afternoon, the synagogue in which we had worshipped for generations was desecrated; books, Torah scrolls, and the balance of the interior were being burned or destroyed in the street for all to see. I was more scared than I had been in my entire life.

“Natan, we will stay with you. You are a loyal German. You fought bravely with many of us in the War. Go, put on your medals, and they will see that you are a loyal German who faithfully served the Fatherland. They won’t hurt you,” said one of my father’s friends, attempting to be helpful and reassuring. With this bit of wishful thinking, my father went into our house and pinned his medals to his jacket, believing that the forces of evil could still be blunted by the evidence of his faithful service as a German soldier. He went back outside to stand with his friends and neighbors, proudly wearing his medals, still wanting to believe, and looking very much like the hero he had always been to me.

As we stood there outside our home, I put my hand in my father’s as I often did. For my entire life, my father had been my hero because he was always so physically strong and so brave; so respected by the community that he served and lived within; so capable, and such a tower of confidence.  Today, however, I experienced something that I had never felt before. I felt perspiration on my father’s hands. It became clear to me that he too was very nervous. This fact alone was enough to frighten me even more.

We could hear the roar of an angry crowd coming towards us from the neighboring blocks on which the synagogue and the homes of other Jews had been ransacked and destroyed.

Another friend came to us in advance of the mob to warn us that Nazis from out of town had come to stir up and organize some of the local Party members. With tears and genuine fear for us, he quietly brought us this warning.

It takes about ten times as long to describe the most terrifying events of Kristallnacht than it did for the events of that day to take place, for they happened bang, bang, bang.

The mob rapidly came closer and closer.  They were shouting many of the horrible anti-Semitic things that had been printed in Der Sturmer, a newspaper that had long published caricatures and other degrading pictures of Jews, as well as many hateful lies about things that Jews were purported to have done. I had little knowledge of these things, or at the very least, did not understand them. I had been so sheltered by my parents and shielded from the realities of that time. Most of what I had encountered until now seemed more like the same, sometimes mean and hateful, playground antics of children. But this, I knew, was something far more than that. I could hear the crowd coming towards our house, and I felt the icy tentacles of utter fear gripping my heart.

They were making terrible noise as they came closer to our house. As they drew nearer, I could see that they were armed with axes and crowbars, cattle prods, tree limbs, broom sticks, and clubs. Others carried rocks and stones to be thrown at us as well as through our windows. Leading the way in front of the Brownshirts of the SA was a group of boys my own age, boys that I knew and with whom I had attended kindergarten and the first three years of [Catholic] elementary school, or shared soccer fields with here in Haltern. They too were armed with stones and sticks and slingshots and they all came directly at me. I wanted to shout at them to stop and to tell them that they can’t do this to my family, but I had no voice. The words would not come out of my throat. All I could do was to stand there and wonder what I had done to receive such punishment and degradation. At my young age, I could not even begin to fathom or grasp it. To this day, I am nothing short of amazed that I survived the day. They continued to shout horrible words at us and threw things at me, shooting rocks and stones with their slingshots. Each of these missiles hurt me physically, but wounded my heart and soul far more deeply. They are very much wounds that I still feel to this day.

My father stood proudly in front of the rabble pleading with many who were life-long acquaintances and cried out, “You cannot do this to me! I am a German like you.” He was gesturing with his arms, patting his chest to draw attention to his medals, as if to make this hate-filled Nazi crowd recall his own loyalty as well as the hardships they had mutually endured in France twenty years earlier.

Seemingly in the blink of an eye, the crowd parted, and the Nazi, who was in charge of the horrible things that were happening in Haltern that day, came up to my father, got very close to him, began to shake him violently by the shoulders, and then spat in his face. All the while my father was protesting what was happening and proclaiming that he was a good and loyal German, this officer was shouting at my father, and then began to beat him. It was while he was beating my father, that he yelled, “You are not a German. You are a dirty Jew. You are not human, and you do not deserve to wear these medals,” and ripped my father’s medals from his chest and threw them to the ground. To further make his twisted point, he stomped on those revered pieces of ribbon and metal, grinding them into the cobblestones under the heel of his black leather jackboots, and kicked them toward a blazing fire in the street.

