Kristallnacht Memories of Edgar Rosenberg

            I was born in Fürth, a middle-sized town in Bavaria. Whatever distinctions Fürth claims are overshadowed by the adjacent city of Nuremberg, some seven miles to the southeast. At the beginning of ’38, Fürth numbered roughly 85,000 souls, of whom roughly 2% were Jews. Despite the proximity of the cities, the histories of their resident Jews differed radically, and this is hardly surprising if you consider that even proximate towns fell under entirely different jurisdictions: Nuernberg, a free Imperial City, could pretty much mind its own anti-Semitic business, without being told by king or clergy how to treat its Jews; Fürth, subject to the ruling margraves and episcopacy—both persistently friendly to the Israelites of Fürth. Thus Nuernberg expelled all its Jews in 1499; the congregation didn’t really gain foothold again til about 1848, so that when, in late 1942, Nuernberg was declared solidly judenrein—cleansed of Jews—Jews had been in situ for a mere 94 years.

            In the history of its Jews, Fürth ranks (or very nearly ranks) with congregations like Frankfort, Hamburg, Worms: it ranks as the foremost Jewish enclave in Bavaria—the second largest of the German nation-states. Jews had been settled in Fürth since at least 1440 and continuously since 1528; our first rabbi appears in 1607. Almost from the beginning, Jews enjoyed full rights to participate in municipal deliberations, enjoyed the so-called “right of co-determination” (Mitsprachsrecht); later in the seventeenth century the congregation put up one of their own for the office of mayor; somewhat later still, two Jewish wardens were elected aldermen to the local assembly. By 1816, when Fürth counted some 13,000 heads, nearly 2500 (one fifth of the population) were Jewish heads, and by then they had gained so much prominence that when, during a local election, Jews for some reason were by-passed for office, this was regarded as such a fluke that the King of Bavaria, Maximilian Joseph, the model of an enlightened constitutional monarch, wrote to the city fathers of Fürth to chew them out for so glaring an oversight. The first Jewish attorney in Bavaria, the first Jewish deputy to the Bavarian diet, the first Jewish judge in Bavaria, the first Jewish headmaster, the first Jewish hospital and the first Jewish orphanage are all to be found, not in Munich, the capital, or in flourishing cities like Augsburg but precisely in my town; our Talmudic university attracted scholars from far and near. I should add that the congregation had full jurisdiction over its membership; and when, in 1809, a state functionary interfered in this by trying to saddle a sort of Jewish moral leper on them—a plain infringement of their constitution, which dated back to the Middle Ages—the Jews of Fürth were able to use their position to endite a remarkably candid petition to the king, reminding him that Fürth was not only the most prominent Jewish settlement in His Majesty’s Kingdom but that—let’s face it— Fürth owed its commercial prosperity almost entirely to the presence of its Jews: what used to be a mean insignificant little Hofmarkt had grown into a thriving commercial center with the growth of its Jewish community; and the facts fully support this claim. Naturally, the governing bodies were not always so libertarian: in the 1830’s a ministerial edict decreed that the teaching of history in the Bavarian gymnasia was henceforth to be conducted by the clergy: as a result, Jews had their choice of learning Catholic world history or Protestant world history.


            The dates we commemorate, November 9th and 10th, enjoy a special distinction in the modern calendar: twenty years earlier, on 10 November 1918, the Kaiser escaped to Holland—the war was over; November 9th, 1923, of course, marks Hitler’s attempt to seize power—as the highest holiday in the Nazi calendar, it was to play handily into Crystal Night. November 9th ’89, the day the Wall came tumbling down, was not just then relevant. I myself like to recall two earlier occasions: an edict of 9 November 1808, allowing Bavarian Jews to carry arms for the first  time; and on 10 November 1809 the Jews of Fürth celebrated Napoleon’s and Max Joseph’s victory over the Austrians with a community sing-along or a bi-lingual Te Deum in German and Hebrew, Der Friede or Ha Shalom, twelve stanzas of unbelievably turgid unrhymed—and unrhymable—verse, in which the apostrophe “Thou” carries such tortured grammatical antecedents that you can never be sure whether the authors of Ha Shalom give thanks to Jehova or Napoleon or King Maximilian Joseph or to the Crown Prince, young Ludwig, the lover-in-spe of Lola Montez, who drowned himself in the Starnberger See, but not for love.

