Tag Archives: Kristallnacht

A Full Tank of Gas

by Milton P. Ehrlich (Leonia, NJ)

Father wept in ‘33
when smoke from book burning
wafted down Polack Alley in Maspeth.

He knew the line from Heine:

When they burn books,
they will ultimately burn people.
 

My family huddled in fear
as synagogues burned on Kristallnacht.
Newsreel Stormtroopers
rampaged through my childhood dreams.

When swastikas were painted
on the front door of our synagogue,
we were dismissed early from Hebrew School,
and, hurrying home I was waylaid
by snarling teenagers
who dragged me into Mt Olivet cemetery,
tied me to a tombstone and spray-painted
a swastika on the back of my coat.

My uncle survived a year at Dachau as a child.
As an adult, he never went to sleep
without a full tank of gas in his car,
like Shostakovich,
who slept with a packed suitcase
beneath his bed.

Milton P. Ehrlich, Ph.D., an 85-year-old psychologist, has published numerous poems in periodicals such as Descant, Wisconsin Review, Rutherford Red Wheelbarrow, Toronto Quarterly Review, Christian Science Monitor, Huffington Post, and The New York Times.

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Kristallnacht

by Janet R. Kirchheimer (New York, NY)

Born in a small town in Southern Germany, my father hid, along with his parents, older sister and younger brother in the basement of their home during Kristallnacht. Translated as the “Night of Crystal,” Kristallnacht is often referred to as the “Night of Broken Glass.” It was a wave of violent anti-Jewish attacks that took place on November 9 and 10, 1938, throughout Germany, annexed Austria, and in areas of the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia occupied by German troops. Instigated primarily by Nazi Party officials and members of the SA (Sturmabteilungen: commonly known as Storm Troopers) and Hitler Youth, the name Kristallnacht reflects the broken glass from the windows of synagogues, homes, and Jewish-owned businesses plundered and destroyed during the violence. Numbers vary, but over 1,000 synagogues and businesses were destroyed, at least 100 people were killed and over 30,000 men were taken to concentration camps. On November 10, 1938, my father was ordered to report to town hall. Along with nine other men, he was arrested and sent to the concentration camp Dachau. He was 16 years old. 

Town Hall

“What for?” my father asked. “What
did I do? I’m only sixteen,” and
the gendarme told him if he didn’t

like it, if he asked any more questions, he could go home,
they’d arrest his father instead. And he saw his father
paying his tax bill in the next room,

and he didn’t call out, afraid they’d arrest him too, afraid
his father would want to take his place, and
the gendarme said he had a job to do, a quota of ten men,

and he didn’t care how he filled it. And my father
knew the gendarme, went to school with his daughter.
He was told to empty his pockets, turn

in any money and weapons, and he turned in
his pocketknife, and told the gendarme he had to go
to the bathroom, and another gendarme, Wilhelm,

took him, and he knew Wilhelm too. He told Wilhelm
not to worry, he wasn’t going to run away, and
Wilhelm said he knew, but he was doing his job.

As my father and nine men were loaded on a truck
that said “Trink Coca-Cola” he turned and saw
Wilhelm crying like a child.

Breaking Laws

Kristallnacht
broken glass
Nazis arrest him
a boy sixteen years old

Dachau
November 1938
a striped cotton uniform
it’s almost winter

he shares a bunk
with a man in his fifties
who freezes to death one night

the next morning a kapo tells him
take off the man’s long underwear
do it quickly
before the SS come for the body
you will freeze at night too
if you don’t

it is the custom of some Jews
not to wear clothes from a dead body
and to save one’s life the rabbis teach
one must break custom

he washes the underwear that night
places it over a chair
next to the woodstove to dry
sleeps on it
still damp
to make sure
no one will steal it

Janet R. Kirchheimer, the author of How to Spot One of Us (Clal, 2007), is currently producing BE•HOLD, a cinematic poetry film https://www.facebook.com/BeholdAPerformanceFilmHer work has appeared in many journals and on line including Atlanta Review, Limestone, Connecticut Review, Lilith, Natural Bridge and on beliefnet.com and Drafthorse http://www.lmunet.edu/drafthorse/main.shtml She is a Pushcart Prize nominee and received Honorable Mention in the String Poet Prize 2014. Janet teaches poetry, creative writing and memoir classes in New York City. You can contact her at janetksivan11@aol.com.

