80 years later, an omi­nous echo

Rich­mond area’s Jewish com­mu­nity ref lects on past, re­cent at­tack in Pitts­burgh

Richmond Times-Dispatch - - FRONT PAGE - BY MICHAEL MARTZ

Eighty years ago, Lu­cie Baer was ly­ing in a bed in a Jewish hos­pi­tal in Ber­lin sur­rounded by the sounds of ter­ror. Her 3-month-old son wasn’t with her as she re­cov­ered from a breast in­fec­tion. Her hus­band was in the United States, where he was try­ing to find a way for his young fam­ily to leave Ger­many in the face of in­ten­si­fy­ing Nazi ha­rass­ment of the coun­try’s Jews.

“She heard the sound of shat­ter­ing glass from her hos­pi­tal,” re­called her son, Tommy Baer, a long­time im­mi­gra­tion at­tor­ney in the Rich­mond area and for­mer pres­i­dent of B’nai B’rith In­ter­na­tional, which calls it­self “the global voice of the Jewish com­mu­nity.” Out­side the hos­pi­tal, brown-shirted Nazi storm troop­ers and their pub­lic al­lies were un­leash­ing a

sur­prise pogrom — an or­ga­nized per­se­cu­tion and mas­sacre of a re­li­gious or eth­nic mi­nor­ity — against the coun­try’s Jews that lasted through the next day.

Ger­man po­lice and mil­i­tary stood by un­der or­ders from Adolf Hitler’s gov­ern­ment while Nazi gangs killed at least 90 Jewish Ger­mans, sacked and burned nearly 300 syn­a­gogues, and de­stroyed or dam­aged more than 7,000 Jewish-owned busi­nesses, homes and schools.

It be­came known as Kristall­nacht, or “Night of the Bro­ken Glass,” be­cause of the shat­tered store win­dows made of ex­pen­sive Bel­gian glass.

But Kristall­nacht also marked the mo­ment Hitler’s regime crossed the line from ha­rass­ing and marginal­iz­ing the coun­try’s 500,000 Jews to killing them — a step that cul­mi­nated more than three years later in the “fi­nal so­lu­tion” to elim­i­nate Jews en­tirely from Eu­rope and the coun­tries the Nazi war ma­chine was con­quer­ing.

“It’s the open­ing act of the Holo­caust,” said Char­lie Syd­nor, for­mer di­rec­tor of the Vir­ginia Holo­caust Mu­seum in Rich­mond and now its se­nior staff his­to­rian. “It is clearly when Ger­many crossed the Ru­bi­con.”

The 80th an­niver­sary of Kristall­nacht is Fri­day and Satur­day, but it will be ob­served at a cer­e­mony at 2 p.m. on Sun­day at Emek Sholom Holo­caust Me­mo­rial Ceme­tery, within For­est Lawn Ceme­tery in Rich­mond’s North Side. In English, Emek Sholom trans­lates as “val­ley of peace.” The key­note speaker is Alexan­dra Zapruder, a Holo­caust his­to­rian and grand­daugh­ter of the man who filmed Pres­i­dent John F. Kennedy’s as­sas­si­na­tion in Dal­las 55 years ago this month.

A ‘wake-up call’

The an­niver­sary comes two weeks af­ter an armed man stormed into a Jewish syn­a­gogue in Pitts­burgh, shouted “All Jews must die,” and opened fire with a high-pow­ered ri­fle and pis­tols, killing 11 wor­shipers and wound­ing seven at a Satur­day morn­ing Shab­bat cer­e­mony.

For Baer, the at­tack on the Tree of Life Syn­a­gogue is a “wake-up call” for Amer­i­cans in the face of ris­ing anti-Semitism, much as Kristall­nacht was an un­mis­tak­able omen of the fate fac­ing Ger­man Jews who, un­like his fam­ily, could not get out of the coun­try in time.

“It is about the be­trayal of the long-ac­cepted Jewish be­lief in the United States as a refuge from big­otry and hate,” he said in writ­ten re­marks for this ar­ti­cle. “Once an his­toric given, it is now un­der siege.”

Baer’s ma­ter­nal grand­fa­ther, Meyer Hirsch, was among the 30,000 Jewish men ar­rested and sent to Nazi prison camps af­ter Kristall­nacht. So was the fa­ther of Henry Abra­ham, a re­tired scholar of con­sti­tu­tional law at the Uni­ver­sity of Vir­ginia who came to the United States alone at age 15 in 1937 to es­cape the storm his mother clearly saw com­ing.

