A Special Kristallnacht Anniversary

A mural endorsing Tolerance and Justice at the Realschule Ueberruhr in Essen, Germany.

A mural endorsing Tolerance and Justice at the Realschule Ueberruhr in Essen, Germany.

This year marks 75 years since the pogrom later known as Kristallancht, or “Night of the Broken Glass.”

The two-day rampage saw homes, businesses and synagogues ransacked in communities throughout Hitler’s Germany. After taking the pulse of world opinion, the Nazi government fined the Jewish community for the damage it had suffered.

It also led to the death of close to 100 Jews and many more being injured.

One was in our family.

One of the few childhood memories that my father retained from his years in his homeland was of the Gestapo coming for his father Max, a World War I veteran and the descendant of a family that had lived in the area for close to 150 years.

He returned weeks later, bruised and badly beaten. My father often wondered if the physical abuse contributed to his father’s later deafness.

Grandpa Max’s incarceration and public abuse convinced my grandfather that the country he had served was no longer his.

It also allowed him to listen to his wife and to take the seemingly impossible step of sending his children away to save them.

In the wake of the devastation, the British government established the Kindertransport program that allowed about 10,000 Jewish children ages 4 to 17 from Germany, Austria, Poland and the former Czechoslovakia to find refuge in England.

Dad and his older brother Ralph were two of them.

Dad boarded a train in the spring of 1939, shortly before he turned 5 years and just weeks after he had had his appendix removed.

His father, a World War I veteran who lost the unfettered use of his right arm and much of his hearing in the trenches, took his ailing son from doctor to doctor throughout the town.

None would operate on a Jewish child.

Eventually, my great-grandfather Joseph, the patriarch and the man for whom I am named, found a non-Jewish colleague to perform the surgery on his kitchen table.

Dad and Uncle Ralph lived under the watchful care of Ruth Stern, a Cambridge-educated headmistress, for close to a year and a half. In late 1940, they were reunited in the United Steas with my grandparents, who had managed to escape through Genoa, Italy after the war began.

As a result of the British government’s generosity and my grandparents’ courage, Dad and Uncle Ralph’s survival has always been linked to the memory of the Kristallnacht atrocities.

This year, the connection is a special one.

That’s because of the relationship we’ve developed in the past couple of years with Gabriele Thimm, a remarkable educator in Dad’s hometown who is fiercely committed to her students’ learning the truth about their nation’s genocidal history.

In the fall of 2011, Gabriele contacted me after reading an article I had written in 2004 about searching for our family’s roots. She said that she was organizing a memorial ceremony for the Jewish community of Essen, and that one of the stops would be at my great-grandfather’s house.

She invited us to attend.

We could not make the event, but we sent pictures and a statement in which we expressed our gratitude for what they were doing and our hope that we would meet them in person soon.

Six months later, we did just that.

Along with Dunreith, Aidan, my brother Jon and Dad’s partner Lee, Dad set foot in his hometown for the first time in 73 years.

Gabriele organized a series of events throughout the time we were in Germany.

We visited Dad’s former apartments.

We met a non-Jewish family whose parents had held our family bible for years during the Holocaust.

We visited the old Jewish cemetery and a farm house our ancestors had owned.

We held a surprise 78th birthday party for Dad.

We also attended a pair of Cermonies of Life that Gabriele had organized with her students.

The first was held at the Great Synagogue that was destroyed in Kristallnacht and has since been reopened as a cultural center.

The second took place at the school where Gabriele teaches.

The students read, sang and showed documents that told the story of the Jewish people, the Jewish community in Essen, our family’s history and the devastating impact of the Nazi regime.

At the school ceremony, students came forward and pinned the names of individual Lowenstein family members in the shapes of leaves on a green paper tree, eventually building a seven-generation family tree.

At the end, Dad rose and spoke.

He answered students’ questions, but before he did that, he announced that we were creating an award in our family’s name to honor young people who acted for Tolerance and Justice. (Part of the funds for the award came from an honorarium that the town had offered Dad.)

This year, Dad, Lee and I returned to Essen, where he presented the awards to the winners who had been selected from a panel of three people that Gabriele had spearheaded.

A class of art students had built a bright, multi-colored mural with the words “Tolerance and Justice” made out of puzzle pieces.

A group of students performed a rap they had written about the family.

A video that other students had made showed black and white images of forlorn children on the Kindertransport, numbers around their necks as they prepared to depart from their parents.

The video explained that Dad and Uncle Ralph were on the program.

Language that said Dad had returned to the community after many years scrolled across the screen, followed by a color picture of Dad speaking to the community at the Great Synagogue the previous year.

Dad gave the awards to the winners after reading in a statement he had written that told the young people they represented the future.

Months after the ceremony Gabriele told me that the leader of the cultural center had asked her to speak about our project at this year’s Kristallnacht commemoration.

She accepted.

A couple of days Gabriel wrote us that a television was recording a segment about our family.

Her students who had made the rap were going to answer questions and show photographer, the mural paint and the plaque that bears the award winners’ name.

The crew also wanted to see the family tree and Papa Joseph’s house.

The next day the students were going to record the rap on a CD.

And we’re talking about how to expand the project to other schools.

It is important not to overstate the extent and impact of what has happened, to use Gabriele’s extraordinary commitment and energy to put an excessively happy ending to a story of death and destruction or to look away from the intolerance that still exist in the community.

But it’s also important to know that stories of repair matter a lot.

Examples that permit young people to move forward knowing about what has come before and also carrying with them the belief that they can act in a different way can make a difference.

This Saturday and Sunday I’ll be thinking of Kristallnacht’s destruction

But I’ll also be thinking of Gabriele’s courage, of Dad’s character, and of my great fortune to be a part of this journey that has already brought tremendous meaning and joy and is not over yet.

That’s worth remembering, too.


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