Today is the 67th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night when the Nazi movement organized a national attack against the Jews, designed to look like random rioting gone out of hand. Hitler got the idea to organize this attack after a German official was killed by a Jew in Paris. Upwards of 1000 synagogues were destroyed, more than 7,500 Jewish-owned businesses were ruined and there wasn’t enough plate glass in the country to replace the store windows that were shattered. The piles of shards in the streets gave the night it’s name. Kristallnacht means “Night of Broken Glass.”
I digested this fact at 8 am this morning along with my bowl of Cheerios as I read my daily “Writer’s Almanac.” The Almanac arrives in my email inbox everyday, always opens with a poem and finishes with facts about great literary events, writers’ birthday or things of major historical significance that happened the current date.
I don’t remember a time in my life when I did not know that I was Jewish. It was one of the facts of my life. It didn’t matter that I went to a Unitarian church, asked Santa for presents in December and hunted for my Easter basket every spring. I was a Jew. When I was ten years old, my mother confessed to me that every time she and my dad looked at a house we might live in, she would make sure to check for potential hiding places, in case she had to conceal us from the Nazis. (As I thought out this entry today, I asked my mom if she still did this, and she said that about eight years ago, she made a concerted effort to stop, because it was feeding an unhealthy fear. Besides, my dad had pointed out years ago, that modern technology makes it almost impossible to hide the way Jews did in Europe during the Holocaust).
When I was 16, the summer between my sophomore and junior years of high school, I went to Poland for three weeks. I went on crutches, because I had ignored my mother’s warning, gotten on a horse at the beach days before I was scheduled to leave, gotten thrown and broke my ankle.
My experience of the trip was drastically different than I had expected, because of the crutches. I was forced to take things more slowly, to focus deeply on the terrain, to observe closely all I could see from one vantage point before moving on. This approach was especially necessary the day we spent at Auschwitz. Many of the former prisoner barracks have been turned into museum space, and because I moved slowly, I frequently got left behind that day. I was often by myself in front of mountains of suitcases, shoes, eyeglasses, books and other items that had once been precious, important, vital to people who had all been killed. I wasn’t alone as I crutched my way through the gas chamber, but my memory excludes all others who were there with me that day. I remember feeling fear, pain and luck all at the same time. Fear that I would trip while cruching myself over this space, not wanting to come into contact with that ground. Pain for all those who did. And luck that I was there in 1995 instead of 1944.
Reading that little snippet about Kristallnacht this morning pulled these memories to the front of my consciousness. There’s more in me about my identity as a Jew who learned everything she knows about Judaism from a series of childrens’ books and has never been in a synagogue, but I’ll pull the rest out on another time.
It’s funny, but my memories of visiting Dachau are similar. Not the crutches part, and I am not Jewish, but the part about not remembering any of the other people who were visiting the site that day. I’m guessing I was there with my family, but the visual scene was too powerful and I only remember what I saw. I had expected it to feel more like a museum, but when you see gas chambers and hear what happened there, you just cannot step back and view it as only an exhibit.
I’m glad you posted about this. I had no idea it was the anniversary of Kristallnacht.
I have thought of making that trip many times.
To see the place I lost family to.
I still can not.
I don’t know if I ever will.
It’s a hard trip to make. I don’t think it’s for everyone, because it is wrenching, painful and hard.