Max Brender was 14 years old when Kristallnacht occurred.
He was just a kid and didn’t understand what was happening. His family wasn’t very religious. He attended public school. He was German, and he looked like all of the other kids.
But what happened on Nov. 9, 1938 changed Brender’s life.
“I was on the street that night and [SS men and German civilians] started breaking the windows of the jewelry stores owned by Jews,” Brender, of San Francisco, recalled. “They broke the windows to steal what was inside. The police saw me and shooed me away — not because I was a Jew, but because I was just a kid. They thought I shouldn’t be watching, so they sent me home.”
Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass, turned into 24 hours of terror, as more than 90 Jews were murdered and nearly 30,000 were arrested and deported to concentration camps. It is regarded as the beginning of the Holocaust.
“It was a night that began the darkest moment in our history,” Rabbi Moshe Levin said at a Nov. 12 event in San Francisco designed to mark Kristallnacht in part by looking at how Germany has taken a turn for the better.
“It took nearly 30 years since the end of the war for Germany to come to grips with its reality. Since then, the children and grandchildren of the perpetrators of that heinous crime have come forth and turned the relationship between Germany and the Jewish people around completely.”
The community-wide event was called “Mending the Broken Glass,” and it was held on Shabbat at Congregation Ner Tamid, where Levin is spiritual leader. It was co-sponsored by a number of local and national Jewish organizations.
The seeds of inspiration for the event were planted eight years ago, when Levin met and befriended a German couple during a Hawaiian vacation. That led to a trip this past summer to Berlin, where Levin saw memorials and museums dedicated to the Holocaust.
Levin, who had previously refused to buy German goods or visit the country (“It was my debt I owed to the Six Million”), was so moved by the experience that he chose to commemorate Kristallnacht by looking at Germany today.
At the event, the German Consulate General in San Francisco was represented by Consul General Peter Rothen, who told the crowd of more than 100 people he appreciated “the gesture that you receive me at your temple” on the night of a Kristallnacht remembrance.
Rothen spoke in the sanctuary about Germany’s role in assuming responsibility for the Holocaust and ensuring it is never forgotten. For example, he said, there are more than 2,000 memorials throughout the country.
“To my personal satisfaction, Germany has followed a strong policy of admitting its guilt without any excuse,” he said. “We are trying to remedy the material that says otherwise, to commemorate the victims and honor their sacrifices, and to prevent reoccurrence of racism and discrimination in Germany.”
Following Rothen’s remarks, the group moved into the social hall for a potluck Shabbat dinner and to hear first-hand accounts of Kristallnacht.
Like Brender, the 10 or so local survivors — some of them Ner Tamid congregants — remembered the night of Nov. 9, 1938 in great detail.
There was Susie Julius who, at age 6, watched a synagogue burn and windows shatter before fleeing to Shanghai with her family. Then there was Rose Goldkind, who was 15 when she was awakened at 2 a.m. by a cacophony of glass breaking and screaming.
Visibly moved by those stories and others, Rothen didn’t take his eyes off each speaker. The evening concluded with him shaking hands or embracing the survivors, a symbolic gesture that brought many in the room to tears.
“Just imagine,” he had said earlier, “after the Holocaust, it wouldn’t seem possible that Jews could ever again develop a relationship with the Germans. But only 20 years later, in 1965, Germany and the State of Israel established diplomatic relations.”
He added, “For me, the excellent state of relations that Germany enjoys with Israel and Jews at large is one of the greatest successes of Germany’s policy, both foreign and domestic. It is a valuable gift.”