Kristallnacht: A Woman of Valor

Vienna, Austria,
9 November 1938

The shouting grew louder, the words viler, all accompanied by the sound of breaking glass and laughter as the mob came closer. The laughter wasn’t the kind one might hear after a joke, but rather hysterical laughter, the kind one imagined rang out all day and all night in an asylum.

A victim’s shrieks added themselves to the cacophony of terror. Kurt’s heart raced. Would the mob break down their door tonight and throw them out onto the street? He pulled the heavy drape back just enough to peer through the window.

Something on the next block was burning. The flames leapt into the air behind the silhouette of the buildings opposite theirs. Kurt shivered and slipped the drape back into place. Where was his father?

He turned and took the several meters from the window to the hallway in quick steps. His heavy boots thumped against the floor. He kept them on all the time now even when he slept, in case they came. If they were taken, they wouldn’t have time to change anything. They would go with whatever they were wearing.

“Mother,” he called out in a whisper. She was standing at the window in the living room, the lights out, peeking through the curtains as he had done, the volume of the radio almost too weak to be audible. The screeching of Herr Hitler came through though, loud and clear, mingling with the screams from the street.

“The synagogue is burning,” she said.

“Where is father?”

Berta turned to him, her face eerie, illuminated from below by the candle in a small silver stand on the mahogany table by the side of his father’s chair. She sighed and glanced at the phone. “I tried to call the shop. No answer.” Her weak smile betrayed her fear. “I’m sure he’s fine.”

The sounds of rioting came closer. Kurt peeked out again. Directly under their window a young man in brown-shirt slammed his leather-gloved fist into the face of his middle-aged prey. The victim catapulted backward, his head striking the pavement. Blood splattered onto a woman behind him. She fell to her knees cradling his head in her hands, pleading with his attacker. “You’re killing him.” Her shrieks were punctuated by the sound of more glass shattering.

The attacker kicked the injured man in the ribs again, his body flailing. The woman intense screams sent a chill through Kurt. The attacker looked up. Kurt dropped the drape back into place terrified that the he had been spotted. Six months after the Anschluss he still felt as if he were in a nightmare struggling to wake, his mother prodding him to get up so as not to be late for school.

She peeked out of the window now. “They’re at the front door of the building,” she whispered, turning off the radio. “Are the lights off in your room?”

Kurt sprinted down the hallway as stealthily as possible. He extinguished the light on his desk and checked the long drapes to make sure that the windows were covered and darkened. He felt his way back to the hallway. His mother was at the front door. She slid the locks into place then slipped the back of one of the dining room chairs under the doorknob to jam it.

“Juden,” shouted the voices of several men. The mob poured through the front door of their building. “Jews, are there Jews living in this building?”

Kurt looked at his mother. She placed a finger over her lips. The attackers pounded on their door. “Jews, Jews, out now,” they screamed. Kurt leaned against the wall and slid down to the floor. The shouting and pounding continued, “Where are the Jews?” The chair vibrated under the doorknob from the pounding of heavy boots on the stairs.

“Here, here are some filthy Jews,” shouted Frau Krauss, two floors above.

The sound of men vaulting up the stairs rebounded in Kurt’s ears. The pounding moved away from their door. He lowered his chin to his chest, the tension exhausting him. His mother’s hand was on his shoulder. He looked up at her face, barely visible in the darkness. She smiled then squeezed his shoulder gently. “We will be fine.”

In the near darkness, with the screams and shouts of the mob in his ears, Kurt surveyed the outlines of the photos neatly framed and hung on the walls of the long hallway. He couldn’t see them for the darkness, but he knew each one. His mind filled-in the solemn faces of his grandparents posing for their portrait, of his father in the uniform of the Austro-Hungarian army, of his parents on their wedding day dressed elegantly in tux and gown, another of them smiling, holding up a baby that was him.

“Out, out now, Jews,” the men shouted from the floors above them. When the door between them and their victims remained closed, they battered it. “Out, out now,” they shouted again. “Out, or we’ll break it down.”

“There are more here,” Frau Krauss shouted, “more Jews.”

Kurt shivered. She was a mean one that Frau Krauss. She hated the Jews even before the Nazis came and she let you know it.

“After we finish with this one,” the leader shouted.

With that Kurt heard a crash and the screams of the Guldenfelds as the mob swept into their home and destroyed it. The screams turned to shrieks. He was sure it was Klari. She had a crush on him that made him uncomfortable. He would do anything now to help her, to save her, but there was nothing he could do. He struggled to hold his bladder; the fear so intense he thought he might soil himself. Please, he prayed, don’t let my father come home now.

The Guldenfelds’ screams intensified. He heard them being dragged, bump, bump, bump, down the stairs. “My shoes,” shouted Frau Guldenfeld, “I have no shoes.”

