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Kristallnacht
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Irretrievably Broken:How does one generation come to terms with the crimes of another?
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Nazi propaganda posters at Colossus of Prora Museum

As today is the 72nd anniversary of Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, when Nazi stormtroopers and ordinary German citizens smashed Jewish homes, businesses and synagogues, and killed its owners. I offer you an excerpt from that chapter of my novel, Irretrievably Broken. Perhaps you say, along with my character Frieda Nussbaum, that not that many people were killed on Kristallnacht. Torah tells us of so much persecution of the Jews. Why was the night of broken glass worse than any night that came before? In Frieda's words, "It was the beginning of a time so terrible we had not even a name for it then. Later, we called it the Holocaust." 

Excerpt from Kristallnacht chapter:

Was that a scream?  Ruth turned off her desk lamp and waited.  In the dark, she made her way back to the window, lifted a small corner of the drape, and peered out.  Nothing.  Krause still stood in the same spot rubbing his cold hands.  Then she thought she heard shots.  She crept underneath the drapes and opened the window, just a crack.  Voices came from the Market Square.  Men’s voices.  Singing.  Shouting.  Like a rally.  From the living room came the sound of the gramophone and from the streets the sound of breaking glass.  And Officer Krause just stood there and rubbed his hands.  She wanted to run downstairs and tell her father and Herr Schmidt.  She wanted them to get Krause to stop those shouting men, but she knew they wouldn’t do anything.  ‘If I lived at the end of the street,’ Lina had said, ‘I wouldn’t sleep so easy tonight’.

Ruth pulled a cardigan from her chest of drawers and buttoned it over her dress.  She tiptoed into the hallway and down the stairs.  Through the partially open living room door, she caught a glimpse of her father’s sweaty red face as he danced the polka with Frau Schmidt.  In his office, Ruth took the cellar key off its hook and went out the back.  From the street, she heard the hammering sound of men’s boots on cobbles.  They paused in front of her house, shouted “Heil Hitler,” and then continued on.  Ruth mirrored their uphill movement, hiding behind backyard bushes, crawling around hedges, and climbing over fences.  When she ran through the Nussbaums’ garden, her hem caught on a rosebush, and she cried out as she lost her balance and fell.  Kaiser came running, barking loudly, and behind him was Frieda.

“Kaiser,” Frieda shouted, “Kaiser.”

In a moment, Ruth was on her feet again, but not before the men had also arrived at the house.  There were uniformed policemen and others.  She recognized the brothers Georg and Johann Wohnreich who owned the brewery; Herr Schröder from the bank and his son Hans in his Hitler Jugend uniform; Herr Gelsinger from the bakery was with Albert and Julius, his two apprentices; and there were others she didn‘t know.  Now one of the policemen smashed the front window with his rifle stock.  Frieda had not yet seen Ruth and the breaking glass caused her to turn back toward the house.  But Ruth grabbed her from behind and covered her mouth.  “Frieda, it’s me,” she whispered.  “Don’t make a sound.”

Frieda shivered violently as some of the men circled around the house and smashed more windows, but Ruth kept her arms tightly around Frieda.  Kaiser ran back to the house barking wildly.  He growled as he got a hold of the pant leg of one of the policemen.

Schieß den Hund,” one of the men shouted.  “Just shoot him down.”

The policeman gave Kaiser a hard kick that freed his foot, then aimed and shot.  He missed and Kaiser ran off.

From inside the house, Ruth and Frieda heard Herr Nussbaum implore the men to be calm.  They laughed and shouted “Heil Hitler.”  There was the sound of furniture being broken, of glass being shattered.  Then there were screams.  Now someone tore down the living room curtains and they could see Frieda’s mother in a pink nightgown pleading with one of the officers.

“Let me go,” Frieda screamed and tried to get away, but Ruth’s arms became like vice grips as she covered Frieda’s mouth with both hands to keep her from calling out again. 

Thank you for letting me share this with you. On a recent trip to Germany, I was again reminded of the Nazi years as I visited the Baltic Coast for the first time. (During the time I lived in Germany, this was part of the DDR, or East Germany.) We saw the power station at Peenemunde where Wernher von Braun's team of scientists developed the V-2 rocket with the help of Jewish concentration camp prisoners. We also saw the Colossus of Prora, a 5 km long vacation resort that housed up to 20,000 Nazi faithfuls. Today, these remaining installations are museums, needed testimonies to a past that should not be forgotten. As no one had ever talked of the events during the Nazi years when I was growing up in post WWII Germany, I was gratified by this new willingness to visit these places and discuss what happened there.