Next month will mark the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. I learned about the vicious November Pogrom as a child growing up in Skokie, but my grandma and grandpa experienced first-hand the anxiety, humiliation and persecution inflicted upon the Jews of Germany and Austria during those horrific times. The sorrow and significance of their stories has been sealed in my conscience.
In hope of gaining a deeper understanding of their experiences, last month I decided to take a trip with my wife, Stefanie, to Berlin and Vienna, the respective homes of my grandpa and grandma. For years I had wanted to travel there and see for myself – as best I could – what these places were like for them. So we set aside some cash and booked the trip, planning to visit as many family landmarks as possible. Once we got there, we managed to visit the very buildings where my grandma and grandpa were born and lived. The journey connected us to their stories of survival.
“A Slow Boat to China”
My grandpa, Fred, was born in the borough of Tegel in Berlin. As the war began, he worked as a tailor in one of Berlin’s thriving department stores. Before Kristallnacht, a non-Jewish childhood friend in the Berlin police department tipped him off that he was on a list of Jews to be arrested and deported. Grandpa knew he had to leave quickly, but where would he go? He desperately wanted to obtain a visa to Australia – a cousin had secured safe passage there, and perhaps he would have a better chance of surviving and reassembling his life with family around. But it was not to be. Countries all over the world were closing their borders. His only available escape route led to Shanghai, China, where luckily no passport or visa was required.
He managed to get a ticket, but the slow boat to China would not embark for weeks. On Kristallnacht, he watched from an alley as Nazis searched for him in his apartment. He spent the ensuing nights sleeping alone outdoors, hiding wherever he could – even in the Berlin Zoo. Finally, at the age of 31, almost the exact same age that I am today, my grandpa left the only home he ever knew for the very foreign – and dangerous – Jewish Ghetto of Shanghai. Some 30,000 German and Austrian Jews, who were not as lucky, were arrested during Kristallnacht and imprisoned in concentration camps.
It was in Shanghai where my grandparents would meet and eventually marry.
My grandma, Adele, grew up in a well-to-do Viennese family. Her father, Salomon, was a highly decorated veteran of the First World War, having fought as a cavalry officer on the Eastern front.
When I was a kid, my grandma beamed with pride when she talked about her father. He built his own business crafting specialty liqueurs. The family owned an apartment building, which still stands to this day. Salomon was a strict parent – true to his military background. But he was also a strong, spirited man and loving father who encouraged his children to study music and chaperoned my grandma’s school field trips.
Life changed after the Anschluss. On Kristallnacht, Salomon was arrested and severely beaten by Nazi-collaborating authorities. Fortunately, he always kept his veteran’s papers in his wallet, and his captors released him only out of “respect” for his gallant service to his country. As my grandma remembered, her father had not come home that night, and she anxiously waited outside their apartment building for him. When she finally saw him walking down the street toward their home, the spirited spring in his step was noticeably absent. He walked with his head down. As he came closer, she could see the matted blood on his face from the beating he suffered only hours before. Her father was forever broken and would never be the same. The very next day he obtained the family’s tickets to Shanghai, and they left with the few belongings they could carry. Members of my grandma’s extended family who stayed behind were deported to Theresienstadt and, like so many others, were never heard from again.
Axis of Remembrance
Despite these struggles, for the rest of their lives Berlin and Vienna would always be “home” to my grandparents. Ironically, for my grandpa, anything made in Germany was of the highest and best quality, of course. For my grandma, Vienna was a joyful town, filled with beautiful music, good food, and opportunity. And when I finally took in these cities for myself, I understood what all the fuss was about – even though so much has changed.
One of the most poignant experiences of the trip was the time we spent at the Jewish Museum in Berlin. The tour starts with underground hallways which lead to the main museum building. The floors of the hallways are uneven and present the visitor with three pathways called "Axes". First is the “Axis of Continuity” which is intended to be a connection of Germany’s tortured past with its present.
Continuing on, the visitor is presented with a proverbial fork in the road. If you turn one way, you are led to the “Axis of Exile,” which tells the harrowing stories of escape and survival of German-Jewish families and individuals just like my grandpa. This path leads to the “Garden of Exile.” The Garden is not a garden in the typical sense but instead is a sort of courtyard with uneven ground and concrete pillars of varying height, intended by the architect to “completely disorient the visitor” and represent “a shipwreck of history.” For me, this part of the museum harkened stories of the treacherous living conditions and trying times – disorienting no doubt – that awaited my grandparents in the Shanghai Ghetto.
When you turn the other way, you pass through the “Axis of the Holocaust.” As the museum’s website explains, “[t]he ‘Axis of the Holocaust’ is a dead end. It becomes ever narrower and darker and ends at the Holocaust Tower.” The Holocaust Tower is a single, unfurnished room with an opening in the ceiling to the outside and no heat or air-conditioning. It is a void.
Like so many Jewish children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors, I am the product of a twist of fate, turn of luck, Providence, Divine intervention – whatever you want to call it. What if my grandpa’s childhood friend had grown up to be a Nazi? What if Salomon was not carrying his veteran’s papers that day? What if the Shanghai port was closed to Jews? Exploring the labyrinth of the museum, reading the stories of survival on one hand and murder on the other, I got chills. For my grandparents, a turn to the left, or a turn to the right, could have easily led to the Axis of the Holocaust – a dead end.
But their survival was not just about luck. I am awestruck by their emotional and physical toughness during those years.
After scraping by in the Shanghai Ghetto for just shy of ten years, my grandparents were finally allowed to emigrate to the United States – another different and strange place – where they managed to start over and raise a family of their own in Chicago.
As I made my way through the Jewish Museum in Berlin with Stefanie, I asked myself, would I have the strength to survive the way my grandparents did? The courage to uproot myself and my family? Finding myself isolated, in such strange and dangerous places, would I have the grit to start over? Would I have the determination to rebuild from scratch – at this very stage of my life?
Fortunately, for me and my generation, there is no Axis of the Holocaust or Axis of Exile. Instead, I choose to create for myself an Axis of Remembrance, to commit myself to never forget the loss and the pain and suffering that my grandma and grandpa – and so many others like them – endured only because they were Jews.
It has been years since my grandma and grandpa passed away, but walking the streets they walked, listening to the music they loved, and eating the food they enjoyed helped me understand their experiences just a little bit better. Their lives will always be an inspiration and source of strength for me – as long as I tread the path of the Axis of Remembrance.