ODYSSEY OF FEAR

BY BERNARD BENYAMIN

TRANSLATED BY WILLIAM RODARMOR

 

Chapter 1

Right away, you’re struck by the large number of children. History says there were 200 of them. The eye strains to follow them as they race among the adults and the luggage. The ear rings with their shouts and laughter, punctuated by sobs provoked by some overwhelmed parent’s scolding. In the shadow of the huge liner they will soon board to sail to the other side of the world, innocence still reigns.

The children know little or nothing about the reasons for their departure. At home, “SA,” “SS,” “Gestapo,” and “Nazi” are words their parents only whisper, a hint of fear in their eyes. People don’t mention these abominations in front of the children. They keep quiet, pack their suitcases, take the littlest one by the hand. Then, with the closing of a door, a life is turned upside down. Everything they have built over the years is gone. They might fall victim to blind injustice and barbarism at any moment. They find themselves naked, with neither protection nor support, daunted by the prospect of a new life that they desperately long for.

On this Saturday, May 13, 1939, the port of Hamburg is gradually filling up. More than 900 passengers wait to be summoned to climb the gangplank and make their way to their cabins. On the dock stand Ruth and Hans Fischer, 10 and 11 years old respectively. They arrived the night before by train from Breslau, a German city that is now Polish, where generations of Fischers have lived. They are traveling with their mother, who is struggling to stay on top of the situation: the heat and the crowd, but also the ship to which she will entrust her and her children’s lives. A lot to ask of a woman who has battled every day for the last seven months to free her family from the Nazi danger.

“Things took a bad turn for us the day after Kristallnacht,” says Hans. He will use the word several times, as if stressing that it can only exist in German, that its English translation – “Crystal Night” -- reveals none of the violence it contains. “Kristallnacht” sounds like spitting, or maybe stabbing. Hans is now 87, and he and his sister are telling me the story of their voyage, or at least sharing the memories held by a little boy and girl brutally thrown into the adult world.

“In a way, our story is connected with infectious diseases and the quarantine measures the authorities imposed,” says Ruth. When she starts her account, her face lights up, a small smile at the corner of her mouth, as she recalls thumbing her nose at the Nazis. “We were in an apartment we were sharing with three other families. This was 1937 or 1938, and the Nuremberg laws had already devastated Germany’s Jewish population. Our family was lucky: up until Kristallnacht we had only lost our apartment.” The 86-year-old tucks a strand of hair into place and resumes her tale. “I was sick with the measles, so we were in quarantine at the time of Kristallnacht. Nobody dared come to our place during the night from November 9 to 10 because I had the measles!” Ruth bursts out laughing.

Kristallnacht is a phrase that returns like a leitmotif in all the accounts I have been able to gather. It originated in the act of an individual desperate to Warn the world about the Nazi menace. On November 7, 1938, a young Polish Jew named Herschel Grynszpan shot and killed Ernst vom Rath, a diplomat at the German Embassy in Paris. This was the spark Joseph Goebbels was waiting for to launch a pogrom against Germany’s Jews. A horde of SA, SS, Hitler Youth, and Gestapo members poured into the streets of Germany’s cities, attacking everything Jewish. In the course of that night, more than 200 synagogues were burned, 7,500 Jewish businesses ransacked, and some hundred Jews killed. Hundreds more would commit suicide or die of their injuries, and nearly 30,000 were deported to concentration camps.

As if that weren’t enough, Hermann Goering claimed the Jews themselves were responsible for the disorder, and ordered them to pay a billion reichsmarks for “damages” caused during Kristallnacht -- the Night of Broken Glass.

Clearly, the Nazis’ goal was to terrorize the Jews so as to hasten their emigration to other countries in Europe or to the United States. But while Kristallnacht generated its intended fear, Germany’s borders remained closed: the trap was being set. In a larger sense, Kristallnacht revealed the entire world’s indifference to the fate of German Jews and the European nations’ inability to oppose Hitler’s policies.

“Our misfortune started on November 10, the day when my sister’s quarantine ended.” Hans picks up the story, a little annoyed by Ruth’s laughter. “I remember that cursed day perfectly. I woke up and got dressed to go to school as usual. It wasn’t very far from where we were living; not more than a ten-minute walk. Out on the street I started seeing the broken windows. In front of some stores, you walked on shards of glass. I can still hear the crunching sound that made. As I hurried toward my school, there were a lot of people around, trying to see what was going on. When I was just a block away I saw that I couldn’t go any farther: the police had put up spiked barricades to stop the cars and pedestrians. That’s when I heard a loud shout from the crowd: ‘Look! The synagogue is burning!’ I stood on tiptoe to try to see, but there were too many people. And then I saw the flames and I could smell burning. I started running, racing home to tell my parents what I’d seen.”

Hans pauses. He’d just taken a seventy-five-year leap back in time, his feelings from that day still fresh. Ruth is silent, gazing down at a handkerchief she’s holding. “I ran to my mother’s arms and told her everything: the synagogue, the flames, the closed street to my school. My mother let out little cries as I told my story, but my father didn’t say anything. I think he understood perfectly what was happening. Maybe he was already thinking of a way to get us out of Germany.”