Abra­ham, now 97 and liv­ing in Char­lottesville, set­tled in Pitts­burgh, where he at­tended a re­form syn­a­gogue but also went to events held by Or L’Sim­cha, the Or­tho­dox Jewish con­gre­ga­tion at Tree of Life Syn­a­gogue in the largely Jewish en­clave of Squir­rel Hill.

“My thought was, ‘So I told you it could hap­pen, but I never thought it could hap­pen in Pitts­burgh,’ ” he said last week.

Abra­ham had wit­nessed torch-bear­ing white na­tion­al­ists march­ing on the Uni­ver­sity of Vir­ginia grounds in Au­gust 2017, chant­ing “Jews will not re­place us!” That march came the night be­fore a deadly protest rally and con­fronta­tion with coun­ter­protesters in down­town Char­lottesville.

“You see, this can hap­pen any­where,” he said. “It is im­por­tant that peo­ple learn their his­tory.”

The Kristall­nacht pogrom came as a sur­prise even to se­nior Nazi lead­ers, in­clud­ing the SS, who were con­cerned about the dam­age to the coun­try’s econ­omy and for­eign stand­ing.

It was or­dered by Hitler and car­ried out by Pro­pa­ganda Min­is­ter Joseph Goebbels, ring­mas­ter of the Nazi mili­tia, af­ter the death of a Ger­man em­bassy of­fi­cial in Paris. The Ger­man of­fi­cial had been shot two days ear­lier by Her­schel Grynspan, a 17-year-old Jewish youth whose par­ents had been forcibly de­ported from Ger­many to Poland.

They used the as­sas­si­na­tion of Ernst vom Rath, a diplo­mat in the Paris em­bassy (who, iron­i­cally, was un­der Gestapo sur­veil­lance for his sus­pect po­lit­i­cal sym­pa­thies), to jus­tify the pogrom, said Syd­nor, a for­mer in­de­pen­dent ex­pert for Jus­tice De­part­ment pros­e­cu­tion of Nazi war crim­i­nals. He also is a for­mer pres­i­dent and CEO of Com­mon­wealth Broad­cast­ing Corp. in Rich­mond and for­mer pres­i­dent of Emory & Henry Col­lege, where he now teaches an ad­junct course on the his­tory of the Holo­caust.

Syd­nor said Hitler sent his per­sonal physi­cian, Dr. Karl Brandt, to Paris the morn­ing af­ter the shoot­ing to ex­am­ine vom Rath. The doc­tor dis­cov­ered that, in ad­di­tion to gun­shot wounds to the ab­domen, vom Rath suf­fered from ad­vanced tu­ber­cu­lo­sis of the stom­ach and in­testines that con­trib­uted to his death on Nov. 9, 1938.

Brandt didn’t dis­close vom Rath’s un­der­ly­ing con­di­tion — with­out which he would have sur­vived the shoot­ing — be­cause it would have un­der­mined the nar­ra­tive that he had been as­sas­si­nated by a Jew, Syd­nor said.

“When he died, Hitler and Goebbels were ready to un­leash a pogrom against the Jews,” he said. “It was the per­fect pre­text.”

‘A cul­ture of mur­der’

Although the SS had not been told of the plan in ad­vance, its sec­ond-in-com­mand, Rein­hard Hey­drich, sent a tele­type mes­sage to Gestapo of­fices early on Nov. 10, 1938, in­struct­ing them to al­low the vi­o­lence to pro­ceed un­hin­dered against Jewish syn­a­gogues, busi­nesses and homes.

“Kristall­nacht be­gan what I call a cli­mate of killing in Ger­many that in 1941 would turn into a cul­ture of mur­der,” Syd­nor said.

For the world, the Nazi ram­page re­vealed Hitler’s in­ten­tions.

“It was a wake-up call, but not all na­tions heard it,” Baer said.

One that did hear was the United States. Pres­i­dent Franklin Roo­sevelt pub­licly con­demned the vi­o­lence, re­called the U.S. am­bas­sador from Ger­many and ex­tended visas for 12,000 Ger­man Jewish refugees here, but was hin­dered from do­ing more by do­mes­tic pol­i­tics and anti-Semitism.

