This is the first article in a series leading up to the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht.
This is the 80th year since the Nazi pogrom (Kristallnacht) of Nov. 9-10, 1938, in Germany and Austria.
Many people are aware of how significant Kristallnacht was for the Jewish people, the beginning of the Final Solution. After this cruel and shocking coordinated attack by SA paramilitary forces and German civilians, by Hitler youths, even by neighbors, Jews in Germany and Austria knew they could no longer remain.
Young people may not be aware of this vicious and widespread attack. Blessed to be an American Jew, I learned of this as an 8-year-old child of an American Army officer, living in Oberammergau, Germany, from 1949-52. This night and day will live in infamy as much as the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
My memory of Kristallnacht (also called “Night of Broken Glass”) comes to me partly because my mother came home agitated from seeing the brutal attack in a German film documenting these events as they occurred. I wonder now what purpose it served to show this shocking portrayal of German cruelty to our small military community in Oberammergau. I was too young to see it as the protected child my parents hoped I would be.
My mother, almost always cheerful, came into my bedroom that night in great distress. She described what she saw as she wept in despair and anger at the inhumanity of the attackers. She described the thrill that local onlookers expressed as they watched these attacks. I have come to this memory third hand, but it holds for me an immediacy I feel compelled to pass on to others.
I have retained such a sharp sense of this night because I am also blessed to know survivors of this attack. Hearing the close call that they experienced has imprinted on me the sheer luck of their being able to escape alive when so many others didn’t.
Each of their stories has stayed with me and made me realize what I would have missed if they had not been able to leave and made me realize all the people whom I have missed knowing because they were not so lucky.
One of these survivors is my husband’s lifelong friend, Ralph Posner, who was born one year before Kristallnacht. He was only a year old when his father, a factory owner, was jailed that night, as were many Jewish men. Robert Posner was freed because the regional head of the SS had come to know Mr. Posner as a result of his investigation of the death of a manager who had worked in Mr. Posner’s factory. That earlier relationship made all the difference. The Posners were able to leave Germany soon after, heeding the truth of what might be in store for them if they tried to remain. Eventually making their way to Rhode Island, Mr. Posner was able to open a jewelry factory, Rolo Manufacturing.
Another friend, Ruth Oppenheim, has preserved her memory of the life-altering events of Kristallnacht, what preceded it and what followed, as a child living through those years in a small German town.
In her published history of her life, “Beyond Survival: The Story of my Life,” Ruth relives her experience of Nov. 9, 1938, “That night also ended my childhood as I watched my father being dragged down the street, eventually returning blood-streaked, holding the Torah from our small synagogue.” She and her husband, also a survivor, eventually settled here in Rhode Island, where she worked for many years in the Brown University English Department.
Another friend was Peter Wegner, who was able to leave Vienna, Austria, at the tender age of 6 years old, on a Kindertransport with 300 other children. In December 1938, the British Parliament had passed a resolution offering asylum to 10,000 Jewish children, who boarded special trains that enabled the children to escape the cruel destiny of so many others. In Peter’s case, he was fortunate enough to join his mother, who was already, working as a maid in London. He grew up to marry the brilliant Judith Romney. His remarkable story records yet another last-minute escape. Emigrating to the U.S. ultimately brought them to Rhode Island where he became a professor of Computer Sciences at Brown. He and Judith, a lawyer and professor of Judaic and Comparative Religious Studies, were my neighbors.
Contact me with your memories for future articles.
HILARY SALK is the author of “Eavesdropping in Oberammergau,” a novel which draws on her experiences as an American Jewish girl living with her parents in Germany three years after the Holocaust. She lives with her husband, Steve, in Providence and Narragansett. Reach her at email@example.com.