What can we learn from the events of Kristallnacht?
We are extremely blessed to have in Cincinnati several Holocaust survivors and eyewitnesses who can testify to the events of the Night of Broken Glass and share with us their stories. Even more importantly, these courageous individuals are able to explain to us the lessons we as a society should learn from these events. Their experiences are just one testament to the importance of always standing up against racism and prejudice in our world today.
You must first remember the context of my experience. In 1938, I was 13 years old and had experienced Nazi Germany for the last five years. I was 8 years old in 1933 when the Nazi party took over the German government. Even with this beginning event, my whole lifestyle as a Jewish child changed drastically.
I lived in a small town with a very small Jewish community. There were about 220 Jews in my community, and only about 22 Jewish children. Our whole life centered on a small room in our town’s synagogue, which was our safe haven from the outside world and from Nazi Germany. At this point in time, Jews were not allowed on playgrounds or in parks. We were not allowed entrance to movies or restaurants. There were signs that stated, “Jews and dogs prohibited” or “Jews die in the gutter.”
All the children gathered in the synagogue every day. The cub scouts and girl scouts were put together, based on what training they had. There were Zionist overtones to our community; the ultimate goal was to return to Israel. When we were in the synagogue, we were not bothered with what was going on in the outside world. It was in that very room in the synagogue that I was able to celebrate my Bar Mitzvah in February of 1938. It was a very simple celebration with soft drinks and cake, but it was held in a safe environment.
Caption: Werner Coppel (top row, second from left) and other young Jewish children in 1937 in the small room of the synagogue where they gathered everyday. They are pictured with the Zionist flag, which later became the flag of Israel. – Courtesy of Werner Coppel and the Center for Holocaust and Humanity Education
It happened on November 9th. I had heard 2 or 3 days earlier that von Rath had been shot and killed by a Jewish boy in Paris. I had no idea what would happen later.
All the synagogues in Germany were destroyed. In our town, the synagogue was not burned, because if it was burned it would have burned down the entire block, and the Nazis did not want this. However, no one stopped them from destroying the entire inside of the synagogue. This changed my entire life, as this had been our safe haven. In 1936, every Jewish ID card had to be stamped with the letter “J” for “Jude,” meaning “Jew.” Now with Kristallnacht, every Jewish male had to add the name “Israel” and every Jewish female had to add the name “Sarah.” So, I became Werner Israel Coppel. My entire social life stopped, and life changed direction completely. I was eventually sent to Auschwitz in 1945.
Now as I look back 70 years later, the lesson for all of us is that what happened in Germany was a consequence of racism, hate, and prejudice. Every new generation must be aware that the cancer of hate and prejudice is also with us today. There is no way anyone can walk away from messages that contain racism, prejudice, name-calling, etc. You must always stand up against racism and prejudice, even if you are not being directly persecuted.
I was living in Hamburg at the time. I was a student at an advanced preparatory school next to our synagogue. I remember we could look out the windows of the school and see the synagogue. The morning after Kristallnacht, I remember we looked out the windows and we could see just strands of glass where the windows of the synagogue had been destroyed. The entire inside of the synagogue had been burnt out. Our teacher got there in the morning and then let us out early due to what had happened. He went home to offer his prayers.
During that time there were the brown shirts and the black shirts. The black shirts were the SS and the brown shirts were the SA. They had a quota for the number of men they had to arrest. They sat in front of the home of our rabbi, but for some reason he was not arrested. My father was also not arrested, despite the fact that we lived just across the courtyard from an SS soldier. Many others were imprisoned and interned in the camps. My family decided it was best if my father left Germany. In June, 1939, all his papers were in order, and he left for England in September of 1939.
The war broke out very soon after that as Germany invaded Poland, and England and France got involved. My father went to Scotland Yard and informed the English that he had family in Germany. Before we could leave to join him, however, my mother was called to meet with the Gestapo, where they asked her about my father. The Gestapo had intercepted a letter from my mother to my father, and on the 7th day of the Passover, the Gestapo gave me and my mother 24 hours to leave Germany, or we would be arrested.
We left Hamburg on the last day of Passover and took a train to Italy. In Italy there were two boats: the Manhattan and the Roma. The Roma was an Italian boat, but its passengers never got to depart because Mussolini did not allow the ship to sail. I do not know what happened to the passengers of that boat. My mother and I were on the Manhattan, which left as scheduled and sailed to New York. My father left England three days later and we eventually met up in New York, where we stayed for eleven weeks. After those eleven weeks, we moved to Cincinnati, where we had relatives.
There are some important things to keep in mind. Our rabbi, who played a great role in my growth and development, refused to leave Germany, but he knew exactly what was going on. Much like a captain refusing to abandon ship, he stayed in Germany with the Jews. Also, Hamburg was not at this time antisemitic. The Nazis had to import people from southern Germany to do their dirty work in destroying Hamburg’s synagogues. The people in Hamburg would not destroy anything; they would not lay a finger on the Jewish buildings. Also, there were other synagogues in Hamburg that were not Jewish, and these were not destroyed. After Kristallnacht, we moved to a Spanish-Portuguese synagogue. It was not completely orthodox but we were able to make changes to make it work for us. We were the only place in Germany that was still able to worship in a synagogue after Kristallnacht took place.
As I look back now 70 years, it is important to realize that this can happen in any country. It is not an isolated event in Germany. We must make our own destiny.
[Mrs. Stratman is not Jewish, but was a youth in Germany during the events of Kristallnacht.]
Well, I am not Jewish, so I do not remember the events and did not experience the events like others did. I lived in Nuremberg. I was 10 years old at the time. I heard some noise that night, but my parents tried very hard to keep me away from everything. The event was not explained properly to me as a child. I can’t remember much at all from the event, but I must have seen some of the broken windows. My parents did not want to talk about it, and I was kept away from it.
I wonder whether anyone living in America can understand the fact that in Germany you could not speak as to what your feelings were because you were afraid of what might happen to all of us under the Nazi Regime. Here in the U.S. I feel so free that I can talk to you about how I feel. I will never keep my mouth shut if something is not right. I hope our youth learns that too.