            In this plush and dignified old congregation I was to be the final communicant, the last of the Barmitzim, before the shattering of the glasses: I was Barmitva’d on 1 October, some 5 1/2 weeks before the pogrom, just two days after the Allies signed the Munich Agreement, and moreover on Shabbat Shuva, our holiest Sabbath. By then, of course, all the political distinctions between the Jews of Nuernberg and Fürth had long been eroded. From the earliest days of the regime, our district, Middle Franconia, had been the exclusive fiefdom of the legendary Jew-baiter Julius Streicher, the brawling Old Fighter, whose pornographic weekly brought a smile even to Hitler, who could only shake his head at these obscene caricatures and wonder out loud how Streicher managed to dream it all up. There had been signs and portents long before ’38. As early as the summer of ’33, a very distant kinsman of mine, a Nuremberg doctor, notoriously left-wing, was taken to Dachau. His wife, who tried to secure his release, was notified that he would be set free as soon as she could produce emigration papers to Palestine. The wife secured the needful papers, but on the day on which her husband was expected to be released, she was informed that he had committed suicide in the camp. As a physician, he had no doubt witnessed far too many acts of brutality against his fellow-Jews and fellow-radicals to be safely discharged: very likely the Gestapo had never thought of releasing him. Then again, whipped on by the sordid climate, the Brownshirts of Fürth, as early as July ’34, carried their bloody demonstrations so far that the government had to send in military reinforcements: in the skirmishes between the Brownshirts and the militia, the Nazis got their own back.


            What I myself saw (or heard, mostly) of the November pogrom can be told briefly enough. There were five of us: my grandmother, my parents, my 10-year-old brother. Three years before, after the death of my father’s father, we had moved into the very large flat which my grandmother occupied in the family residence: a sprawling three-storey affair which my Great-Grandfather Jeremias had bought in the 1850’s, adding a wing in ’92 to house the burgeoning family. My father had been practicing law in Nuernberg since his discharge from the 6th Royal Bavarian Field Artillery Regiment on his 29th birthday, on Epiphany 1919: his first lieutenancy in the 6th Royal Bavarian is far more pertinent to what follows than his profession of law. One has got to remember here that Hindenburg, the enormously popular warrior hero and last president of the Reich, clung to a very simple Manichean view of mankind, a view in which people were of two sorts: either they were German war veterans, or they were not. And this distinction overrode all ethnic and religious distinctions; and even though Hindenburg had been dead as a doornail since August 2nd, 1934, not even Hitler could entirely ignore the Field Marshal’s basic arithmetic. For a year or two after Hindenburg’s death, we celebrated his birthday in public school by yelling

                                                We Render Thanks to Hindenburg

                                                            He Gave Us our Führer!

                                                Wir danken unserm Hindenburg    

                                                            Er Gab Uns Unsren Führer!

and by and by Hindenburg petered out. Even so, as one of the twelve or thirteen Fürth Jews to collect the Iron Cross First Class, my father plumed himself no end on his war record; and when, in the mid-thirties, the Nazis revoked the decree of November  1808 and called on the Jews to turn in whatever weapons they owned, my father, instead of surrendering his Browning pistol to the police, tossed it into the exceedingly dirty Pegnitz River.

            It was the thick oak door of the family mansion which the gentle Germans knocked down some time between four and five AM on November 10th. The degree to which the whole affair had been premeditated, by the way, can be gauged by two weirdly related events. In Nuremberg the Party had weeks ahead of time ordered crowbars and iron rods; these were distributed to the Storm Troopers at 2 AM of November 10th to hasten the destruction of the synagogues; in Fürth the congregation had learned weeks before, in early October, that the Torah scrolls had been filched by the Nazis from the orthodox congregation Adat Yisrael in Nuernberg, and to prevent the same desecration in Fürth, some of the Jews removed all scrolls and silver ornaments from our four chief synagogues, substituting scrolls which were unfit for the Sabbath service. As a result, the genuine articles eluded the  spoliators and some of the may have been smuggled out of Germany—piecemeal, I fancy.

