Remembering Kristallnacht

Susan Taube, who witnessed the destruction of Kristallnacht firsthand, and her husband Herman live in Rockville. Photo courtesy of the Taubes
Susan Taube, who witnessed the destruction of Kristallnacht firsthand, and her husband Herman live in Rockville.
Photo courtesy of the Taubes

Susan Taube was only 12 when Nazis came with knives and sticks and began breaking everything in the apartment she called home.

“I was scared. They went from room to room demolishing everything. The destruction, I would say, was horrible,” said the 87-year-old Rockville resident.

The date was Nov. 10, 1938. She and her younger sister were living with a Jewish family in Frankfurt, Germany, who were kind enough to take them in after the small town she lived in — Vacha — had forbidden all Jewish children from attending school. Her parents sent them to the city to be educated.

The day Taube said “you don’t forget” was soon to be called Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass. It happened 75 years ago, but the memories are still vivid to Taube. She woke up that morning only to learn that her synagogue was on fire. “Soon enough, we learned it was not only ours, but all the synagogues in Frankfurt,” she said.

Taube calmly sat in her living room apartment last month, her husband Herman nearby, and recalled that morning in vivid detail.

Men in civilian clothes entered her apartment, without bothering to ring the bell or knock. They broke all the glass, mirrors and dishes, pulling everything they saw out of its proper place and then destroying it. They also grabbed all the books, including many Hebrew ones, and ripped pages out before thrusting them to the floor.

“Things were not taken. They were ruined,” she said. “We were there. We were scared. They came with knives and sticks. It was really horrible. We didn’t have a cup to drink from. They smashed everything, cups, plates. Anything that could be broken was broken, destroyed. It happened all over Germany. It was a pogrom.”

The whole terrible incident was over quickly, “it took like a half hour,” and then the woman who had taken Taube and her sister in for a fee, began cleaning up. They all swept and threw things away. For a short time, the family used their Passover dishes to get by before purchasing a new set. Taube recalled the woman going to the mikvah, which remained despite the synagogue being destroyed, and koshering her dishes.

“After this we couldn’t go to school,” because her school had been burnt down, her teachers arrested. Men between the ages of 16 and 65, including her father, were taken to concentration camps.

Her parents had remained in their home, where they owned a general merchandise store. All the windows in that store were broken during Kristallnacht, even though customers had long since ceased coming to the Jewish-owned store, Taube said.

When her father realized what was happening, he hid in the family attic. The Nazis came and told her mother that it was their job to bring a body in, and if she didn’t give her husband up, they would just take her instead.
“So he gave himself up,” Taube said.

Her spent four weeks in Buchenwald concentration camp but was released after promising to leave the country. Taube’s mother had to pay for his train ticket home. He quickly packed a bag before heading across the border to Belgium, after paying off the proper people.

When the war was over, only Taube and her father were still living. Her mother and sister had been killed.

When asked if she believed the world should have stepped up and stopped Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party right then, before the murder of 6 million Jews, Taube said no one realized how dark the world would soon become.

“I guess it’s human nature. You close your eyes a little, and you hope for the best. We did not expect that in Germany. But step by step, it developed.”

Ellen Blalock, Holocaust survivor program and volunteer coordinator at the Jewish Social Service Agency (JSSA), wishes the world had learned from Kristallnacht. “It was the early warning that the world ignored. This was a warning to the world that they were serious,” she said of the Nazis. The destruction, the demand that Jews pay for the cleanup and the arrests should have horrified the world into action and served as a wake-up call, she said.

“The Holocaust was not inevitable.”

Now, 75 years later, it is JSSA’s job to help take care of “the families who at that point were going to be victims, but they didn’t know it,” she said, adding it must be done for the sake of all those killed.

In 2012, JSSA served more than 200 Holocaust clients, over 40 of whom were new to the program. Two-thirds of those clients have annual incomes that fall below 200 percent of the federal poverty level, according to JSSA’s website.

The organization doesn’t keep a tally of how many survivors live in the greater D.C. area. But Blalock knows that those coming to her office are suffering the normal aging problems of being in their 80s and 90s, plus a host of other related problems due to the trauma they experienced during World War II.

Without a lot of money, many don’t go to the doctor until it’s often too late. They are careful with what money they have and tend to buy less healthy foods. They have limited means of transportation, and they are isolated, Blalock said.

Since many of them lost their entire family during the Holocaust, they often have no role model on how to age gracefully.

No longer raising a family or working a job, they have a lot of time to remember, Blalock said. “Now, it’s coming back in a very terrifying and sort of vivid kind of way. They have nightmares,” she said.

“Our average survivor age is 85, and I think 15, 20 percent are over 90,” she said. While everyone keeps saying survivors are dying out, there are still many survivors who were young children growing up in Europe. Some were thrust away from their parents to live elsewhere. Others hid in the forests. All suffered in some major way.

These people need comfort and financial help, and Blalock is adamant that it is the Jewish community’s responsibility to help. Now is the time for someone to volunteer and spend a little time with an elderly, isolated person, she said.

“We need to send the message we care, to give them the underlying message — you matter. Through all their life, they were told ‘You are worthless. You don’t matter,’ ” she said. Blalock said volunteering also is good for the younger person, who gains so much just by listening and being there.

“This is not an infinite window. This is a finite window,” she said. “Now is the moment to do it,” she urged.

At the same time, donations are needed to pay for transportation, kosher meals on wheels, assorted medical needs and ongoing social work services and therapy, she said. Last year, JSSA spent an average of $5,116 per survivor.

Besides local donations, JSSA’s Holocaust program uses money obtained from the German government.

Following Kristallnacht, Susan Taube spent several years in forced labor and concentration camps. She paved roads, pulled tree roots, painted boats and used ice picks and shovels to loosen ice from the sidewalks of Riga so non-Jews could walk freely. Often she performed these labor-intensive jobs eating only a piece of bread or two the entire day, and drinking fistfuls of snow.

“You don’t forget. The main things stay in your mind.”

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