These two poems, “Town Hall” and “Breaking Laws,” are from How to Spot One of Us (Clal, 2007) and reprinted with the kind permission of the author and Clal.

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A Small Rescue

by Mimi Schwartz (Princeton, NJ)

November, 8, 1938 :  Some villagers smelled smoke wafting through the windows. Someone heard Mrs. Lowenstein shouting, “Our synagogue is burning. Please, help!” But the street in this little Black Forest village remained silent. Only one voice was heard, a man man shouting: Stay inside and shut the curtains! And people did as they were told. The fire brigade (including two Jews who used to belong before Nazi times) went to put out the fire, but strangers in brown shirts on a truck aimed rifles at them and said, “No!” Only when the house next to the synagogue was in danger did these men—“hoodlums from Sulz!” as the villagers called them later—give the command to use the water hoses to quell the fire on this night, Kristallnacht.

The next day everyone knew that the heart of the Jewish community in this tiny village had been destroyed. The synagogue’s beautiful interior was ruined: the dark wooden benches for 500, the delicate candelabras hanging over the center aisle, the carved wooden balustrade leading to the women’s section, and the ark for the Torah with its sacred scrolls. All was lost, people thought. And with it, the optimism of those who believed their Christian neighbors who said that “the crazy house painter from Austria will disappear and things will be as before!” Not so, not so. Jews now knew without a doubt that they must leave 300 years of history if they still could—and the fact that everyone in this village of 1,200 had gotten along before Hitler didn’t matter.

One night, a few months later, a young Jewish couple heard a knock on their door. They were frightened. And even more frightened when they opened the door, and there was the local policeman. “Don’t be afraid!” he said softly. “I won’t hurt you. I have something to give for you.”

The wife backed away, but the husband said, “What is it?”

“A Torah.”

“A what?”

This policeman, it turns out, had seen the Torah scrolls lying in the street on Kristallnacht and thought it was not right—a holy book, treated so badly. So he took it home, a heavy thing, and dug it deep into his garden. When he heard that the young couple, a few houses from his, was packing to leave, he hoped they might take the Torah with them.

The wife suspected a trick, but the husband thought, This man is a good man, a decent man I’ve known all my life! He told him yes, bring the Torah. The next night, another knock, and there was the policeman carrying the sacred scrolls like a giant baby wrapped in a blanket. A day later this Torah, hidden in a rolled-up living room carpet, was placed in a huge crate that the couple was shipping by boat to Haifa .

I saw this Torah in Israel, north of Acco near the Mediterranean Sea. It is in a Memorial Room built by those, including the young couple, who escaped the village in time and started again, this time farming avocados and melons instead of trading cattle as before. On the wall beside the Torah are the names of eighty-seven village Jews who didn’t make it, weren’t rescued by anyone, and so were murdered in Riga, Theresienstadt, and Auschwitz.  I bowed my head to honor them, and when I looked up in outrage and sadness, I saw the rescued Torah.  Its edges were soiled and slightly charred, and there was a knife gash; but its Five Books of Moses, saved by one policeman, was open for all to read as before.

I still wonder how many it would take, like this policeman, to rescue hope from the fires of hate.

Mimi Schwartz’s latest book is Good Neighbors, Bad Times – Echoes of My Father’s German Village, from which this essay was adapted. Other recent books include Thoughts from a Queen-Sized Bed, and Writing True, the Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction. Six of her essays have been Notables in Best American Essays. She is Professor Emerita of Richard Stockton College in New Jersey and her short work has appeared in Agni, The Missouri Review, Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, Calyx, The New York Times, Tikkun, The Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine, Florida Review, Brevity, Writer’s Digest, and Jewish Week, among others.

This essay originally appeared in several Jewish newspapers and is reprinted here with the author’s permission.

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