In Pitts­burgh, young Henry Abra­ham re­lied on The New York Times and com­mu­ni­ca­tions from fam­ily in New Or­leans for news about the events and his fam­ily in Of­fen­bach, his home­town near Frank­furt. His fa­ther, Fred, a dec­o­rated Ger­man World War I vet­eran, had re­fused all en­treaties to leave, think­ing his mil­i­tary record would pro­tect him. But he was quickly ar­rested and sent to the Nazi con­cen­tra­tion camps of Sach­sen­hausen and Dachau.

“I vi­su­al­ize my fa­ther with his Hom­burg hat and his new over­coat say­ing good­bye to my mother and brother,” Abra­ham said.

His mother and younger brother, Otto, were im­pris­oned in the base­ment of their apart­ment build­ing for al­most two weeks. “Ex­cept for one brave un­mar­ried cou­ple who sneaked in food, none of the other res­i­dents lifted a fin­ger to pro­vide even a mod­icum of con­cern, let alone aid,” Abra­ham wrote in a me­moir for his sons.

Abra­ham’s fa­ther ul­ti­mately would be re­leased and al­lowed to leave Ger­many with his wife and son, who would join Abra­ham in Pitts­burgh. Fred Abra­ham’s health never would be the same, and he died at 61.

“They came out of the camps bro­ken, ab­so­lutely bro­ken, by what they had been through,” Syd­nor said.

Abra­ham’s grand­mother, Marie, known as Oma, died from a heart at­tack at their home in Of­fen­bach af­ter flee­ing with his ma­ter­nal grand­fa­ther from their farm in Busen­berg in the Rhineland-Palati­nate. His grand­fa­ther some­how reached the United States in 1941, although the fam­ily never knew how.

Henry Abra­ham re­turned to Of­fen­bach in 1945 as part of a U.S. Army unit tem­po­rar­ily sta­tioned in Frank­furt. There, he at­tended the first re­li­gious ser­vice at the town’s syn­a­gogue since its de­struc­tion dur­ing Kristall­nacht, in which just one To­rah scroll was saved by the gen­tile wife of the care­taker.

“It was a wrench­ing, in­cred­i­bly mov­ing ser­vice, high­lighted by the rein­tro­duc­tion of the saved To­rah, car­ried by the old care­taker and two Amer­i­can Jewish sol­diers into the small ad­join­ing build­ing, where the ser­vice took place,” he wrote in a me­moir for his two sons.

Baer, who turned 80 in early Au­gust, had the good for­tune to have a fa­ther, Bern­hard, known as “Benno,” who had been born in the United States. That gave his young son Amer­i­can cit­i­zen­ship and an im­prob­a­ble way out with his mother a year later, af­ter the out­break of the war.

“But for my birth, they prob­a­bly would not have left Ger­many,” he said.

Hirsch, his ma­ter­nal grand­fa­ther, even­tu­ally was re­leased from Sach­sen­hausen con­cen­tra­tion camp, where he was beaten af­ter his ar­rest dur­ing Kristall­nacht. But he and his wife, Regina, were ar­rested dur­ing the war and sent to There­sien­stadt con­cen­tra­tion camp in what is now the Czech Repub­lic, where they were killed.

Baer’s pa­ter­nal grand­par­ents, Moses and Doris, also were sent to There­sien­stadt in 1943. She sur­vived as a cook in the camp, but he was killed there the next year.

The 80th an­niver­sary of Kristall­nacht “is about mem­ory,” Baer said, “re­mem­ber­ing the hor­ror and de­struc­tion of lives and hopes caused by th­ese acts of evil un­til the mem­ory is in­deli­bly seared into our con­scious­ness.”

“Only then will ‘never again’ have mean­ing.”

“It’s the open­ing act of the Holo­caust. It is clearly when Ger­many crossed the Ru­bi­con.” Char­lie Syd­nor, for­mer di­rec­tor of the Vir­ginia Holo­caust Mu­seum in Rich­mond and now its se­nior staff his­to­rian


A young man pre­pared to clean up bro­ken glass from a Jewish shop in Ber­lin the day af­ter the Kristall­nacht ram­page on Nov. 9, 1938.


Pedes­tri­ans stood amid the wreck­age of Jewish shops in Ber­lin af­ter Nazi gangs burned syn­a­gogues and dam­aged busi­nesses, homes and schools.


A sculp­ture by artist Linda Gis­sen in the Emek Sholom Holo­caust Me­mo­rial Ceme­tery in Rich­mond honors fam­ily mem­bers of Rich­mond’s Jewish com­mu­nity who died in the Holo­caust.

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