My grandfather remembered how, on the night before he was finally able to escape Nazi Germany with his family, he
- went once more to the Westend-Synagogue, to take my leave of the House of God at the dedication of which I had been present as a young man almost a generation earlier. From the outside there no sign of destruction could be seen. But inside was a picture of terrifying devastation. The great candelabrum lay in a thousand broken pieces on the floor. The pews, the pulpit at which I had so often stood, the table from where the services were led, the magnificent organ had all been burnt. The Ark had been smashed, the Torah Scrolls stolen. This image pursued me like a nightmare for many years.
This 9th November will be the 76th year since Kristallnacht, ‘the night of the broken glass.’ In Germany it is now referred to as Reichspogromnacht, ‘the night of the national pogrom’, in order not to confer dignity upon a term coined by the Nazis. But to Jews I believe it will always remain Kristallnacht, the night of terror as Nazis smashed the windows of thousands of Jewish businesses and homes and set alight hundreds of synagogues, rejoicing as the flames took hold. Goebbels noted in his diary with an exhilaration which still communicates itself today his excitement at the growing number of synagogues on fire.
For those of us who were not there it is impossible to imagine the fear such violence aroused:
- At one point, the doorbell rang. The owner of the stationery store on the building’s ground level stood in the hallway, deathly pale and shaking: “Can you hide me?” he begged. I always remember his face, that absolutely horror-stricken face. (Tom Tugend: testament in The Jewish Journal)
Tens of Jews were murdered; tens of thousands of Jewish men arrested and sent to Buchenwald, Dachau and Sachsenhausen, my grandfather among them. It was now the women who, alone and with immense courage, queued outside foreign consulates, petitioned the Gestapo, desperately contacted relatives abroad, friends, former colleagues, anyone through whose aid there might be the remotest hope of obtaining a position, a visa, an escape-route from the death which had now broken from the shadows to encircle them. Meanwhile the postal service was delivering parcels, urns containing the ashes of Jews who had ‘regrettably’ died in detention; that is, they were murdered and their bodies subsequently burnt to conceal the cause of death. ‘We dreaded the approach of the postman’, my mother recalled.
One item in the Westend-Synagogue had not been destroyed, the Eternal Light, the Ner Tammid. ‘People saw this as a sign from God’, my grandfather recorded. Indeed, there were places where the power of this light began to burn more strongly as the darkness thickened all around. The British Consul General in Frankfurt, Robert Smallbones, overcame its reluctance and persuaded the government to accept refugees on temporary visas, provided they did not take jobs. Tens of thousands, including my family, were saved as a result of this scheme. The Home Secretary, Samuel Hoare, urged by Jewish and Quaker leaders, addressed Parliament on the pressing need to rescue the children:
- Here is a chance of taking the young generation of a great people, here is a chance of mitigating to some extent the terrible suffering of their parents and their friends.
Soon afterwards there commenced in thousands of homes the packing of single suitcases, and partings at railway stations. At least, amidst their fear and loneliness, the parents would know that their beloved child was safe. And children walked from the trains at Liverpool Street Station ‘into the arms of strangers’ often loving, sometimes uncomprehending.
The Ner Tammid in our own synagogue was lit by a torch from the Eternal Light in Frankfurt. May it burn for us, as it burnt for those who opened their hearts to save and nurture helpless, destitute lives.