By Rachel Gross
For Renate Kahn, Nov. 9-10, 1938 are days indelibly etched in her memory. Next Sunday and Monday mark the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, in Germany.
On this night, almost 100 Jews were murdered and thousands were sent to concentration camps. Businesses and synagogues were destroyed and people’s lives changed forever.
Twelve years old at the time, Kahn is one of the few survivors living in Dallas who was there and experienced the destructive event.
Living then in Kassel, Germany, her father owned a store and they lived in the apartment above. On the day it happened, Kahn recalled going to the store after school to find it empty — her father and grandfather had been arrested. She then went up to the apartment where she found her grandmother, alone. They did not know what had happened and what was to come later that night was an even bigger surprise.
“There was nothing we could do,” the 82-year-old said. “We could hear noises coming from below on the street … we could actually hear the glass breaking. We were scared to death. We were shaking in our boots.”
Kahn’s family were non-practicing Jews in Germany. She was one of only two Jewish kids in her class at school; the owners of the building they lived in were not Jewish. Earlier that day, Kahn had been asked not to come back to school and she was slowly losing all her non-Jewish friends.
The events that happened that night foreshadowed what was to come for Jewish people living in Germany. Kahn’s memories will live with her forever. As a child, it was difficult for her to understand the true implications of what was happening.
“This is something I’ll never forget,” she said. “We were afraid they were going to set the entire building on fire but they couldn’t do that because the renters were not Jewish. We were lucky in that sense.”
And they got lucky in more ways than one. Even though the store was in shambles and their livelihood was destroyed, there was hope. A month after Kristallnacht, her father and grandfather were released from jail.
For years before, Kahn’s parents had been planning to go to America; they were just waiting to get their visas. In April 1939, five months after Kristallnacht, they left — she, her parents and brother — and went to America, where they knew their lives would be better and Jews wouldn’t be discriminated against. After arriving in New York, they made their home in Dallas and decided to start practicing Judaism.
“This happened so long ago and coming to Dallas was a total change for me,” Kahn said. “Luckily, we got to America before all of the really bad stuff happened. I’m an American, not a German.”
Today, Kahn and her husband, Carl, are still involved with the Jewish community; they have been members of Temple Emanu-El for 50 years. They are also involved musically. Renate and Carl play music about three times a week (both play the violin, and he plays viola and piano) and even take music classes at a junior college. Kahn is just a woman who happened to witness a heart-wrenching disaster.
She said what she remembers the most about the whole thing is the incarceration of her father and grandfather. She said it is important for everyone, Jewish or not, to be aware of what happened that night.
“The discrimination and the imprisonment of my father and grandfather for no reason, just because they were Jewish, was really an insult,” she said. “I think about this [Kristallnacht] all the time. It has impacted my entire life ever since. I’ll never forget and the world should never forget.”
First-hand accounts shared by Kahn and other survivors and witnessess have ensured that the memory of Kristallnacht will never fade.
Elliott Dlin, executive director of the Dallas Holocaust Museum–Center for Education and Tolerance, said Kristallnacht had a huge impact on society, in both Europe and America. He said it is important to look at the destructive influences that exist anywhere around the world.
“This was an outburst, an orgy of destruction against innocent people and symbols of their existence like synagogues, businesses and homes,” he said. “This anniversary symbolizes that Jewish structures were attacked and marks a particular warning about what can go wrong in a society.”
These images stick in our minds forever, whether we experienced it or not. It has had a lasting impact on the Jewish people, just like that of the Holocaust.
Dlin said it is a comfort to the Kristallnacht survivors that people do remember it. He said it is something we always need to be aware of.
“The horrors that they endured have not been forgotten. They are with us and their traumatic experiences can be life lessons for us in the future,” he said. “The hope that things can change in the future offers a small measure of comfort despite the pain. They never forget and I think they know we are not willing to forget either.”
The Meaning of Kristallnacht
By Mitchell Bard
Imagine that you are 9 years old, sleeping soundly in your warm bed. Before going to sleep, you went through the normal bedtime ritual of brushing your teeth and washing your hands and face. Your mother came in to read a story. When you wake up, you’ll eat breakfast and then go to school as you do every day.
You’re suddenly awakened by loud banging coming from the front door. You’re not fully awake yet, but then you hear the door crashing to the ground and people running in. As you bolt upright, your mother rushes in and grabs you by the hand. She leads you downstairs to the living room, where you see your father shouting at a group of men who are all dressed in brown shirts and carrying axes and knives and broom handles.
One of the men hits your father with the end of a knife across the forehead so that he begins to bleed. “Daddy!” you shout, and rush to his side.
The other men begin to smash the tables and chairs and rip the upholstery of the couch. The hoodlums break the windows facing the street and begin to pull the family’s books from the shelves and throw them out the window. You can hear the sound of dishes breaking in the kitchen as another intruder pulls everything from the cabinets and throws it on the ground.
The man who hit your father says, “You’re under arrest. Come with me!”
“Why are you taking him? He hasn’t done anything wrong,” you cry as you cling to his leg.
Now the man comes toward you and grabs you by the arm and roughly throws you to the ground. Before you can move, you see your father being pulled out the door and pushed down the stairs so he trips and rolls to the bottom. The other men follow, pausing only to throw a glass lamp onto the floor so that it shatters.
Your mother rushes out the door and down the steps, shouting after the men dragging away your father, “Where are you taking him?”
You reach her side in time to hear the response, “Check with the Gestapo.”
Your mother begins to cry and she bends down to hug you. Over her shoulder you can see smoke rising from the synagogue burning down the street. The store windows of the Jewish businesses nearby are all broken and people are walking out of the stores with clothes, jewelry and groceries. People are shouting and laughing amid the sound of glass shattering.
It is a night that you will never forget. Later, people will call it Kristallnacht.
Seventy years ago, Jews all over Germany and Austria had experiences like the one I’ve just described. On Nov. 9, 1938, Adolf Hitler’s propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels, orchestrated pogroms in cities large and small across the Third Reich. By the end, at least 96 Jews were dead, 1,300 synagogues and 7,500 businesses were destroyed, and countless Jewish cemeteries and schools were vandalized. The broken glass strewn in the streets from the havoc perpetrated by Nazi storm troopers gave the night its name, “Night of Broken Glass.”
While the Holocaust is typically dated from the time World War II began or the Nazi decision to instigate the “Final Solution,” I would argue it began on this night when, in addition to the murder and mayhem, 30,000 Jews were rounded up and sent to concentration camps.
Many Jews became homeless and penniless overnight. The Nazis even fined the Jews for the cost of cleaning up the mess and then proceeded to impose additional draconian measures on the population aimed at further isolating them, such as forbidding them from sitting on park benches, using public transportation or frequenting restaurants and theaters.
Kristallnacht was the beginning of the end for German Jewry and telegraphed the fate of all Jews who would come under Nazi control. On the 40th anniversary of Kristallnacht, German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt acknowledged the significance of that night: “In those places where the houses of God stood in flames, where a signal from those in power set off a train of destruction and robbery, of humiliation, abduction and incarceration — there was an end to peace, to justice, to humanity. The night of 9 November 1938 marked one of the stages along the path leading down to hell….”
Mitchell Bard is author of “48 Hours of Kristallnacht: Night of Destruction/Dawn of the Holocaust — An Oral History” and director of the Jewish Virtual Library.