At the same time that this was going on, many in the crowd had roughly surged passed us and quickly entered our house and shop, and threw furniture and other of our belongings out on to the street through the windows. They were looting the place of our valuables and we heard my mother, defenseless, in the house, screaming in pain, while she too was being beaten; “Natan, Alex! Let’s get out of here…let’s get out of here! They are killing us!  They are killing us!” My father grabbed me by the neck and propelled me into the house to my mother’s side. I grew more terrified with each passing moment.

 As I reached my mother, my father grabbed both of us, and with his strong arms propelled us through and out of the house. I am not sure how we were able to do so, but we escaped, all the way to the back of our property. And there we stood, in the Wehrstrasse (alley), watching them destroy all that my father and my grandfather before him had worked lifetimes to build.

We stood there nursing our wounds. The physical ones were bleeding and eventually healed. But the far more painful mental and emotional scars will never leave me. We were trying to catch our breath and wondering what would become of us. None of us spoke for a long time. There were no words that could adequately convey what each of us was feeling at that time. As we stood there we could still hear the screaming hordes that were looting and destroying our home; the sounds of breaking glass, and the thud of our furniture landing in the street. Through it all, there was always the sound of the wind blowing.

After what seemed like hours, but was probably only minutes, my mother asked my father, “Natan, what are we going to do now?”

“Let’s wait a while, and when things have quieted down, we’ll go back and we’ll bring the furniture into the house, save what we can, and things will be better,” he replied.

As the crowd finished plundering our home, several of my father’s friends came to us as we leaned against the picket fence at the rear of our property, and pleaded with my father to leave. “Natan, you can’t stay here. We are powerless to protect you. If they find you here, they will beat you again. There is no controlling them. You must go and take your family away from here and go to a safer place.”

My father asked, “Leave here? Where to? Where should I go with my wife and son to be safe?”

His friends interrupted him and suggested that for our own protection, we should go the short distance down the Garden Strasse to our garden, if for no other reason than to get away from the crowd that was certainly intent on terrorizing us as well as all of the other Jews in town that day. We would probably be safer there, and we could wait for things to quiet down, and for people to come back to their senses. Like most German families of this time, mine had a very large garden where we would grow vegetables and fruits which my mother would then can and preserve for us to eat in the winter. While the entire family was responsible for planting, weeding, and tending the garden, my contributions usually consisted of sitting there and eating the fruits of our labors. There were no supermarkets back then, and these gardening and canning activities were something that a family did in order to survive the winter.

We made our way the quarter mile to our garden. Luckily, Garden Strasse and the dormant gardens were deserted. The primitive gazebo in our garden where my father used to play cards with his friends gave us some protection from the approaching night. During the growing seasons, the sides and trellis of the gazebo would be covered with the beans that grew up towards the sun before we would pick them. There were no beans left in November, just the empty dry vines and leaves that eerily danced in the wind. They scraped themselves against the wooden beams every time the wind would blow, creating an empty sound that still sends chills up and down my spine to this very day. Of all the sights and sounds that left a lasting impression on me during the years that I fought to survive, there is no doubt that the sounds I experienced while we huddled on the gazebo are the ones that will forever haunt me. Even now, I cannot hear the sound of leaves scraping on the sidewalk or the bricks of my apartment without flashing back to the time that we huddled on that old gazebo and that eerie sound of dead leaves and vines added to the sheer terror that I was feeling. 

It was now about four-thirty in the afternoon on that chilly gray day. The wind was blowing, and we were cold. Our friends returned just before dark, bringing us blankets, coffee, and some soup to help us keep warm. One of my father’s best friends soon came riding as fast as he possibly could into the garden on his bicycle, obviously alarmed. He jumped off the bike even before he had used the brakes to stop it, allowing the bike to go on without him. Greatly agitated, he stormed into the garden and yelled, “Natan, it is not safe for you to stay here. We must find a better place for you. I just heard a rumor that the Nazi who attacked you when they came to destroy your home, the one who spat in your face, beat you, and ripped off your medals, is claiming that you spat into his face and hit him. But worse than that, his superior officer told him that the medals you were wearing should have been turned in two and a half years ago. Did you know that all Jewish soldiers were required to turn in their medals two and a half years ago? Obviously, you didn’t do that, and others who defied this law were never heard from again. This Nazi is looking for you.”

