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Kristallnacht Remembrance Has Lessons for Us Today

Oyster Bay Jewish Center Guest Speakers Tell of Growing Up in Nazi Germany

Werner and Lottie Hess were the guest speakers at the Oyster Bay Jewish Center as they shared their stories of growing up in Germany under the rule of Hitler, as Kristallnacht, Nov. 9, 1938 was commemorated.

The story of Kristallnacht has been told many times, but there are always some people who haven’t heard it and the power of its message for humanity. Werner Hess was a teenager living in Germany when Adolph Hitler came to power. He said several prime ministers had tried to rule the country after World War I with no success. Some believed Hitler too would be quickly gone, but instead, he began to initiate the plan he laid out in Mein Kampf to cure the ills of Germany after their defeat in the war. Mr. Hess said over the 12 years of Adolf Hitler’s rein, Germany went from being the most educated and liberal country in the world, to become the most barbarian country.

The evening service led by Rabbi Marvin Demant began with prayers and singing. Oyster Bay Jewish Center President Laurie Guttenberg read one of the many accounts of a survivor of the Holocaust and Kristallnacht – this one from a child’s point of view of seeing her home attacked by her own neighbors using bricks and rocks while the local policeman stood at the edge of the crowd and watched. The people of the town grabbed a telephone pole and knocked in the door of the apartment house, shattering the glass. The little girl watched from across the street as two Nazi officers grabbed her Rabbi by the arms while a third one, grabbed his beard, took scissors and cut it off.

The woman said of the events of Kristallnacht, “Everyone tried not to think of the awful event hoping it would blow over, and go away.” Although it was a culmination of what had been going on in Germany with anti-Semitism growing stronger and stronger. Now, said the storyteller, everyone just wanted to leave Germany.

She said there was a French woman who for a price would get children across the border into France. Her father took all the money he had saved and gave it to the woman and the family sent their daughter away. For the child, it was an adventure, but now looking back she said, “I cry for my mother not for myself.” She realized now, as a mother herself, the pain a mother would have at losing her child.

After Ms. Guttenberg’s reading, Rabbi Marvin Demant introduced the speakers, Werner and Lottie Hess saying they would talk about the Nazi Germany they knew, growing up during the Holocaust; and what it was like before they were able to leave the country, eventually coming here to live.

The Accountant Speaks

Werner Hess said he talks to people about the darkest night of humanity, Kristallnacht and to tell them about the consequences of indifference and moral failure. He said, “Do not forget us. We survived but we must not forget what happened to others.”

His story began in 1933, living in Frankfurt, Germany when he couldn’t attend college because it was forbidden to Jews. [He said later that he would have become an accountant, that he was good with numbers. Today he is the treasurer of his Temple’s Men’s Group. “I told them I will retire when I am 90,” he said – in a few more years.]

Since he couldn’t go to college, an uncle who had come to America advised him to learn a trade and so his parents took him out of school and got him a job working in a ladies handbags firm. The Nazis closed the store that was owned by a Jew and the Christian foreman took him to work in a Christian firm – but undercover. He said whenever there was going to be an inspection of the factory, he was told to stay at home.

Werner was active in playing soccer but in 1935 his coach said to him, “You can’t play on our team anymore.” He was 14 and it was quite a blow - a Christian child couldn’t play with Jewish children they said. “My best friend, a Christian, wasn’t allowed to talk to me.”

Mr. Hess said while the survivors of Hitler’s regime are dwindling, mass murder is used as a political tool by tyrants and in 1994, one million people were slaughtered.

He said, during the Holocaust people lived in concentration camps under terrible conditions, no toilets, no heat, on starvation diets and he said they died but now it is known by all the world. The Holocaust actions were the result of propaganda that taught hate. He said, “If you hate, it makes you ruined.” Hitler made racial hatred speeches, the Nazis burned books, burned down synagogues and burned people. “These lessons should not be diminished and become just a footnote to history,” he said. “We must educate the younger generations.”

He said, “I am against all forms of racial and religious hatred.” From 1933 to 1945, Nazi Germany went about the mass destruction of people; they enlisted physicians to do mass sterilizations of genetically diseased persons. He said today, “Auschwitz and Bergan-Belsen are the largest cemeteries with no graves. There are a half million dead there with no place to lay a stone or place a flower: instead of being buried they went up in smoke.”

He said Hitler took over and 12 years later, he turned one of the most civilized nations in the world into one of the most barbarian.”

He said on April 1, 1933 the first official act of Hitler’s regime was passed. It was a boycott against all the Jewish professionals and merchants. Germans were told to boycott their services.

He said books written by Jews were burned. “Henrich Heine, a poet said, ‘Wherever they burn books they will also, in the end, burn human beings.’ It was prophetic.”

Systematically Hitler forced the Jews out of the culture: they lost their citizenship: couldn’t marry non-Jews; couldn’t attend amusements, the theater, movies, museums, concerts, got no driver’s licenses, couldn’t attend public schools. There were only two Jewish day schools that were finally closed in 1942. There was no place for Jews to be educated.

Public bathrooms had signs, “No dogs or Jews.” They were not allowed to have radios, their businesses were taken away; bank acrounts were blocked, life pensions were stopped. Everywhere there were signs saying, “Jews not wanted here.”