            This, though, is hindsight. While the portals of our house are being smashed, one of my father’s 24 cousins, whose family occupied the storey above ours, informed the Brownshirts that as a Swiss citizen he couldn’t be touched; the Brownshirt, not much impressed by my Uncle Alfred’s foreign credentials, slaps him across the face and tells him that a Jew Sow in Fürth looks pretty much the same as a Jew Sow in the Swiss Alps. Then the Brownshirts came trooping upstairs. From my bed in the Kinderzimmer I thought I distinguished four or five voices. (In situations like these it’s often difficult to count these shady fringe characters; for example—given the radical differences involved—even the editors of the variorum edition of Anne Frank’s Diary are uncertain whether there were as few as three or as many as eight captors among the Green Police who collected the denizens of the Secret Annex on August 4, ’44). As far as I could make out, the idea was that we were all to get up and get dressed and get going, on the double. I never so much as saw these gangsters. My father knew a good deal about the Party and about the risks he could take; and above all that din in the hallway I heard him shout at the top of his lungs: “Not on your life! My mother and the children aren’t going anywhere!” Then he took fifteen minutes to shave and pocket his military citations, as though nothing impressed a stormtrooper more than to be kept waiting and confront a head reeking of Eau de Cologne. By about 4:30, I heard the door of our flat being shut. It closed twice: first one of the Brownshirts slammed it shut and then, as I reconstruct the affair, my father opened it again and closed it more gently to teach these gangsters how we close our doors. And then silence descended.

            My Grandmother, my brother Hans, and I must have been the only Jews in all Fürth to stay inside that day; and what follows is not strictly an eye-witness report but a brief account of eye-witnesses to whom I recently talked about this—old school chums and others. As I said, I never laid eyes on the bandits who burst into our flat and removed my parents, and so they remain blanks in my mind. My chums, of course, got to see them and even knew some of them by sight. Fürth is the kind of town in which you are bound to run into familiar faces, and plenty of my Jewish townsmen have told me how, during the round-ups, dozens of Brownshirts displayed a certain embarrassment—to the point of developing an alarming stutter—at having been picked to knock up at five in the morning a family who for years had patronized their bakeries or tobacco shops. Our delicatessen man, Herr Dürr, for example, who had been an army pal of a classmate’s father, groused rather defensively, “I’m not here on a social visit, if that’s what you think,” before he started to wreck a small dining-room cabinet—none too vivaciously, my classmate thought, as if Herr Dürr’s heart weren’t quite in the wrecking business. Dr. Einhorn was even luckier. Everybody liked Dr. Einhorn, the pediatrician—so much so that one of the Brownshirt gangsters, whose child Dr. Einhorn might have cured of the scarlatina or a whooping cough, sad, “Don’t mind us, Dr. Einhorn, but they told us to smash something here. Anything in particular you wouldn’t mind us smashing?” Dr. Einhorn (I have the story at second hand) happened to own a most ferociously expensive Chinese vase, a family heirloom which had been foisted on him at his second wedding and the sight of which for some reason gave him fits. “Yes, do me a favor, Herr Zolleis, and smash that beastly thing,” says Einhorn; and after obligingly smashing the heirloom Zolleis and his shop mates took to their heels; and by and by Dr. Einhorn left for Washington Heights and lived to tell the tale on a park-bench in Fort Tryon Park to anyone who would listen.—

            Very obviously, the “norm” is not to be found in Herr Dürr or in Dr. Einhorn’s ludicrous missionaries. Far more familiar to you and far more characteristic were those who did have their hearts in the business: the vigilantes, for instance, who stormed the flat of still another chum’s family, and after making short shrift of everything they could lay their hands on, after slashing every painting and mattress and tapestry, and ripping apart the curtains, and hacking away at the piano and tables and dressers, grabbed my chum’s father, a man who had been stone-blind from birth, and hurled him down two flights of stairs. Weeks later, after things had begun to calm down, I went to visit the pal; the blind father, a gentle and courteous man, led me by the hand all over the flat and guided my fingers over every small tangible disfiguration, the cracks and scratches and rifts and dents—a kindly museum-guide filled with an almost professional interest in exhibiting every mark the gangsters had left, as if some purely negative value attached to these things.


