Opinion | I Was 8 When Kristallnacht Happened

Ruined Ohel Yaakov shul in Munich
Ruined Ohel Yaakov shul in Munich (Destroyed Ohel Yaaqov Synagogue.jpeg by unknown licensed under CC BY 3.0)

By Rabbi Walter Jacob

Nov. 9, 1938: The Final Solution had begun with us in Germany — men into concentration camps, businesses looted, moneys confiscated. When it ended, 6 million Jews across Europe, murdered. Who could foretell any of this?

We had no inkling. Certainly not I, as an 8-year-old mischievous boy who had, that evening, peeked into the huge synagogue (as big as Rodef Shalom) next door. Why not? It was my father’s, the rabbi’s, and I had done so many times before.

We went to sleep, and fire engines awakened my little brother and me — delighted, till we saw that it was our synagogue burning as we were yanked from the window. In the room next door, my father the rabbi was being interrogated by the Gestapo. That had happened several times before about 4 a.m., always with searches for the supposed secret documents of the B’nai B’rith of which my father was district president. That evening when the Gestapo agents left, they took my father with them, along with several hundred Jewish men. They were trucked to Dachau, a concentration camp two hours away. In this dank, freezing winter night, they left — no coats, no goodbyes and their astonished families wondering and no one to ask. After a month or six weeks, they were released one by one.

For days, members of our community (Augsburg: population 300,000, 1,500 Jews) wondered whether we had been singled out or had this occurred elsewhere in Germany. Eventually, we learned that this had happened to every German Jewish community. Anti-Semitism had been nurtured for years and had led to this.

How did our and other families cope in this period when women largely dealt with family and home while business and finances were the male domain? Decisions were shared, but rarely left entirely to the women, who were now utterly on their own.

My mother was told that it was not safe to be alone in our apartment with two little boys and we moved into the home of the congregational president, which we boys thoroughly enjoyed. We were safe, but my mother was concerned with our future and immediately left for Stuttgart, the nearest American consulate, as our only hope was emigration as soon as possible. She spent two icy days standing in line, received a number and was told to wait till they contacted her — how long? — perhaps two or three years.

My family had begun to plan for emigration to America in the summer of 1938; our American family had provided the necessary papers, which were endless. The families had remained in touch since their arrival in the 1870s. Not much practical work needed to be done — just downsizing our furniture to fit into a small home that we might be able to afford; we boys would grow and there would be little money for new clothes, so we purchased two, three or four sizes too large. Tight government regulations, changing daily, limited what we could take, if we would be able to leave. My mother had to grapple with all this while keeping two boys and their friends, whose school had been closed, occupied. Radio programs might have been helpful, but we had carefully avoided owning a radio to avoid the mandatory demand to listen to all Nazi speeches.

My family, along with all others, yearned for news about our men. Were they healthy in this cold, wet winter? What was happening to Jews elsewhere in Germany? Could they help us? Each family had endless questions, but it was not even wise to ask. My family had an unusual additional source as we subscribed to the weekly New York Times (we had always read English and French) and through some bureaucratic error, it continued to arrive.

Friendly non-Jews were careful; what was permissible? Who was watching, listening? The most courageous act I saw was a milkman who, on Nov. 10, pushed his way through a large crowd of gawkers and delivered as always, despite the police waving him off.

We children were given only information as absolutely necessary. Fortunately for my mother, 5- and 8-year-olds could be handled. She and everyone else knew or quickly learned that a single wrong remark could doom a family.

What happened to our small family? After six weeks, my father, along with most other men, was released. Neither then nor later did he talk about this period. My parents worked hard to prepare for emigration as my parents understood that the mood might change without warning. Generously the British government, through the chief rabbi, provided temporary visas for several hundred rabbis and scholars, provided they did not work, and my father left for England. We children and my mother, eliminating all but three toys each, remained in Augsburg as we had no money in England and the small amount the German government permitted us to withdraw each week would see us through.

When my mother in March of 1939 saw tanks on the roads leading to Czechoslovakia, she felt that war was imminent, phoned my father in London, told him we would arrive the next day and answered no questions. She gave our prepared dinners to friends and took our ever ready suitcases to the train for England. That began 10 months in London with our family that had arrived a few months earlier and now had enough family with them that we ate in shifts.

There would be plenty of adventure till we resettled in the United States, but we were safe and ever, ever grateful.

Rabbi Walter Jacob is rabbi emeritus and senior scholar at Rodef Shalom Congregation in Pittsburgh.


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