My parents and my younger brother and I lived in Bolivia during the Holocaust. When we settled into life in America after World War II, most of my parents’ friends were European emigres. They were drawn to Jewish academics and physicians who always called each other ”Herr” or “Pan” or “Frau” or “Pani” in German or Polish, and never by first names.
I was particularly fond of the Jewish-German emigres. They had come from the belly of the Nazi beast. They became substitutes for the family I never met — grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins all killed in Europe. They reciprocated my affection and always asked for me as soon as they entered: “Vo ist der tochter?”
While they hated Germany, they loved German poetry and composers and always listened to records and recited poems with translations for me. My favorite was Schiller’s “The Ring of Polycrates,” about a king who feared his good fortune and threw his beloved and very valuable ring into the seas, only to have it come back in a fish cooked for him. This was proof that he was doomed by fate. Decades later it became my daughter’s favorite poem.
I loved being with these people and often sat reverently next to them while they listened to an oratorio or piano concerto, followed by tea and pastries of chocolate mixed with jam. They brought me Snickers. I hungered for their stories about life in Germany before the war. They were all very voluble historians of their life and fate.
One of them was a professor in Hamburg until 1938. He was so assimilated that he sported a “Messerschmitt” — a dueling scar popular among upper class Germans on his cheek, and a handsome bald pate.
He and his Frau had two sons who also assimilated until the 1930s when the Nazi state abolished all youth groups in Germany except the Hitler Youth or its female equivalent, the League of German Girls — and all Jewish children were barred. In January 1933, there were approximately 50,000 members of the Hitler Youth. By 1939, the vast majority of German children were part of the Hitler Youth organization.
Nonetheless, as the professor detailed it, they were optimistic that sanity would prevail and that Nazi ideology would disappear. And in any event, where could they go? As the infamous Evian Conference (Jul 6, 1938 – July 15, 1938) disclosed, of all the delegates from 32 nations, who all expressed caterwauling sorrow and shock, only one country agreed to absorb additional refugees: the Dominican Republic. And who would go to the jungle — something my parents, and so many Jews, gladly did to flee Europe.
Herr Doktor and Frau Doktor Goldman went to India, and Pan and Pani Kleinfeld went to Argentina and others found succor in distant and exotic corners of the Diaspora.
But the professor from Hamburg remained in Germany.
I asked what was the one incident that propelled him to leave Germany. He did not hesitate to reply, “Kristallnacht” — November 9-10, 1938 when brick-throwing mobs torched synagogues and destroyed 7500 businesses, stores, and homes. Jews were rounded up and deported. The violence was instigated primarily by Nazi Party officials and members of the SA (commonly known as Storm Troopers) and Hitler Youth.
The next day, after reassuring his Frau that academics, both faculty and students, would rally against the Nazis, he returned to the University where he was formerly hailed by students and befriended and often entertained by faculty. He was jeered by students who cheered Hitler and threw his academic robe at him and by faculty who turned their back on him. That was the last straw. He and his family left Germany and found their way to America and Washington Heights in New York where many European Jews lived.
At first, the American media responded furiously, calling Kristallnacht a wild orgy and urging others to respond vigorously to the barbarity. The New York Times stated that the pogrom showed “scenes which no man can look upon without shame for the degradation of his species.”
It would not be long before the “root cause” groupies and anti-Semites began to rationalize the event. It was caused by economic insecurity and reparations Germany had to pay after World War I, and poorly nuanced columns and broadcasts appeared blaming the Jews themselves. That never takes long.
Those friends who made it to America lived in peace and safety. They are always in my memory of an unusual childhood. They were the lucky ones.
But this is a cautionary tale as we now watch Hamas Youth rallies and Jews threatened in the academies.
Ruth King publishes RuthfullyYours.com – a daily blog of conservative columns on national and international news.