Kristallnacht: 75 years later, survivors share experience as a way of warning, sharing values
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."
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.
Lesser came to America and worked hard to be the best at anything he tried. He married, raised a family and recently wrote "Living a Life that Matters: From Nazi Nightmare to American Dream." He wrote it in part to tell youths anything is possible. He got to America at 18 with no education, no language, no money, no friends and "I built a beautiful life. In this wonderful country, who's stopping you?"
Lesser and Wacs see their history as a warning and plea.
"It is important to tell the story so that people keep remembering what happened and what people are capable of doing. By remembering, they make sure it doesn't happen again," said Wacs, who will be featured in Kristallnacht remembrances in New York and Los Angeles this week.
Time has claimed most eyewitnesses. "In another five to 10 years, I don't think we will have survivors who saw it with their own eyes to tell us what happened," said Breitbart.
When the only tale-tellers are films and books and documentaries, it won't be the same, said Breitbart, who can rattle off dates and numbers and who did what during the Holocaust. "I cannot convey the horror of the Holocaust. That is why what these people have to say is extremely important. Some pseudo-academics like to say it never happened or is exaggerated. In this age when most of the players and eyewitness journalists and jurists are no longer there, it is important those who are tell us."
Experts say the yearning to share personal experience is universal.
"Telling your own story helps personalize the forces that produced you and the people who you care for, especially as the generations of the immediate survivors of the Holocaust pass away. The stories remain and help others understand where the Jewish people have been and where they are coming from in the 21st century," said Rabbi Frederick L. Wenger, rabbi emeritus of Congregation Kol Ami in Salt Lake City.
"Hansen's Law" helps explain that need to pass history through generations, he said. It is the notion that what the second generation chooses to forget, the third chooses to remember.
Different faiths and cultures keep their histories alive in their own way. Some Mormon families encourage their youths to go on handcart expeditions that reenact the migration of Latter-day Saint pioneers into the Salt Lake Valley. Across the world, the March of the Living program brings Jewish youths to Poland to study the Holocaust and how it was rooted in hatred and intolerance. A generation of Jews more than a half-century removed from it visit a concentration camp and pray there, then go to Israel and pray there as well.
The stories convey something else important, Breitbart said. "Don't forget that this did not start in some backwards, Third World country. It was a country technologically advanced in so many ways and responsible for some of the best forces in civilization including Bach and Beethoven. That it happened in one of the most modern countries in the world is a warning anything can happen and it can happen anywhere. Perhaps the liberties we have are not to be taken for granted."
Kristallnacht is particularly dramatic, amid all the violence of the Holocaust, Wenger said. The Nazis "struck out at all the visible signs they could find of Jewish accomplishment, both material and historical. It galvanized our community and remains a symbol of everything the Holocaust became.
"That kind of direct attack at the symbols of a culture's accomplishment is something we have to watch for."
It is also not, he noted, an isolated moment in world history.
Ignoring bigotry because it doesn't target you is a big mistake, Breitbart said. "Haters are generally equal opportunity bigots."
Lesser, who lives in Las Vegas, believes hatred in all forms needs to be confronted. "We have to keep the world from acquiring amnesia — or it will happen again and again. It all started with hate and propaganda. Bystanders did nothing. It starts as young as school age as bullying. This is where it begins. When you bully, you make an enemy for life. Why not help, why not love instead of hate. If you see someone being bullied, do something about it."
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