Sur­vivor re­calls hor­rors

Kristall­nacht marked end of Jewish life in Ger­many un­der Nazi rule


BER­LIN — Wal­ter Franken­stein was 14 years old when a po­lice of­fi­cer came to the Jewish or­phan­age he was liv­ing at in Ber­lin, urg­ing all chil­dren to leave the build­ing im­me­di­ately be­cause “some­thing bad will hap­pen tonight.”

It was early evening, Nov. 9, 1938. Later that night, he climbed up on the roof of the or­phan­age and saw fire light­ing up the city.

“Then we knew: the syn­a­gogues were burn­ing,” he said. “The next morn­ing, when I had to go to school, there was sparkling, bro­ken glass ev­ery­where on the streets.”

Franken­stein, now 94, was de­scrib­ing Kristall­nacht — the Night of Bro­ken Glass — when Nazis, among them many or­di­nary Ger­mans, ter­ror­ized Jews through­out Ger­many and Aus­tria. They killed at least 91 peo­ple and van­dal­ized 7,500 Jewish busi­nesses. They also burned more than 1,400 syn­a­gogues, ac­cord­ing to Is­rael’s Yad Vashem Holo­caust memo­rial.

Up to 30,000 Jewish men were ar­rested, many taken to con­cen­tra­tion camps such as Dachau or Buchen­wald. Hun­dreds more com­mit­ted sui­cide or died as a re­sult of the mis­treat­ment in the camps years be­fore the of­fi­cial mass de­por­ta­tions be­gan.

As Ger­many marked the 80th an­niver­sary of the anti-Jewish pogroms this week with a series of memo­rial events, Franken­stein re­turned to the place where he wit­nessed the vi­o­lence as a teenager.

One of the dwin­dling num­ber of Holo­caust sur­vivors, Franken­stein needed a walker as he slowly en­tered the com­pound where the Auer­bach’sches Waisen­haus or­phan­age once stood. His mem­ory is still sharp, and he re­mem­bers ex­actly how the events un­folded that night.

“A few hours af­ter the plain clothes po­lice of­fi­cer had warned us, a group of men in uni­forms came and told us, ‘you need to leave now, we want to set fire to the build­ing,’ ” Franken­stein said dur­ing an in­ter­view this week.

There would have been no way to take the youngest chil­dren to a safe place that quickly, he said. Franken­stein and some of the older boys at the home man­aged to con­vince the uni­formed men, who be­longed to the paramil­i­tary SA, that if they burned down the or­phan­age the fire would spread to sur­round­ing build­ings.

“So in­stead, they went into our syn­a­gogue and turned off the sanc­tu­ary light in front of the holy ark,” Franken­stein said. “They did not turn off the gas and af­ter they left, we sud­denly could smell gas ev­ery­where in­side the build­ing.” Franken­stein and his peers ran in­side the syn­a­gogue, tore open all win­dows, and turned off the gas be­fore it could lead to an ex­plo­sion.

“The men prob­a­bly thought that if enough gas would stream out, the build­ing would blow up,” he said.

Kristall­nacht is of­ten re­ferred to as the be­gin­ning of the Holo­caust. It would still be years be­fore the Nazis for­mally adopted their Fi­nal So­lu­tion for the Jews of Europe, when boy­cotts, anti-Semitism leg­is­la­tion and ex­pul­sions would evolve into a pol­icy of mass mur­der.

In all, 6 mil­lion Euro­pean Jews were killed in the Holo­caust.

Guy Miron, who heads Is­rael’s Yad Vashem Cen­ter for Re­search on the Holo­caust in Ger­many, said Kristall­nacht rep­re­sented an end to Jewish life in Ger­many, a point of no re­turn.

“Un­til then, the Jews could still try to con­vince them­selves that the wheel could be turned back. Af­ter it, the rup­ture was com­plete. They re­al­ized it was over,” he said at a Yad Vashem event this week mark­ing the an­niver­sary. “Be­fore Kristall­nacht peo­ple em­i­grated. Af­ter it, they fled.”

Stand­ing un­der an old po­plar tree shed­ding its bright yel­low leaves, Franken­stein gazed at a red brick wall — the only re­main­der of the or­phan­age in the city’s Pren­zlauer Berg neigh­bour­hood. The build­ing was badly de­stroyed dur­ing a Sec­ond World War air raid in 1943, and the ru­ins were torn down in the 1950s.

The wall was turned into a memo­rial for those Jewish or­phans who did not sur­vive the Holo­caust, with the names and ages of 140 chil­dren in­scribed on the bricks. The youngest one, Cilla Fuks, was 10 months old when she was mur­dered.

Franken­stein was one of the few who sur­vived. In 1943 he went into hid­ing with his wife Leonie, whom he had met at the or­phan­age, as the Nazis were de­port­ing thou­sands of Jews from Ber­lin to Auschwitz.

“We had promised our­selves not to do what Hitler wanted,” he said, still feisty af­ter all these years. “So we went into hid­ing.”

To­gether with their new­born son Uri, the cou­ple spent 25 months in hid­ing in Ber­lin. A sec­ond son, Michael, was born in 1944, dur­ing their time on the run.

In 1945, af­ter the col­lapse of the Nazis’ Third Re­ich, the Franken­steins im­mi­grated to what was then still Pales­tine. Eleven years later, in 1956, they moved from Is­rael to Swe­den where they set­tled for good.

Nowa­days, Wal­ter Franken­stein re­turns to Ger­many sev­eral times a year. He of­ten talks to school­child­ren about his life and on Fri­day, the an­niver­sary of Nov. 9, 1938, he will be hon­oured in an award-giv­ing cer­e­mony by Ger­many’s Cul­ture Min­is­ter Monika Gruet­ters.

In 2014, he re­ceived Ger­many’s high­est civil hon­our, the Fed­eral Cross of Merit.

Ev­ery time Franken­stein trav­els to Ber­lin, he brings along the small blue case con­tain­ing the cross. In­side the case’s lid, he has at­tached the first “mark” he got from the Ger­mans: The Yel­low Badge, or Jewish Star, that he had to wear dur­ing the Nazi reign to iden­tify him as a Jew.

“The first one marked me, the sec­ond one hon­oured me,” he said as he slowly closed the lid.


An As­so­ci­ated Press photo from Nov. 10, 1938, show­ing win­dows bro­ken by Nazis at a Jewish shop, is placed at the same lo­ca­tion 80 years later in Ber­lin, Ger­many. On Nov. 9, 1938 — known as Kristall­nacht — Jews and their hold­ings were at­tacked across Nazi Ger­many.


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