Monday, May 19, 2008

Yom HaShoah event recalls Kristallnacht

Published in Volume 64, Issue 10 of Arizona Jewish Post (May 16, 2008)

On Sunday, May 4, community members packed into Congregation Anshei Israel to commemorate Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), which was officially observed May 1. The ceremony held a special significance this year, marking the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht and the 60th anniversary of the State of Israel. The ceremony was themed "Kristallnacht Remembered," featuring keynote speaker Gerhard Weinberg, professor emeritus of history at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.

The commemoration began with a Presentation of Colors by the Davis-Monthan Honor Guard and a processional of Holocaust survivors from Hungary, Poland, Greece, Germany and Ukraine. The survivors, escorted by students belonging to the Jewish-Latino Teen Coalition, lit six candles in honor of the six million Jews who perished in the genocide. Two survivors, Inge Schneider and Ester Harris, spoke of the horrors that began with Kristallnacht--the "Night of Broken Glass"--on Nov. 9, 1938, when Nazis destroyed Jewish homes and businesses throughout Germany.

Schneider was a 12-year-old in the German town of Dusseldorf when her family was awakened at 4 a.m. by Nazi troops bursting into their home. The soldiers ransacked the home and arrested her father. In the morning, she saw that the streets were littered with glass and the Jewish school she and Harris both attended had been burned to the ground. Her mother arranged for her father's release and brought Schneider and her two sisters on the ill-fated St. Louis, which sailed for Cuba in May 1939 but was not permitted to disembark upon arrival. All but 28 of its 937 Jewish passengers were forced to return to Europe, where most--including Schneider's mother--perished in concentration camps. "For the Nazis, this was a victory," she said. "It showed that no one wanted the Jews." Schneider survived Bergen-Belsen, but was hospitalized for typhus and tuberculosis after the camp was liberated. After the war, she and her sisters were reunited with their father in New York City.

Although they did not know each other at the time, Harris grew up in Dusseldorf and attended the same Jewish school as Schneider. She, too, remembers the terrifying events of Kristallnacht, when several soldiers broke into the house, brutally beat her father and destroyed the family's dry goods store. Harris had just turned 11. Her father managed to escape arrest because of his service in WWI. The next morning, the Jews of Dusseldorf wandered through the streets surveying the damage. "It was like a ghostly parade from another world," Harris said. Fearing for their future, the family fled to Belgium and then to France in May 1940, when the Nazis invaded Belgium. With the help of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, they eventually found refuge in Portugal.

Weinberg, a noted WWII historian whose own family fled Germany in 1938, discussed the context of Kristallnacht, explaining that it occurred following the assassination of German diplomat Ernst vom Rath, who was shot in Paris by a Jewish youth, Herschel Grynszpan. The Nazis sought to drive Germany's Jews out of the country and plunder their property ahead of the impending war, and used the assassination as a justification.

The program was coordinated by the Jewish Community Relations Council, the public affairs and social action arm of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona.

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