The Night of Broken Glass by Janet R. Kirchheimer
A poet reflects on the stories of her father's Holocaust nightmare, which began on Kristallnacht, Nov. 9, 1938.
It was evening, and it was morning-two endless days that history records as Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass. Synagogues, Jewish-owned businesses, and homes were burned, looted, damaged, and destroyed in Nazi government-sponsored riots throughout Germany on November 9 and 10, 1938. Numbers vary greatly, but about 270 synagogues were burned, more than 7,000 shops, businesses, and homes were damaged or destroyed, and about 100 Jews were killed. Between 26,000 and 30,000 Jews were arrested and deported to concentration camps. My father was one of them.
Over the years, my father has told me of his experiences in Dachau-that he didn't know why he was being arrested; that he was photographed, fingerprinted, had his head shaved, got examined by an SS doctor, then beaten by an SS guard; that he got a cotton blue and white striped uniform, and that luck was getting a hat, that he took the long underwear off of a dead man and wore it so he wouldn't freeze to death as well; that Dachau was a testing ground for the Final Solution; that a 16-year-old boy figured out that he could stay warmer by volunteering for jobs; that each Jew was designated by the Nazis as a Schutzhaftjude--protected Jew"; that picking up a pair of glasses that belonged to a fellow prisoner, after he'd been beaten by an SS officer, and returning them to him was all you could do; that getting caught tying newspaper around your legs to try to stay warm could get you shot by the SS; that he always had hope he would get out; that some prisoners went crazy and were shot.
The following poems detail some of his experiences.
did I do? I'm only 16," and
the Gendarme told him if he didn't
like it, if he asked any more questions, he could go home,
they'd arrest his father instead. And he saw his father
paying his tax bill in the next room,
and he didn't call out, afraid they'd arrest him too, afraid
his father would want to take his place, and
the Gendarme said he had a job to do, a quota of ten men,
and he didn't care how he filled it, and my father
knew the Gendarme, went to school with his daughter.
He was told to empty his pockets, turn
in any money and weapons, and he turned in
his pocketknife, and told the Gendarme he had to go
to the bathroom, and another Gendarme, Wilhelm,
took him, and he knew Wilhelm too. He told Wilhelm
not to worry, he wasn't going to run away, and
Wilhelm said he knew, but he was doing his job.
As my father and nine other men were loaded on a truck
that said "Drink Coca-Cola," he turned and saw
Wilhelm crying like a child.
Nazis arrest him
a 16-year-old boy
a striped cotton uniform
it's almost winter
he shares a bunk
with a man in his 50's
who freezes to death one night
the next morning a kapo tells him
take off the man's long underwear
do it quickly
before the SS come for the body
you will freeze at night too
if you don't
it is the custom of some Jews
not to wear clothes from a dead body
and the Rabbis teach to save one's life
one must break custom
he washes the underwear that night
places it over a chair
next to the wood stove to dry
sleeps on it
to make sure
no one will steal it