“Go, go upstairs,” screamed the leader to the dozens who stood outside the building waiting. “Take what you like.”

“Heil Hitler,” screamed Frau Krauss. In her frenzy she had forgotten to denounce Kurt and his mother.

* * *

The mobbed moved on to the next building. After a while there was a faint knock at the door. Berta peered through the peek hole.

“Frau Berlin, it’s Bauer,” whispered the voice on the other side of the door. “Please open the door.”

Kurt got up. His mother handed him the chair from under the door handle. “You think we can trust him?”

“We have no choice.” She opened the door as quietly as possible. Who knew who might be listening?

Bauer slipped into the apartment. “Are you all right?”

“I think so. The Guldenfelds?”

Bauer shook his head. “Taken away.”

“This is too dangerous for you, go home.”

“No, Berta, I’m sorry, I can’t, not with you and Hertz and young Kurt, we’ve known each other too long.” He hesitated a moment, averting his eyes. “Forgive me for addressing you by your first name.”

“Thank you, no, that’s fine Otto. We’re fine. I’m sure Hertz will be along soon.”

Bauer hesitated. “I heard the mob leaders talking in the hallway. Jewish businesses have been attacked and the owners taken to the Spanish Riding School.”

Berta steadied herself for Kurt’s sake. “Thank you for telling me. We’ll wait and see. Please go back across the hall before Frau Krauss sees you.”

* * *

They waited by the phone listening to the radio. Thousands of Jewish men had been arrested. Kurt sat on the couch next to Berta. He held her hand, something he hadn’t done since he was a small child. She knew the stress of the past few months was beginning to affect him. “Close your eyes,” she whispered.

“No, mother.”


Kurt leaned his head back against the cushion. Despite his determination, he drifted off from sheer exhaustion. The shrill ring of the phone dragged him back from half-sleep a short time later. By the time his eyes opened Berta had grabbed the handset.

“Yes,” she whispered.

“It’s Konrad,” came the voice.

She glanced at Kurt. “Is Hertz with you?”

“I’m so sorry, no. The Gestapo took him.”

An image of men in brown shirts smashing the windows of their shop flashed through her mind.

“He asked me to call you. It took till now to get home. I think they took him to the police station near the shop. He said you would know what to do.”

“Danke,” she said replacing the handset on its cradle.

“Where is he, mother?” Kurt asked.

“He’s been arrested.” The radio droned on, the voice of Josef Goebbels filling the void between them with vile invective. Berta breathed deeply then pushed a lock of hair that had fallen over her forehead back behind her ear. “We have to go get him.”

Kurt followed Berta into the bedroom. She took the small lamp from the nightstand next to the bed and put it on the floor before turning it on. The low lamp cast an unnatural light about the room. She opened the bottom drawer of his father’s dresser and reached inside, taking out a small black velvet bag from which she withdrew several coins. In the odd cast of the shadows Kurt saw that they were gold.

“Put these in your pocket,” she said then closed the bottom drawer and opened the narrow one in the middle of the mahogany dresser. She took out a black sock and reached inside pulling something out and unfurling it. She held two red cloth armbands, each decorated with the Swastika, black in a white circle. “We will need these to move about the streets. Quickly, get your coat.”

Kurt absorbed Berta’s strength and calmness. Before opening the door, she turned to him. “Your father’s life depends on us. Be careful. If you see someone you know don’t look at them. Tug at my coat here and I’ll know we need to move away. In the streets act as they act. Now, put this on.”

He slipped on the armband, pulling it up the sleeve of his brown wool coat, unnerving and empowering at the same time. Berta took his hand and led him stealthily out of the apartment casting a glance up the stairwell to make sure Frau Krauss wasn’t watching.

As they hurried away from the building to the end of their street, they heard a loud rumble and turned. The flames from the fire at the synagogue leapt higher and higher followed by a cloud of sparks and embers lighting the sky as if it were daytime.

“The dome has collapsed,” his mother said. She grabbed his hand and pulled him away.

The shouting mob looted only Jewish businesses. Aryan-owned shops remained untouched. It was as if the mob had a written program, like one would get at an international exhibition or a museum, directing them from one display to the next. The police and the Gestapo stood by to make sure the mob aimed their anger at the proper victims.

They were two blocks from their shop. The looting was even worse here. It was a larger thoroughfare with more stores, almost all owned by Jews. The Police station was still two blocks east.

“Jews,” the crowd screamed. “Out.”

Kurt felt his mother’s hand against his arm. “Slow down and move to the right, away from the crowd,” she said.

A uniformed SS man picked up a megaphone. “Will we permit a Jew, any Jew to take the life of a proud German serving his country?”

