Kristallnacht Pain still fresh 60 years later

Nazis had already torched one of Berlin's small synagogues on Nov. 9, 1938, when Ted Alexander, then a young rabbinical student, arrived to recover a Torah from the smoldering ashes.

Alexander now shares the bimah at San Francisco's Congregation B'nai Emunah with that Torah.

Monday, on the 60th anniversary of Kristallnacht, Alexander and Bay Area residents Evelyn Fielden, Lori Shearn and Harry Gluckman — along with Jews throughout the world — will recall how "the night of broken glass" had a permanent impact on their Jewish identity.

On the eve of Kristallnacht, Alexander was 19, just barely beginning his seminary studies in Berlin. With seven generations of rabbis among his forebears, his goal was to become the eighth. But on that day his school was shut down.

"At that point, I doubted whether I would become a rabbi," said Alexander, 79, who has been the spiritual leader for more than 30 years at B'nai Emunah.

On the way to his scorched synagogue, Alexander had passed by Berlin's enormous Fasanenstrasse Synagogue, which was engulfed in flames.

A woman next to him muttered "something like, `If they start fighting with God, that's the last [thing] they are going to do,'" he remembered. "Burning a synagogue is fighting with God."

Alexander's immediate family decided to leave Germany soon after Kristallnacht, fleeing to Shanghai, where he was finally ordained.

Kristallnacht "didn't change my enthusiasm for Judaism — I'm a very chauvinistic Jew," he said.

That night may have marked "the beginning of the end for German Jewry," noted Alexander, who now lives in Danville. But the damage done to the Jewish community could still be healed.

"I'm firmly convinced — even I when ran away from the Gestapo — what happened then was a result of the meanest of human beings. But not every German was a murderer. I was equally convinced humanity would find its way back. I never blamed God for it. By and large, most Jews never doubted God and the survival of Judaism."

Not all European Jews had such faith — or even Jewish identity. Unlike Alexander, Fielden grew up in a Berlin family that was so assimilated she didn't know she was Jewish until she tried to become a Nazi.

Fielden had been baptized as a baby, and her parents had all but erased their own Jewish identity. She was 14 when her mother told her she could not join the women's arm of the National Socialists because she was a Jew.

"My father was a self-hating Jew," said Fielden, 77, who now lives in Napa. "I was devastated when I found out I was Jewish. It took me many years to get over that. Jews were just the lowest on the scale; now I was a Jew and wasn't worth anything."

Her family lived in a large apartment in Berlin when Kristallnacht occurred. When Fielden walked home from school, she saw shops smashed and anti-Semitic slogans smeared on the windows.

"I didn't think much about it. I didn't feel it had anything to do with me," she said.

The Nazis soon confiscated the family's successful textile factory. Fielden left Germany the next year. Her father was able to stay in Berlin until 1941, using his wealth to allay the Nazis.

"My father was totally blind" to the problems of German Jewry, she commented. "It's very sad and hurts me to talk about it. Many other German Jews were like that."

Though she can trace her Jewish roots back to 1625, Fielden was raised neither spiritually nor culturally Jewish. She had no Jewish friends in Germany, but as soon as she emigrated, she said, she "instinctively" found only Jewish friends.

She married a Jewish husband and has since slowly accumulated knowledge of Jewish life and come to observe some of the holidays.

Fielden, who frequently speaks on behalf of the Holocaust Center of Northern California, said Kristallnacht and the ensuing Holocaust "influenced me greatly in learning about Judaism.

"I'm very sad my parents deprived me of my Jewish tradition," she emphasized. "I've such an admiration for Judaism. For 2,000 years, Jews have been chased around and have come back. I'm terribly proud to be a Jew."

Like Fielden, Shearn, 73, also described her European family as assimilated and middle class.

At the beginning of the war, she was 13, happily attending an all-girls' school, and living in a comfortable apartment in Vienna.

On Kristallnacht, the Nazis burst into her father's tailor shop, smashing the windows. That same night, several friends rushed to her apartment, trembling with the news that their fathers had been arrested and the synagogue leveled to ashes.

Shearn, who now lives in Greenbrae, said it was hard for her to comprehend the magnitude of the event. "I didn't know what was going on; I was not very politically aware."

On the day after his shop was vandalized, with the remnants of the night's destruction littering the streets, her father was forced to scrub the cobblestones on his hands and knees.

"Before that night, we thought things would change. But then we decided to leave," Shearn said.

Each family member fled to a different country. Shearn was sent to live with an Orthodox household in London.

Before then, Shearn had received scant Jewish education — typical of Jews in Vienna, she said. Her brother had dragged her to a Zionist group, and she had attended a Jewish summer camp in Prague, but otherwise she knew little about the religion and culture. "It was a very matter-of-fact kind of thing: We were Jewish. But we didn't feel as outcasts."

Kristallnacht changed that. The "indignity and inhumanity" of that night, and the Holocaust that followed, shocked Shearn.

"I think when the war broke out in 1939, I was so upset, I thought it was the end of world. I thought I'd never see my parents again. It was unbearable. I just didn't see how there could be a God when things were being done like that," Shearn said.

When she came to the United States at the end of 1940, she sought to assimilate immediately. Today she considers herself "a cultural Jew" but without religious faith.

In contrast, her father, an atheist who had been eager to assimilate in Europe, experienced a religious transformation after immigrating to this country.

He "became more Jewish and went back to the synagogue. For him, it was a positive [response] to something very negative," she said. In the later years of his life, he spoke almost entirely in Yiddish, a language he never dared utter while in Vienna.

Gluckman's Jewish identity also took a turn when the Nazis came into power. The 69-year-old Ukiah resident grew up in Stuttgart, a large city just east of Germany's Black Forest. When the city's Jewish community was assaulted on Kristallnacht, he was 9 years old.

He was riding his bicycle when he noticed smoke pouring from the city's synagogue. When he reached the fire, he witnessed a crowd raiding the building. Germans had grabbed anything moveable — books, tallitot and Torah scrolls — and dumped everything in a pile in the street.

"It was one of the policeman standing nearby, laughing, who came and set fire to the entire stack with his cigarette lighter, as his colleagues and all bystanders laughed and celebrated," Gluckman said.

Those bystanders weren't just Nazis, Gluckman remembered. They were ordinary Germans — grocery clerks, businessmen, plumbers, doctors and lawyers.

Gluckman stood next to his bicycle and his friend, who left the scene after urinating in his pants. Hypnotized by the violence, Gluckman said he stayed until "it became too painful to watch anymore, as the mob dragged our rabbi from the building."

Forced out of public schools several years before that event, Gluckman was required to attend a Jewish school. There he learned Hebrew and found out about Jewish holidays and traditions.

Though his parents were never religious, as a result of the attacks on Jewish life, "they became more Jewish and attended services," he said.

"Most German Jews who had been totally assimilated were forced back to Judaism. Hitler made Jews out of many who hadn't been."

For Gluckman also, the effect of Kristallnacht was opposite to what the Nazis had intended.

"It made me more convinced I will always, till my last breath, remain a Jew," he said.