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Close to Home: Remembering 'the night of shattered glass' 75 years later

  • A group of people stand outside a Jewish-owned shop in an unnamed German town in November 1938, after Kristallnacht, when Nazis thugs burned and plundered hundreds of Jewish homes, shops and synagogues across the country. (Associated Press)

My husband, Alfred Batzdorff, and I were eyewitnesses to Kristallnacht, “the night of shattered glass,” which occurred 75 years ago this weekend.

He was 16 at the time and lived with his family in the apartment above ours in Breslau, Germany. I was 17 years old. I had dropped out of school to prepare for emigration. I worked as a mother's helper for a Jewish family with three young children. A few years later, this entire family was gunned to death in Riga, Latvia. I commemorated their lives in a poem. I shall never forget them.

My father had gone to America to pave the way for our family to find refuge there. My younger brother was training for emigration at an agricultural camp not far from where we lived. My mother was alone in the apartment, and I was at work when we found out about the pogrom that had begun during the night. The night of Nov. 9, 1938 represents a watershed of sorts, an end to the gradual erosion of our rights as Jews in Nazi Germany. This sudden eruption of violence and lawlessness would change our lives forever.

Our synagogue was set on fire and allowed to burn to the ground, its remnants dynamited until not a stone remained. Jewish men were rounded up and sent to concentration camps, homes and businesses were vandalized. A lawless mob was in control, and the police offered no protection.

A Jewish club house next door to our apartment house was vandalized. Alfred was arrested out of our apartment and taken away. Another friend who had sought shelter with us later that day was apprehended there, and my mother and I were threatened with imprisonment if we refused to turn him over to the Gestapo. Our non-Jewish neighbors watched, mostly non-committal, as police vans passed by with sirens screeching. We felt totally isolated, abandoned, alone. The feeling among the Jewish population was, “From now on, anything is possible.” And so it was.

Step by ruthless step, Jews were branded with yellow stars, deprived of jobs, homes, deported to camps and finally murdered. One of the largest genocides in history began with the pogrom of Nov. 9, 1938.

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