When Holocaust escapee Fred Behrend and I were co-writing his memoir, Rebuilt from Broken Glass: A German Jewish Life Remade in America, we never imagined it would connect to current events. We just felt readers should know his story of Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, when Nazis destroyed German synagogues and businesses. Behrend's father was among 30,000 Jews arrested for transport to concentration camps.
But just weeks after publication, neo-Nazis came to Charlottesville, Va., and now, the murder of 11 Jews at Shabbat services at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh is a painful reminder of how Behrend's story is still relevant today. On Sunday, we attended a community vigil at our Voorhees synagogue, Congregation Beth El. This is what Fred, who turns 92 on Saturday, told me. – Larry Hanover
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When I heard about Pittsburgh, tears were in my eyes. I was in a state of shock. It forced back into mind events from 80 years ago.
I thought of my walk to school in Cologne, where at age 12, I was living with a cantor's family so I could attend a Jewish day school after Jewish children were banned from public schools. I saw one synagogue on fire, then another, and another. I remembered the caravan of Jews being marched through the streets, people beating them with sticks and throwing things at them.
Then I thought of Cuba, where my family fled as refugees in February 1939 — the only place that would take us because our quota number had not come up yet to allow us into the United States. Having lived a very sheltered life, it was only after my parents and I escaped there that they told me the cause of our flight and what happened at home in Lüdenscheid on Kristallnacht. The Nazis came to the door at 6 a.m., pointed their pistols and took my father away as my mother screamed. He was imprisoned in Sachsenhausen until he was released on condition of leaving behind our country and all our worldly goods as soon as possible.
At the vigil Sunday, I said to Rabbi (Andy) Green, "I'm in shul (synagogue) tonight because of Pittsburgh. In my wildest dreams I never thought I would see the evil here in the United States that I saw in Germany. We wanted to escape because we thought we would be safe."
I'm in my 90s. I've seen what evil people can do to others when they choose. While Kristallnacht was government-sponsored and this was not, to me the big difference is the American reaction of how abhorrent the Pittsburgh attack was. It was beautiful to see.
The issue of refugees concerns me, too. This killer was upset about a Jewish agency called HIAS, which aided my family when we arrived penniless in New York, helping refugees today on arrival. Well, these refugees, whether from the Middle East or Central America, are similar. They are just poor people who are fleeing for their lives or to escape danger.
Our government officials and our religious organizations have to do more of what they did Sunday night. They have to educate the uneducated. I wish President Trump would stop talking about refugees the way he does. But I don't blame him for the attack. Robert Bowers is an ignorant person, and ignorant people will always interpret things a certain way.
I'm very worried Kristallnacht could happen again. Germany was a highly educated country. If a country like Germany could kill 6 million people, it could happen here. When there is a spark, it's very possible to ignite it and make it into a flame, and that history may repeat itself. I pray to the Almighty that I am wrong.
Fred Behrend is retired and living in Voorhees. Larry Hanover is a writer/editor living in Cherry Hill. They will be speaking at the Tuzman Memorial Holocaust Teach-In at Gratz College in Melrose Park on Nov. 11 to commemorate Kristallnacht.