Mr. Hess said, “Before there was freedom and equality for many generations of Jews living in Germany. All the men in the family fought for Germany in WWI and got citations for distinguished service.” When Mein Kampf was published, he said, “It was not believed that it could happen: especially here in an educated and liberal society.”

Mr. Hess said after Hitler became Prime Minister, Franklin Roosevelt held an International Conference on June 6, 1938 to see what could be done to help the Jews who were being persecuted in Germany get out of the country. “It ended in failure a few days later and then Hitler knew he had a free hand,” said Mr. Hess.

On Nov. 9, just 73 years ago, the Nazis created Kristallnacht. It initiated a sequence of vicious actions by the Nazi German nation and Mr. Hess told many of the stories including: the Hess family’s 75-year old fish store was burned in minutes; after breaking the glass windows of Jewish shops and homes they made the Jews pick up the glass with their bare-bleeding hands; the Nazis made the Jews pay one billion Marks for the windows the Nazis damaged during Kristallnacht; the next day, they herded Jews to a park and forced them to run in circles until they collapsed.

Mr. Hess himself had a close call. He said the Gestapo came to arrest his father to send him to a concentration camp. His father was sick and dying. “They asked for me. I was hiding in the attic. They told my mother that if I didn’t report to them the next day they would kill me on sight.

“I went to the designated site and missed the transport to the concentration camp, and for some reason they never came back. If it was blind luck or a higher power I’ll never know,” he said. Four weeks later his father died. No proper burial service for his father was allowed by the Nazis.

In desperation, his mother wrote to friends in London. He said, “In January, 1939 at age 17, I left Germany and said goodbye to my mother at the Frankfurt train station. I was forced to leave friends and family to go live in a strange country where I didn’t speak the language.”

He had escaped but a cousin’s family on the way to Cuba with all the right papers was arrested and taken to a concentration camp and murdered, “While the world stood silently by,” he reminded listeners.

In 1940 his quota number came up and he left England on a Dutch ship, and survived the crossing through the German submarine infested Atlantic; he couldn’t find a job in New York because the ladies handbag workers had a union. It was hard to find a job. “My first job was dusting old books in a store; then insulating Christmas tree lights; then I sold candy and after became a shoe salesman,” he said. Then his cousin introduced him to the head of the ladies handbag union and he was allowed to join. He worked his way up to be a shop steward and then the supervisor. In 1943 he went into the Army, to serve three years in the Pacific. “I was proud to serve in the Army.” Mr. Hess concluded, “We must respect everyone. and understand everyone. What I have seen must never happen again.”

Lottie’s Story

Lottie Hess said her family had lived in a village in North Bavaria since 1815. The family owned a granary business but in the early 1930s Hitler said people were not to deal with Jewish businesses, but to go to their Christian competition, as he worked to destroy the Jewish people in Germany.

Lottie attended a Jewish school but Germany required girls to learn to crochet and knit. Their teacher was a Rabbi and couldn’t teach the girls those crafts. Instead they had to go to a Christian school one day a week to be taught, on Fridays. She said she tried to stay away from school saying she was sick because she had to leave school early to get home before sunset for Shabbat. The other children and the teacher would make fun of her having to leave.

She told stories of how the Jews were boycotted; arrested on trumped up charges; rocks were thrown in windows. Then people wondered where to go. “Palestine was favored by the young people,” she said.

She found her way out of Germany when her maternal grandmother contacted her brother, the black sheep of the family, who had been sent to America. “He was quite successful and was in his 80s and living in Missouri. He said he was retired and legally blind and couldn’t sign an affidavit for all five of us to come to America but he allowed my father to come.” He arrived in October 1937 during the depression and the mother and three children followed in July 1938. Her father got a job at S. Klein’s, the department store on Union Square in Manhattan. “It was a self service store and my father picked up the clothes the customers dropped on the floor. It is a credit to S. Klein’s that they made it a point of hiring refugees to work in the store; learn the language; and move on,” she said.

She said the family crossed the Atlantic on the USS Manhattan. “It was a stormy crossing and everyone was seasick - all except for my 7-year-old brother who ran all over the ship while my mother chased him.”

During the crossing there was a special dinner and on each table there was pineapple, a delicacy in Germany. Their table however had a grapefruit on it, something they had never seen before. It was sour and her mother said, “See - there is anti-Semitism here too.” Lottie said, that now she realized how sensitive they all were after living under the anti-Semitism they experienced in Nazi Germany.

She remembered the thrill of seeing the Statue of Liberty as they entered New York Harbor. The family settled in Jackson Heights, then moved to Elmhurst where nine people shared one bathroom – with no problems, she commented. Their uncle taught them English so that they would be prepared for school. She said, “We had very little but we were content.”

She said her maternal grandmother found refuge in Cuba until she could come here. All the family survived the Holocaust except for two aunts who died in a concentration camp.

Rabbi Marvin Demant thanked them for telling their stories and asked the Hess’ to tell how they met. Lottie said she and Werner met when she was 16, at a Jewish club dance. Werner and his soccer team came to the dance. He lived in the Bronx and she lived in Queens. Her father showed him an old photo from Germany and Werner said the man in the window was his father. “His father worked in our granary. My family knew his family so they approved of him,” said Lottie. They were married after the war in 1946.

Mr. Hess said, “I came with four dollars in my pocket, her father picked up clothes in a store but we survived.”