Santa Rosa resident Alfred Batzdorff was living in Breslau with his family on the night of Nov. 9, 1938 — Kristallnacht — when the synagogues of Germany were set ablaze, sparking open, violent displays of socially sanctioned anti-Semitism.
Ostensibly a spontaneous reaction by German citizens to the murder of German diplomat Ernst vom Rath by Polish-Jewish student Herschel Grynszpan, the well-organized pogrom resulted in Jewish-owned businesses being vandalized and all Jewish males being arrested and sent to concentration camps.
Batzdorff — who recently spoke at a screening of “Into the Arm of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport” in the Sonoma County Jewish Film Series — tells the story of how storm troopers searching for his physician father discovered he was out of town, so they arrested the then-16-year-old Alfred instead.
Driven through town by armed SS officers amid jeering crowds and past the still-smoldering ruins of their synagogue, Batzdorff was taken to join thousands of Jewish men who were lined up in the courtyard of the police headquarters, where they were made to stand all day. At nightfall, the group was marched to the railroad station to be taken by train to Buchenwald.
Batzdorff recalls “the police captain grabbed his megaphone, climbed on the roof of his car and announced that anyone over 70 years of age and disabled war veterans were to fall out of line and assemble in the far corner of the courtyard.
“I took advantage of the confusion and fell out of line as well, and hid among the old men in the corner.”
Herded into the basement of the police station, Batzdorff wasn’t discovered until he’d missed his train. He was put to work filling and emptying buckets of drinking water, to be used as toilets at the prison.
The next evening, the old men were allowed to return home, and that’s when Batzdorff got a lucky break. “A kindly disposed policeman said to me, ‘They have no record of you being amongst these men, so get out and get lost; but you better get away, or as soon as they realize that they lost you somewhere, they will come looking for you,'” he said.
Batzdorff knew it was imperative to leave Germany. Across the channel in England, a bill granting entry to 10,000 Jewish children was passed in response to the Kristallnacht pogrom. English Quakers in cooperation with various Jewish organizations coordinated with their counterparts in Germany to arrange transport. Although older than most of the other children, Batzdorff got his name added to the list and made it to England.
Batzdorff points out that most of the parents of the children on the transport had to make agonizing decisions to send a young child to a foreign country alone, and that his particular situation may have made his leaving his family less traumatic if no less frightening.
Once in England, Batzdorff went to work trying to arrange for his parents and brother to escape the Nazis. He managed to accomplish this just two months before the war erupted and all emigration was blocked.
The family made its way to America on June 4, 1940. The worst part of his ordeal, Batzdorff said, was twofold. “Physically, it was the two days I spent in police custody,” he said.
“There was great deprivation and fear and uncertainty for yourself and as far as your family is concerned. The most terrifying thing as a teenager was to see you’ve been arrested for no reason at all. You lose your sense of security — the law is against you. There’s no justice, no recourse.
“But besides the misery around me,” he added, “in retrospect, I think the very fact that my grandparents and so many other of my relatives didn’t survive is far more saddening.”
Now the 79-year-old Batzdorff, a retired engineer, has three sons, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. He met his wife, Susanne Batzdorff, in Breslau, which is now the Polish city of Wroclaw.
She fled Germany with her family in 1939, and is the author of “Aunt Edith: The Jewish Heritage of Catholic Saint.” It tells the story of a German Jew who became a nun and was martyred in 1942 at Auschwitz. The two have been recounting their stories to interested groups for many years, beginning in 1988.
They do it for several reasons.
“We feel this is an important lesson,” Alfred Batzdorff says. “There are relatively few of us around anymore, and for the few of us left, it’s kind of an obligation. Only by making people aware and keeping them alert about what human beings are capable of, can we help ensure it never happens again.”