NOVEMBER 1, 2018 – November 10, 1938, began like any other day for Eric Kahn, now of Swampscott. He made his way to the Jewish school housed in a barracks on the outskirts of Wiesbaden, which the German city’s Jewish children had been forced to attend for the previous two years.
About an hour into the school day, police officers flooded the building, and all students were told to silently return home, without stopping or talking to anyone along the way. On his way, Kahn passed by a perfume store with shattered windows. Empty perfume bottles were strewn all over the street, and their many different smells wafted in the air.
When Kahn returned home, his parents finally told him what had happened the night before.
Nov. 9 will mark the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, a series of pogroms against the Jewish community that resulted in widespread destruction and death. According to Alan E. Steinweis, the Miller Distinguished Professor of Holocaust Studies at the University of Vermont, the name “Kristallnacht,” which translates roughly as “night of broken glass,” can lead to the popular misconception that Germany’s Jews only suffered from destruction of their property. The reality was far worse.
“It makes it seem like the most important thing that happened is that windows were broken,” said Steinweis. “Jews were beaten and mishandled, and an unknown number were killed. It was the largest pogrom in Germany during peacetime.”
The attacks on Nov. 9-10, 1938, occurred just two days after a 17-year-old Polish-Jewish refugee born in Germany named Herschel Grynszpan assassinated Nazi diplomat Ernst vom Rath in Paris. Nazi leadership was eager to use the assassination to incite anti-Jewish rioting, and authorized local Nazi officials and police across the country to attack Jewish homes, businesses, synagogues, and people.
Catastrophe ensued. Officially, 96 Jews were killed, but the real number is thought to be far greater, and hundreds more were beaten. Hundreds of synagogues were burned, nearly 7,500 Jewish businesses were destroyed and looted, and 30,000 Jewish men, including Kahn’s father, were arrested and sent to concentration camps.
Kristallnacht marked a significant turning point for Germany’s Jews, who had previously been divided on whether or not they should try to get out of a country where many had proudly lived for centuries.
“In 1938, you still had Jews who hoped they could stick it out,” said Steinweis. “After Kristallnacht, no one could live under the illusion that it was safe. As a German Jew, you felt physically threatened.”
“This was the beginning of what was to follow,” said Israel Arbeiter of Newton, who grew up in Łódz, Poland, just 90 kilometers from the German border, and spent 5½ years in six different Nazi concentration camps. “Before there were different opinions: some people said this is just temporary – [Hitler] will change, he will work with world powers. But once Kristallnacht happened … things were getting worse and worse.”
According to Kahn, every Jewish family, including his, tried to leave Germany after Kristallnacht. “The Jewish people tried to get out – everyone wanted to leave at the same time,” said Kahn. “We ran into difficulties getting a visa anywhere, because nobody really wanted the Jewish population.”
Kahn’s family tried unsuccessfully to get a visa to New York, where his uncle lived. However, because Kahn’s mother grew up a Christian and converted to Judaism, the Nazi government categorized his family as “mixed-race,” and they were not deported to concentration camps in 1942 like all the other Jewish families in their town.
During that time, the Gestapo made the Kahn family move three times, into smaller and smaller quarters. In February 1945, Kahn, his father, and his brother were crammed into a cattle car for a three-day journey to the Theresienstadt concentration camp in the Czech Republic, where they lived in separate quarters until liberation on May 8, 1945.
In July 1946, Kahn was able to obtain a visa to the United States, where he eventually finished high school and college and became an engineer for General Electric, a job that brought him to Swampscott.
Eight decades after Kristallnacht – with the attack on the Pittsburgh synagogue on everyone’s minds – Kahn, now 89, urged people to speak out against hatred and bigotry.
“If you see evil, you can’t be a bystander,” he said. “A lot of these things in Germany could have been prevented – not necessarily prevented, but made a lot easier – if people had spoken up against the evil they saw.”
Other area Holocaust survivors feel the same way. Rena Finder, 89, who grew up in Krakow, Poland, and was able to survive the Holocaust by working in Oskar Schindler’s factory, urges people to be “upstanders,” not bystanders.
“For the first time, I am scared for the future of my children, of my grandchildren … we cannot be silent,” said Finder, now of Framingham, who has been active in the Facing History and Ourselves curriculum designed to help students make the connection between the past and the moral choices they confront in their own lives. “Everybody should rise up and become an upstander. I’m a survivor on Schindler’s list. If it were not for Oskar Schindler, who was an upstander … I wouldn’t have survived. One person can make a difference.”