            The Jews of Fürth were shaken up, then, sometime between two and five in the morning and herded, in freezing weather, to the main square of town—the Schlageter Platz (Leo Schlageter, who had been killed by the French for blowing up trains in the Ruhr in ’23, had long been enshrined in the Party hagiography)—all the Jews, from the two months’ old infant of our physics teacher to septuagenarian inmates of the Jewish Hospital. In this sub-zero weather those old enough to stand stood at attention for hours. A classmate of mine, young Doris, recalls having to pee something awful; so she squatted down and relieved herself.

            Then the troopers started in on the synagogues. (The desecration of temples is, of course, the classic crime in times of pestilence). Of the seven synagogues in our town, four were grouped round the Schulhof, a large court, or square, which also accommodated the congregational offices, ritual bath, kosher butcher shop, and the caretaker’s lodge—of the remaining synagogues, one was located in the Jewish hospital, a sixth in the Jewish orphanage. At about 5:30 (but I may be an hour off) the Jews were ordered to execute a smart about-face in the direction of the Schulhof; the sky had turned crimson; the synagogues burned. And at that moment the time-honored religious schisms among us which seem not to desert us even in days of wrath, burst eerily into the open. For now the orthodox Jews—the members of the Neuschul, the Mannheimer Shul, the Klaus Shul—set up a heart-rending wail to see their bet knesset aflame; but this seemed above all to intimidate, even terrify, the reformed Jews, who took it for granted that these pious howls could only inflame the troopers and turn into a bloodbath. In this they over-reacted, but in the course of these morning maneuvers our Chief Rabbi, who 5 1/2 weeks before had presided at my Bar Mitvah, was forced to trample and stamp on the Torah lying in the middle of Schlageter Square, “to the vast amusement and hoots of delight,” as the papers reported next day, “by the citizen spectators.” Once the synagogues were disposed of, our mayor, a hothead for whom pogroms seem to have been invented, ordered the fire chief to kindly burn down the caretaker’s lodge—the caretaker, by the way, was a 100% Aryan but the lodge housed a small prayer room. Our mayor turned out to be something of a Johnnie-come-lately to Crystal Night and was clearly eager to make amends for his truancy. He had spent half the night boozing it up with his buddies at the Cafe Fink, toasting the anniversary of the Putsch; once he got word about the happenings in the Schulhof the main attraction turned out to be nearly over; our mayor stood there, gaping stupidly at the flickering flames and sooty ruins; the only thing left was to burn down the lodge. The fire chief raised objections: the house next door might catch fire; but our mayor threatened the chief with instant dismissal. I remember our burgomaster, Franz Jakob, a burly swarthy crimson-faced sot: his dates as First Mayor of Fürth are ’33 to ’40, when he himself was dismissed from office for indecent exposure (the Nazis could be terrible prudes about this sort of thing) and transferred to some perfectly unheard-of kav in West Prussia, practically all the way to the Polacks.


