Silent Night, Crystal Night

Silent Night, Crystal Night

From Chicken Soup for the Kid's Soul

Silent Night, Crystal Night

As we walked, my grandfather said, in a voice tinged with sadness, “This month is very meaningful to me. Three highly significant events occurred in our family in November. Do you know what they are?”

“You mean our birthdays on the same day and Thanksgiving?”

He shook his gray, balding head. “Kristallnacht also happened in November.”

“Is that what happened when you were a boy? You’ve never talked about what happened to you growing up.”

With a hint of a German accent he said, “Well, you’re getting older, and it’s time you heard a bit of history by someone who lived it.”

This is the story he told tome during my thirteenth year.

“By 1935, when I was very young, the Nazis had gained great strength throughout Germany. In my city of Magde-burg, their symbols were everywhere. Nuremberg Laws deprived Jews of the right of citizenship. We could no longer have telephones, businesses or personal relationships with non-Jews. Non-Jews could not hire us, nor could we have them work for us.

“Soon after those statutes were enacted, store windows and buildings were plastered with signs saying ‘Juden Verboten’ (Jews Forbidden) in huge letters, blaring like trumpets their malicious message. During the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, these signs disappeared, only to return after the games. On the last day that I was allowed to attend school, a Nazi schoolmate threw a rock at my head, hitting me.

“Locating medicines and food had become difficult unless a Jewish-owned business was still in operation. Prominent Jewish doctors, banned from hospitals, worked from their homes; professors, banned from universities, taught classes in secret.

“My parents spoke little about the situation to my younger brother and me. I did overhear them saying that they hoped this madness would soon pass.

“‘After all,’ my father said, ‘our families have lived in Germany for generations.’

“My parents warned us to remain as invisible as possible, to avoid crowds and any commotion in the streets. Can you imagine how I felt as a teenager?

“My mother wrote to her American relatives in Maine, requesting they sign a required affidavit without delay, guaranteeing the four of us freedom in America. This document would also permit us to leave Germany.

“A year later, my country’s situation worsened, becoming extremely dangerous. Jews were required to wear the Star of David on their sleeves, becoming targets for open harassment.

“Around the first of November in 1938, my mother left for Munich to learn fancy hotel cooking in hopes of finding work in America after we received permission to emigrate. My father stayed home to try to run what little business he had left.

“During the night of November 10, while we slept, uniformed Nazi hoodlums organized demonstrations all over Germany. They hurled rocks and firebombs at Jewish-owned businesses and property. People trying to escape the flames were shot. Millions of pieces of glass shattered all over the streets. Desecrated and torched synagogues were blown up. The noise and smell woke me. The stifling smell of burning buildings saturated the air. I jumped out of bed, peeked through the curtain and thought I was in hell. My father came into our room, closed the curtain, and told me to go back to bed and keep the lights off. I finally went back to sleep.

“Throughout that night, countless Jewish men as well as boys my age, natural-born German citizens, were arrested and sent to concentration camps. Some of these men had previously earned medals while bravely serving their country during World War I. Survivors, rounded up the next day, were forced to march to the nearest government office, and received papers demanding payment to the German government for damages to their own businesses and homes. This catastrophe later became known in German as Kristallnacht, meaning the night of broken glass.

“When the alarm woke us in the morning, my father wasn’t home. We assumed he had gone out early on business. So I got your Uncle Fritz and myself ready for school. As we were about to leave, a family friend rang our doorbell. When we opened the door, he looked around to make sure that no one else was around to hear what he had to say.

“‘Your father may not be home for a while, and he wants you and your brother to stay in the apartment, and not go to school,’ the friend told us.

“For our protection, he didn’t reveal that my father had gone into hiding to avoid the mass arrest of all Jewish adult males. The friend left. Scared, I remained at home with a terrified eight-year-old brother.

“An hour later, someone pounded on the front door. Opening it, I saw a tall stranger dressed in a dark leather overcoat. He nearly filled the doorway. Intimidated by his size, I looked up shyly as he looked down arrogantly, both of us staring for a moment. Then the six-foot-plus intruder pushed his way inside and announced, ‘Gestapo!’ I can still hear that cold, sharp voice demanding, ‘Where is your father?’

“Scared, I answered, ‘I don’t know where he is or when he’ll return.’ The agent left, threatening to come back.

“Two or three hours later I heard that familiar, dreaded banging at the door. I shivered. I assumed the first caller had returned.

“Upon opening the door, I saw two different Gestapo agents who looked like clones of the first man.

“‘So! Has your father returned?’ one snarled. Then, without waiting for an answer, both pushed me aside, entered our home, started opening bureau drawers, emptying them on the floor, looking into all the closets and searching under the beds. Fritz and I shook with fright. We tried to hide our terror by jamming our cold, clammy hands into our pockets. Not finding whatever they were looking for, they turned without saying a word and left. Fritz and I nearly collapsed with relief.

“A short time later, these same two goons returned, demanding that I accompany them to Gestapo headquarters immediately. I told Fritz to go directly to our family’s friends. I got my coat. Then, sandwiched between the two tall, robotic Nazis who accompanied me, rode a public streetcar, believe it or not, and was delivered to Gestapo headquarters.

“Shoved into a scary-looking office, the first thing I noticed was a uniformed official seated behind a large, highly polished, wooden desk. On the mahogany wall behind him hung a huge color portrait of Hitler, whose eyes seemed to follow the administrator’s every move. Barely looking up from his papers, he shouted in a deep, menacing voice, ‘Wait outside the office until your father turns himself in!’ One of the aides pushed me into a large marble anteroom and ordered me to sit on a bench at the other end of the room.

“‘How long will I have to wait?’ I asked.

“‘For as long as it takes!’

“Only then did I realize that I was being held as a hostage. Shivering from fright and cold, I wrapped my coat around me and kept very still to avoid being noticed. I had no idea how long I had been sitting there before I saw my father pass through the doorway at the other end of the anteroom, disappearing into what must have been another office. Evidently, friends who had watched the apartment had told him of my arrest. He gave himself up in exchange for my release. The Nazis often took children hostage, knowing their fugitive parents would turn themselves in. It was a very effective tactic.

“I sat there for a long time, numb, not knowing what to do. No one paid any attention to me. After what seemed like hours, I got up some courage and approached the deputy who was seated down the hall.

“‘Excuse me.’

“‘What?’ he snapped.

“‘My father has already arrived, and I would like to go home.’

“Verifying my father’s arrival, the uniformed official behind the desk dismissed me with a flick of his pen, warning, ‘It will be your turn next time.’

“My father never discussed his experiences in the camp after his release. If anyone asked, he would address the question with a distant stare and silence.

“Five months before the start of World War II, the necessary papers came through, allowing us to sail to America.”

As we returned for our turkey dinner, Opa, as I called my grandfather, came to the end of his story.

“When the United States entered World War II, I automatically became a citizen, joined the Army and was ordered to Europe as an interpreter for German prisoners of war. I don’t dwell on my boyhood experiences, but today I felt that I wanted you to know. I guess it’s okay to remember those things once in a while.”

“Well, something good came out of all that tragedy, Opa,” I told him.

“Yah? What’s that?”

“Me,” I said, putting my arms around him, planting a kiss on his cheek.

My grandfather never spoke of this again.

Lillian Belinfante Herzberg

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