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Kristallnacht: 75 years later, survivors share experience as a way of warning, sharing values

Published: Friday, Nov. 8 2013 9:00 a.m. MST

A pedestrian looks at the wreckage of a Jewish shop in Berlin, Nov. 10, 1938, the day after the "Kristallnacht" rampage, when Nazi thugs set fire to hundreds of synagogues, looted thousands of Jewish businesses and attacked Jews in Germany and Austria. Germany's remembrance of the Nov. 9, 1938 terror, the ``Night of Broken Glass,'' comes amid fresh debate on the nation's relationship with its past -- triggered by the government's return to Berlin, the prewar capital from which Adolf Hitler ruled.

Associated Press

Of the night his neighborhood in Vienna was burned and broken, Ilie Wacs most remembers two sounds: There's the click, click of hobnail boots climbing the stone stairs in the apartment building where he huddled, a boy of 11, with his family, silent and terrified in the dark. The footsteps stop outside. No one utters a sound on either side of the door. That silence reverberates still for him. Then the click, click again as the boots move on.

It was Nov. 9-10, 1938 — a long, chaotic night 75 years ago that signaled the start of the Holocaust. Kristallnacht, often referred to as the "night of broken glass," was of deadly importance for Jewish people living in Germany and parts of Austria and Czechoslovakia.

Buildings shook, synagogues burned and Jewish-owned stores crumbled as Nazis rampaged as part of an organized plan disguised as a public anti-semitic groundswell. Some marauders eschewed SS uniforms so they could pretend to be random citizens, not an army carrying out a calculated pogrom. Families were torn apart as they were expelled from their homes and young men were arrested and shipped to concentration camps. Many would not return.

Ninety-one Jews were killed outright that night, said Aaron Breitbart, senior researcher for the Museum of Tolerance and the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. "Kristallnacht showed that the Nazis were willing to resort to actual murder. Before that, the persecution of the Jews had been legislative." The laws made it hard for Jews to make a living. Up to that point, they had been treated as less than human, he said, "but never murder."

It also gave Hitler's Nazis a chance to see how far those around them would allow the persecution of Jews to go, said Breitbart. They started with laws and waited for pushback. It didn't come. They ramped up anti-Jewish efforts. "Many people in different parts of the world got up and said no," he noted. "But when all was said and done, more was said than done. They saw the world was really not that interested."

Ben Lesser, who spent much of his childhood in concentration camps before being liberated at age 17, said three kinds of people lived in his world then: "It was a mad world of killers, victims and bystanders."

Living witness

Wacs, 85, a celebrated artist and clothing designer who settled in New York, has told the story to his daughters and others: Earlier that day a young man who had worked for Ilie Wacs' father in his tailoring shop came quietly to the family. He was part of Hitler's SS by then, but he told the elder Wacs to gather his kin and stay inside. Wac's maternal aunt and her family came. They huddled in darkness, he told the Deseret News.

He wrote about it in "An Uncommon Journey," a memoir with his sister Deborah Strobin, just a baby that November night. "It didn't take long before the silence filled with the shattering explosion of glass. The night wore on, a cacophony of sledgehammers and axes breaking down doors, women screaming, babies crying, men yelling at other men. There was the acrid smell of smoke, fires burning something, not in our building, and the horrifying scuffle of people and furniture being dragged out of their homes and into the streets. We heard the chaos coming closer."

Because of the young Nazi, the Wacs family escaped intact, going to Shanghai, which accepted Jews. It was rough but better. Later, he studied art in Paris, then joined his family in America.

Lesser missed Kristallnacht, though his family was forced repeatedly from one ghetto to another. The hatred that sparked Kristallnacht caught up with them in Hungary, where they'd gone from their native Poland. His mother, father, sister and two brothers died in concentration camps. Seven went in; he and a sister emerged.

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