Monday, November 13, 2017

My Mother's Kristallnacht Reflections

My Mother, Sophie Black (z"l) was born in Leipzig, Germany in 1926.  On November 9th, 1938, when she was 12 years old, she and her parents, Abram and Esther Koven, hid from hordes of brown-shirted Nazi thugs who systematically destroyed Jewish businesses, synagogues and other institutions in what is now known as Kristallnacht - the "Night of Broken Glass."  Historians see this event as a pivotal moment in the unfolding of Hitler's Final Solution.  As you will read below, Sophie was able to escape Germany a few weeks following that terrible night, but those memories haunted her the rest of her life.

Each year, at her Synagogue - Beth Emet, in Evanston, IL, she would share reminiscences of her experiences on Kristallnacht.  I don't have copies of all of her speeches, but I shared the following at Shabbat services at Temple Emanuel on Friday night, November 10, 2017.  Here is the text that she delivered on November 5, 2010:

                Several events occurred in the month of November during the last century which are of vital importance to the Jewish people.  The most recent was on November 4, the fifteenth anniversary of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, which is within memory of many in this room.  However, the one upon which I wish to focus this evening took place in Germany in 1938 during the night between November 9 and 10.  History books refer to it as Kristallnacht, The Night of Broken Glass.  I remember those days 72 years ago most vividly and want to share a few memories with you.
                Some historical references are necessary.  In the middle of October 1938 the Polish government issued a decree threatening to deprive all Polish citizens living in Germany of their Polish passports.  This Polish measure was widely regarded as an action directed primarily against Jews, and fearing that thousands of Jews were about to be marooned in Germany, the German government turned the tables on the Poles and rapidly deported Jews who held Polish citizenship to the Polish border. They were unable to take more than a small suitcase with them, and what happened to their belongings and businesses is not available in history books.  No one in Poland had anticipated this, and when the trains arrived during the last days of October 1938 at the border between Germany and Poland, the German guards forced the people off the trains, but the Polish border guards refused to let them step unto Polish soil. 
                For several days it was utter chaos at the borders.  Eventually people were settled some place in Poland, and after the Second World War broke out in September of the following year, many of those were sent to the death camps.  Whatever lives they had, after deportation from Germany, were difficult, to say the least. 
                In 1938 Herschel Grynszpan was a young man living in Paris with relatives.  He was born in Germany, had arrived in France earlier that year, but his parents remained in Germany.  They were Polish citizens and were subjected to the deportation.  When he learned of their fate, he went berserk, bought a gun, and went to the German embassy in Paris.  He asked to speak to a person in charge, was sent to a deputy called Ernst von Rath, and shot him.  Von Rath died two days later.  Grynszpan’s fate is unknown.  There are various stories; one even suggests that he survived the war years in prison in Germany, returned to France, and lived out his life with a new identity.
                Kristallnacht, which in German records is referred to as the spontaneous reaction to Grynszpan’s deed, provided the Nazi government with the opportunity to remove all vestiges of Jewish life from German soil.  Synagogues were totally destroyed; businesses could not be continued, unless they were managed by Germans.  All Jewish schools were closed, and every man could expect to be arrested and taken to a concentration camp.
                My parents and I went into hiding on Friday, November 10.  We were scheduled to leave for America a week later, and the only reason we were able to keep that date was because we were not at home, when the Gestapo came to arrest my father.  I remember the days in hiding as terribly tense times.  We were not personally affected by the Polish deportations, because my parents did not carry Polish passports.  They were stateless persons, having fled from the Ukraine in 1920, which cost them their citizenship.  My father had built up a business in Leipzig, and until 1933 life was quite good.  However, he realized quickly that there was no future for Jews in Germany after 1933, and being an ardent Zionist, he made numerous attempts to get certificates for the three us to immigrate to Palestine.  However, his lack of citizenship was a deterrent, and in the spring of 1938 he asked his sister in America to send him an affidavit.  She did, and that accounted for our scheduled departure.
                We had reservations on the boat called The New Amsterdam, and when we left Leipzig on November 19, we were scheduled to go to Rotterdam.  The trip to the Dutch border was about four hours long, and those were literally the longest hours of my life.  I was terribly frightened.  Would the border guards let us cross?  Would they let my father leave?  Where would they take us, should they not allow us to leave?  However, we were in luck; everything passed smoothly, and suddenly we were in Holland.  Nevertheless, it took several days, before I was able to get rid of the dread that had settled in the pit of my gut.
                The impact of an experience such as Kristallnacht is hard to describe.  No matter how one turns the events, there are always unanswered questions.  I think about my classmates.  Half of them did not survive the Shoah.  I think about my parents’ friends, who did not make it out of Germany.  And I think about people who were able to carry out the cruelties and horrors that took place in Germany, and I have no answer.  All one can do is to hope and to pray that such events will never occur again, and that people will finally accept that we are all created in the image of God.  I pray that the Eternal One will stay close to us and will give us the vitality to make the world a good place for all people, so that everyone will be able to walk in peace and achieve fulfillment.  Keyn y’hi ratson.(May it be God's will.)

SKB – November 5, 2010                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              

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