75th anniversary of Kristallnacht: ‘I thought that day would be my last’

75th anniversary of Kristallnacht: ‘I thought that day would be my last’

Herman and a Jewish-owned cafe daubed with the word 'Jude' during Kristallnacht.
Herman and a Jewish-owned cafe daubed with the word 'Jude' during Kristallnacht.

On 9 November 1938, in what was to become known as Kristallnacht, around 1,000 shuls and 7,000 Jewish businesses were destroyed across Germany. Caron Kemp speaks to Herman Hirschberger who, 75 years ago this week, witnessed the catastrophe viewed by many as the start of Hitler’s Final Solution.

Herman and a Jewish-owned cafe daubed with the word 'Jude' during Kristallnacht.
Herman and a Jewish-owned cafe daubed with the word ‘Jude’ during Kristallnacht.

Albeit frightening, the morning walk resembled any other that Hermann Hirschberger had come to know.

It was 8am on November 10th 1938 and, along with his older brother Julius, the 12-year-old from Karlsruhe – a city on the Rhine 70 miles south of Frankfurt – was making the long, hostile journey to his makeshift school 45 minutes away.

There was antagonism in the air but since Hitler had come into power this had become their shameful reality.

That day though, something had changed.

As the Gestapo patrolled the burning building, news spread that all the Jewish teachers, outcast from mainstream education following the Nuremberg Laws, had been arrested; deported to meet their deaths in concentration camps.

Hermann and Julius were ordered to go home.

“That day the whole atmosphere of the world began to look very shaky,” Hermann recalls.

“As we walked home you could sense the acrid smell of wood burning. We saw so many shops that had been broken into and destroyed, looted of all their stock and often burnt to the ground. Of course they all belonged to Jews.

“It soon became known that a terrible situation was arising.”

In what would come to be known as Kristallnacht – the night of the broken glass – many Jews were murdered throughout Nazi Germany while Jewish homes, hospitals and schools were ransacked. More than 1,000 synagogues were burned and in excess of 7,000 Jewish businesses destroyed.

“Our mother was alarmed when we got home and told her what had happened and she went to find my father, who worked in a bank, to tell him to go into hiding,” he explains.

“But while she was gone two Gestapo officers came to our apartment and forced us to open the door.

“They made us stand against the wall with our arms in the air. They wanted our father and wouldn’t believe us that he wasn’t home. They were waving their revolvers under our noses.

“It was the most frightening day of my life. I can still recall the pain that the fear caused in the pit of my stomach.

“I honestly thought that day would be my last.”

Of course tensions had been mounting for a number of years in Germany.

Less than a year after starting at a German national school aged six – one of only two Jewish boys in the 30-strong class – Hermann’s classmates starting turning on him, calling him a “filthy Jew” and refusing to play together.

“I was so young and didn’t really understand what was going on, but it was uncomfortable,” he admits.

“Hitler came into power in 1933 with a suitcase of racial policies of which the prime one was Anti-Semitism. While I couldn’t fathom how people could become so nasty so quickly it certainly happened.

“Even my teacher, while not horrible directly, stood by and did nothing which in some ways was worse. But when I complained to the head teacher he simply responded “well isn’t that what you are? Filthy Jews.””

Of Karlsruhe’s 3,000-strong Jewish population, many were now clamouring to leave, but still living in hope that things may change, plenty – including Hermann, Julius and parents Sigmund and Jenny – stayed.

“I do not blame them for doing so,” confirms Hermann. “But it was, of course, the wrong decision.”

Signs were being erected in shop windows explaining that Jews were not welcome. Even Hermann’s swimming lessons came to an abrupt halt because he was no longer allowed in the pool.

“Despite being so young you soon became wise,” he explains. “Ultimately a Jew was a Jew and that was his ticket to the cemetery.”

While Hermann was constantly attacked for his religion, one incident remains particularly vivid in his memory.

“I was walking home from school,” he recalls. “It was a cold dark December evening and there was snow on the ground. Suddenly I heard someone shout “fire” and around 20 people popped out from behind bushes and started throwing snowballs with stones in them at me. They were calling me a dirty Jew. I ran all the way home crying.”

But it was the night of November 9th 1938 – Kristallnacht – when any shred of hope that things could change was dashed. Viewed by many as the beginning of the Final Solution and the Holocaust, Hermann’s parents knew then they had to escape.

Yet without a visa and with Jewish bank accounts frozen, Jenny and Sigmund booked their children on the Kindertransport; a rescue mission in which the United Kingdom took in nearly 10,000 predominantly Jewish children from Nazi Germany. They were placed in British foster homes, hostels, schools and farms.

“I remember on March 20 1939 we waved goodbye to our mother and boarded the train to Hamburg. She kissed us and told us to say the Shema every night. She promised there would be a reunion in England soon. But we never saw either her or my father ever again.”

Both Sigmund and Jenny, like most of those parents left behind, perished in Auschwitz.

Now 87, with a wife, two children and four grandchildren and living in Stanmore, Hermann is still affected every day by his childhood in Nazi Germany. Yet he remains thankful to those that ultimately saved him.

“The Kindertransport was a unique form of saving lives and the gratitude I have to the organisers is immense,” he states.

“But the greatest heroes were my parents. They made the very unselfish decision that if we could be saved that was better than nothing.

“To send us off to a foreign country and to realise that it might possibly be the last time they would ever see us was heroism of a degree that I will never forget.”

HETs Twitter Q&A – it is with Holocaust survivor Harry Bibring and is taking place on Sunday 10th November at 3.30pm – 4.30pm