Kurt knew the reference. That was what had started this pogrom, or so they claimed, the murder of Ernst vom Rath by Herschel Grynszpan in Paris, a few days earlier.

Another man grabbed the megaphone from the SS officer, “Never, never. Get out of our country, Jewish pigs.”

The crowd responded with “Death to the Jews.”

The man with the megaphone turned in Kurt’s direction, the flames from a pile of debris illuminating his face. Kurt recognized him. It was one of his teachers, one who had often praised him, who often sat him at the head of the class. He thought they made eye contact. Kurt turned his face away, his heart pounding.

“Mother, we must go, now, that man with the megaphone is Herr Mueller, my teacher.”

“Sieg Heil,” shouted Mueller raising his arm. Kurt felt as if Mueller was staring directly at him.

“Sieg Heil,” his mother shouted lifting her arm in salute, her armband clearly visible. “Sieg Heil,” she shouted again.

Kurt mimicked her. The mob returned to their hate-stoked bacchanalia. Berta grabbed Kurt’s arm and pulled him along. A block before their shop they turned off into a side street and crept as quickly as they could along the facades of the beaux-arts apartment buildings to the Police station. A block before the station Berta stopped.

“Slip off your armband and give it to me.”

Kurt removed it quickly and handed it to his mother.

“Now give me the coins.”

He reached into his pocket, took out the coins and gave them to her. They crossed the street to the station. Men, both uniformed and in street clothing, were pacing about in front of it. A uniformed man blocked their path.

“Heil Hitler,” he shouted saluting as they approached. Neither Berta nor Kurt responded. The use of the phrase and the salute by Jews were punishable crimes. “What do you want here, Jews?”

“I have come for my husband,” Berta said averting her eyes.

“Why do you think he is here? Has he committed a crime?”

She bowed her head. “Please, may I enter?”

“No,” he said, placing his hand on the pistol at his hip.

Berta took one of the coins from her dress pocket and cautiously offered it to the policeman. In the bright light of the station Kurt got a good look at it. He recognized it immediately. It was from his father’s collection, a pure gold coin from the 18th century. He knew its weight, a perfect ounce. It was worth a small fortune.

The policeman looked at the coin. He slipped it between his teeth and bit down. Kurt winced. The tooth mark would damage the coin’s delicate engravings. “Go in then, find your Jewish pig husband.”

A uniformed SS officer stood behind a desk a few feet from the door reviewing papers in a file. “What do you want?” he scowled without looking up.

“I am searching for my husband?”

“Is he a Jew?”

Berta hesitated for a moment. She felt her throat tighten. “Yes”

“Then there is little I can do for him.” He looked up, his eyes icy, “or you.”

“I just want to know where he is.”

The officer smirked. “Don’t worry he will be back in a few days. These Jews are going for a little vacation.”

Kurt stood just behind his mother. Her shoulders trembled slightly. He watched her move with the artistry of a ballet dancer. Her right hand passed almost unnoticeably by the pocket in her skirt to pluck out yet another coin. She slipped it into her left hand as she touched the fingers of her right to the officer’s, slipping her left underneath, to offer the coin undetected.

When he felt her fingertips touch his hand, he stiffened. A Jew couldn’t touch an Aryan. He could kill her for that. In the tiniest moment after the deposit of the coin in his hand his demeanor changed. He glanced down turning his palm upward to catch a glimpse of it. He knew the evening would be a profitable one for him.

“What is his name, this Jew husband of yours?’ “Hertz Berlin.”

“And where was he earlier this evening?”

“At our shop a few blocks from here.”

“And why do you think he is here?”

Berta stopped herself. She couldn’t betray Konrad. “He hasn’t returned home.”

“And who is this?”

“Our son.”

The officer stared at Kurt; his eyes chilling. “It is possible he is still here, if he hasn’t already been transferred to the Spanish Riding School.” “Could you check, sir, bitte?”

“I could.” The SS officer remained motionless.

Berta slipped the last coin into his waiting hand. He picked up the phone and waited. “Geist, this is von Hauptmann, do you have a Jew named Hertz Berlin there?”

They heard Hertz’s name shouted through the phone. After a very long moment there was a response, “Yes, he is set to go with the next group.”

“Send him to the front instead.”

Berta slipped a hand behind her and gently touched it to Kurt’s. “Thank you, sir,”

“Don’t thank me madam, you’re only prolonging the inevitable. If we don’t get him tonight, we will get him and both of you some other time.” He scribbled something onto a piece of paper and handed it to Berta. “Give this to whomever delivers him. I have other things of much more importance to attend to.” He slipped the two gold coins into his pocket as he walked away.



To find out what happened next, read: The Interpreter