            Some time between seven and nine AM the women, children, and men over sixty were allowed to go home. The remnant were herded into the Civic Community Centre, named, until ’33, for its Jewish donor; it houses an impressive library and a large auditorium used for concerts, lectures, and poetry readings; and its character specifically stipulates that the establishment is not to be used for political ends. With the sporting Brownshirts setting the pace, the walk from Schlageter Square to the Community Center—it leads past the Park Hotel, the downtown cinema and, if you were to walk it now, past a nifty slate-colored monument to the victims who perished during WW II, Jews and Gentiles indiscriminately—takes no more than ten minute; it leaves plenty of time and room for my nosy townsmen to crowd into the streets, spitting, yodelling, screaming, “Well, high time!” and “none too soon!” and bursting into a chorus of “Jew Sows” and “Croak Judas”—”Juda Verrecke!”; one of our town wits even stepped right up to the director of the Jewish Hospital Medical Councillor Frank, to ask him whether he hadn’t forgotten to bring his stethoscope, and the wit had to be pushed back to the curb by the troopers.— A lot of ink has been spilt by German and British historians about the behavior of the Aryan street people during Crystal Night, or Morning. The historians are generally agreed that the event embarrassed or at least annoyed the Germans—not so much because of their love for the Jews but their rage for cleanliness in the streets: they disliked the Jews, but they also disliked to see their pavements littered with glass splinters, torn overcoats, unhinged typewriters, beheaded teddy-bears, and the Dali-esque picture of half a pianola lying athwart our busy main street. If you live long enough, you always find yourself at a point where history and memory intersect, and from where I stand I’ll pit my memory against the textbooks any day. Germans who crowd the sidewalks at an hour when they should be in bed, snoring, who break the ranks of the Brownshirts to get a good close-up of the Jew Kahn, the religious whose beard has been ripped off, tricoteuses who shriek the most artificial journalese, like “Death to the Sneering Jew Murderer!” and who bring their snot nosed toddlers along for the morning’s sight-seeing (the toddlers rubbing their eyes and staring open-mouthed at Jewish toddlers their own age)—surely it isn’t good form, or good history, to lump together these people as passive onlookers. People who bury their heads in the sand can’t very well spit in your face.


            Have I gotten our Jews into the auditorium of the Civic Center? Here they were lined up again, screamed at—some were beaten, beaten at random, promiscuously, whimsically. A few Aryan doctors were assigned to the back benches of the auditorium to administer first aid. My father escaped whipping; in what I am told became something of a classic joke among our coreligionists, my father, when his turn came during the roll-call, looked his vis-a-vis in the eye and told him, “Ah, I see you’ve got the same medals I’ve got!” and he produced his Hindenburg trophies. Not: “I see I’ve got the same medals you’ve got” or “I see we’ve got the same medals,” but “You’ve got the ones I’ve got”—this to keep things in perspective.— Meantime, there occurred one of those grotesque incidents which begin to shed light on the whole murky affair. Rabbi Behrens, along with a syndic and a member of the executive board of the Temple, was hauled off to the Old Cemetery at the top of Blumenstrasse, on the edge of civilization —I don’t recall ever having a clear idea of its whereabouts until I returned to Fürth in my brand-new VW eighteen years after the collapse, with a Kodak dangling from one shoulder and a Yamaha from the other. There, under threat of being instantly shot in the neck, the Rabbi and his cohorts were told to divulge the whereabouts of a synagogue which was said to be tucked away in the woods. (The very idea of a woodsy synagogue around Fürth is completely meshugga). It turned out that what confused these brown idiots was the presence somewhere in town of an experimental private school which had been endowed by a wealthy Jewish benefactor and which bore the name Waldschule [“Forest School”]; the Storm Trooper just then seemed to suspect a Shul concealed in every Schule.— The Rabbi and his companions were given a reprieve but, as it turned out, no more than that.


            And what, all this time, happened to Edgar and Hans? I had no idea what was going to happen to my parents. I couldn’t be sure that I should see them again—though oddly enough I couldn’t really imagine that I shouldn’t. My Grandmother “busied” herself in her room; I think this was the day the seamstress, Fräulein Hämmerlein, was supposed to put in her fortnightly appearance, but of course on this day of all days no self-respecting Aryan was going to show her face. The cook, Minna Mirwald, who had filched my mother’s priceless Gone with the Wind from her bedside table, actually locked herself into her room and with all that Nazi hullaballoo buried her nose in the American Civil War and roasted her shivering self on the fires of Atlanta. My brother and I were at a total loss how to get through the day. By and by he started to crouch over a simple jigsaw puzzle of South America, like Citizen Kane’s tanked-up second wife, dropping bits and pieces of Peru. But I myself cleared the desk in my father’s library, hauled out of his bookcase Jäger’s four-volume History of the World, and started to copy important dates and events, beginning with the Egyptians and Mesopotamians. Somehow this mindless recording of dates imposes a sense of order, a stay against all that confusion. What, in times of cholera, can be more consoling than the knowledge that Thirty Days Hath September and that Monday We Begin the Week? The events I earmarked were in themselves quite frightful and sanguinary—years later I thought of the kid in the Faulkner novel who looks all over Memphis for a whorehouse when all along he’s been living in one.—

