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Jewish Journal

I remember Kristallnacht—70 years later

By Rolf Gompertz

November 6, 2008 | 11:15 pm

The original synagogue in Krefeld, Germany

The original synagogue in Krefeld, Germany

November 9, 1938, Bismarckstrasse 118 -- It's already two o'clock in the morning, the next day. All is calm; all is quiet, in this unholy night. We live on the second floor. I have a room on the third floor. Another month and I'll be 11 years old. Now I am sound asleep. Suddenly there is a pounding, a loud, constant pounding, and I wake up -- a pounding, a terrible pounding at the front door.

"Open up, open up, or we'll break the door down!"

I run to the banister. I see my parents on the second floor below, frightened, hesitant. My father wants to go down, but my mother stops him. He just had an operation around his eyes, and she does not want anything to happen to him. Before he can argue, she is down the steps.

"Open up, open up, or we'll break it down!"

"I'm coming, I'm coming," my mother calls out.

I am scared. I rush into my room, grab a small suitcase and rush out again.

"Vati, Vati," I call down. "If they take you, I'm going with you!"

My mother has reached the door. As she opens it, she and the door are hurled against the wall.

Nazis, half a dozen of them, with rifles, rush up the steps.

My mother follows. I come down. We all meet on the second floor. They want to lock us into the kitchen.

"No, no," my mother screams, "we won't be locked up!"

We run around through the rooms, one after the other. As we come into the study, my father rushes to his desk, with the head Nazi close behind.

My father opens a drawer, pulls out the Iron Cross, his medal from World War I, holds it up and shouts, "Is this the thanks I get for having served the fatherland?"

The Nazi and he stand face to face.

What now? Curses: "Damned, dirty Jew!"? The butt of the rifle in the face? Or an even quicker, final answer: a bullet in the head?

For a moment, a long moment, silence, deadly silence, their eyes locked for an eternity.

Suddenly, the Nazi turns, signals his men silently, leads them down the stairs, out of the house and into the black night, without breaking one dish.

Elsewhere that night, in Jewish houses and homes, on our street and throughout Krefeld, dishes and windows, furniture and crystal break. The synagogue burns.

Kristallnacht! Here and in all the cities of Germany.

Day breaks, but it isn't over. They come to take my father away to the concentration camp along with all the other Jewish men of the city. He is at the doctor's. They never come back for him and let him go.

My parents and I fled in 1939, a few months after Kristallnacht, the dress rehearsal for the Holocaust. We were saved by distant relatives in America. We arrived June 11. Three months later, the war started. We had escaped on the eve of the Holocaust.

This excerpt is from a speech first given in 1988 on a return by the author, Rolf Gompertz, to his hometown of Krefeld, Germany on the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Gompertz speaks often on Kristallnacht and the Holocaust at the Museum of Tolerance, and his experience of that pivotal night was dramatized as part of a 2003 television series on BBC titled "Days That Shook the World." Gompertz will also be speaking Nov. 9 at 4:30 p.m. at a special event commemorating the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht at the Simon Wiesenthal Center/Museum of Tolerance. Admission is free, but reservations must be made by calling the museum at (310)772-2527.

On Nov. 10, Gompertz's speech will be presented in German translation at an ecumenical event to be held in the new synagogue that was recently dedicated in Krefeld. Gompertz is the author of five books dealing with love and the search for meaning. He considers them his answer to Hitler, Kristallnacht and the Holocaust.

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