“Where can I go? Everyone here knows me. I have no way to leave. No horse and buggy, no bicycle. People will recognize me. Where shall I go?” pleaded my father, stunned and looking to heaven, as if seeking advice from God. There was a moment of quiet. He then turned to my mother and said, “Lotte, I’m going to give myself up. Then maybe no harm will come to you and Alex.”

Another friend, hearing my father utter these words, raised his fist and got so mad at him that I thought he might beat my father. He yelled, “Natan, how dare you talk like this! That is not what you should do! You have always been brave, and have never given up on anything at any time in your life. You are the head of your family. You can’t leave them during this horrible time. You must stay with them. You must leave this garden and find another place to hide until things calm down here.”

“So give me an idea,” said my father. “What can we do? Where can I go?”

“Go to the Jewish cemetery; they will not look for you there,” said another of his friends, referring to the cemetery located on the outskirts of our town.

“Yes, Natan, go to the cemetery. There is nothing for them to steal or to plunder out there,” said another friend. “Surely you will be safe there.”

“But people will see us as we walk through the town,” reasoned my father.

“No they won’t, Natan. They are all too busy looting and stealing from you and the other Jewish families. No one will find you in the cemetery. Be patient. We will come back for you when it is safe for you to leave.”

Taking our blankets, we trudged through the cold, damp darkening air. Being November, the weather had already turned cold, and much like Upstate New York, the air had an edge that was nothing less than bone chilling when the wind blew. We quietly walked to the cemetery and approached a sloping ravine in the back of the property. At the far end, it was some eight to ten feet deep, and by hunkering down inside of it, we were somewhat protected from the wind. We huddled there for a long time. Of course, I had never been in a cemetery at night. The silence was extremely frightening. No birds were singing, and the darkness felt darker than any I had ever known before. Once in a while, the silence was broken by the wind in the trees and dry leaves scraping against the headstones. Hours passed, I don’t know how many, because I was too frightened to even be aware of time passing. Just yesterday I had been sitting in the warmth of our kitchen watching my mother fix our dinner, living a seemingly normal life, and today I was huddling in the wind having seen my father beaten and our life destroyed because we were now deemed to be something less than human. But for the moment, we felt safe.

We were shocked and surprised when the quiet of the dark night was suddenly shattered by the noise of the approaching mob. Still armed with the axes and crowbars, now many of them were holding kerosene lamps with large wicks that served to light up the way around them, casting an evil and eerie glow, and allowing me to see their breath in the cold night air. Still shouting their obscene slogans, they had come to the cemetery after all.

“Someone must have sold us out and revealed our location to the mob,” said my mother, now very frightened.  From our vantage point, we knew when they entered because of the squeak of the gate at the cemetery entrance which had not been oiled in years. That particular squeak also remains in my head to this day. Then we heard the cracking of concrete and marble as they began to destroy the headstones with German and Hebrew inscriptions, even taking out their hatred on the dead.

“We are certainly in the right place. We won’t ever leave here,” my mother softly whispered amidst her tears, as I clung to her.

“Shh,” instructed my father, as he put his strong arms around us.

We sat there, frozen in fear, listening to them destroying the headstones, axes and crowbars striking and shattering them, sending shards of stone flying in all directions. These wild men and boys kept shouting, and to our minds looking for us as well.  It took them about an hour to destroy the cemetery. Just when we thought that they might be finished, we heard the distinct sounds of shovels striking the earth and digging going on.

“They are digging our graves,” softly cried my mother. “They know that we are here,” she said, drawing me closer.

“Lotte,” said my father in an attempt to quiet her.

            “They are saving us for last,” said my mother, resignation in her voice.

 

 

 

 

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