          Looking back at these, our last months in the Reich, I think that at least in the short run they affected my kid brother more keenly than they affected me. This revealed itself in all sorts of ways: for example when, shortly after we settled in Washington Heights more than a year later and he came down with the German Measles, he begged my parents to de-naturalize his illness and inform his teacher that he had come down with the measles; and naturally my parents obliged. (Not that in German anybody would think of calling the thing the German Measles, nor even, as you might expect, the French Measles). And whenever I spoke German on 170th Street or St. Nicholas Avenue, mostly to irritate him, he would cross the street.

            My mother came back in the late morning, while I was already knee-deep into Mizrahim and my brother ankle-deep into Peru. My father returned about five PM. I had never seen him sporting a five o’clock shadow before, and for all his spunky noises and many-splendored medals, he looked beaten, haggard, as though he had lost thirty pounds since morning. Before nightfall I hard the rumbling of trucks heading for Nuremberg: there, in that enormous three-block-long pile, the Palace of Justice, where my father had begun his auspicious career and where, an unspeakably long seven years later, the War Criminals got their come-uppance, the Jews of Fürth overnighted from Thursday to Friday before being shipped off to Dachau. But my lucky father got away in the nick of time. The day after the pogrom one of the Party bosses called his office; Fräu’n Wedel, his secretary, told him that my father was “out”—I think he was home for lunch; “oh so,” yelled the chief, “so the swine has slipped through my fingers after all;” and on the night of the 11th to the 12th, my father slipped into Switzerland. A colleague of his, who ran into him at the Nuernberg railway station, told him, “You’ll never make it.” By then you could instantly spot a Jew’s passport by the red-inked capital “J” it bore on the inside front page: a contribution to Nazi fun-and-games not by some underling in the German Race Bureau but the Chief of the Swiss Federal Police, Dr. Heinrich Rothmund, who, to keep Switzerland safe from being swamped with Jews, persuaded the Germans to make the most of their red ink. As a result, Jews could be spotted by border officials everywhere, a most rewarding gimmick in countries in which they were anyhow strictly non grata. At Lindau, the border station, my father produced his passport; the passport inspector, given his existential choices, chose to ignore the identifying red capital “J,” handed the passport back to my Dad, nodded at him, and wished him good luck and a safe journey.. An hour later, my father arrived in St. Gall, in a state of collapse from which it took him months to recover. We had all been most fortunate. My brother and I got our walking papers on March 23rd ’39, the day the Germans invaded the Memel, way up there in the Baltics. I kept working on my Historical Dates and had just gotten to the Punic Wars when my brother and I left Fürth.


            By ’39, the Jewish remnant of Fürth had been so eviscerated and pauperized that the Jews depended more than ever on one another. The deportations began two years later, in November ’41. But until at least May ’42 services were still conducted pretty regularly in the prayer room of the Jewish Orphanage (the oldest in Bavaria), which had escaped our mayor’s pyromania. During the last winter of its existence, the congregation of Fürth still organized collection for winter relief and kept its library open to us incurably bookish Jews. The executive board of the Temple kept the Jews informed of the latest formal anti-Jewish decrees—the tightening of the curfew hours, for instance, and the increasingly stringent rules stipulating the hours set aside for the Jews to run their errands. The final congregational communique which has come to light is dated March 23rd, 1943 (four years to the day after my brother and I left town): it cites the new regulations for bringing in shoes for repair and alerts the Jews to the change in curfew hours with the introduction of daylight savings time. By then a mere forty Jews were left in Fürth; and within three months they too vanished into the mephitic East.

 To read more about Edgar CLICK HERE

To see the Rosenberg family photo galleries CLICK HERE and HERE

Posted: November 8, 2010



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