Kristallnacht: 70 Years Later

Eleven-year-old Doris stared up at her father and the two huge Nazi soldiers grasping each of his arms.

They released the ashen-faced man for a brief moment so he could hug and kiss his frightened daughter — who was on her way home from school — before hauling him away to Dachau, the first concentration camp to open in Germany.

“He put his arms around me and started to cry,” remembers Doris Grasshoff, now 81 and living in San Francisco. “And I still didn’t know what was going on. I had no idea. So I ran home and found my mother in hysterics.”

What followed for German Jews was 24 hours of terror known as Kristallnacht, known in English as “Night of Broken Glass.” On Nov. 9, 1938, more than 90 Jews were murdered and nearly 30,000, including Doris’ father, Eric Livingston, were arrested and deported to concentration camps.

Flames engulfed hundreds of synagogues and Jewish businesses, homes were ransacked beyond recognition, and some streets and sidewalks were blanketed with shattered glass from store windows (giving the night its name).

Kristallnacht is considered a prelude to the Holocaust that was to follow.

“I’m afraid that too many people who lived through the era are dying off and there are very few witnesses left,” Grasshoff says. “Even though I was a child at the time, I remember it as though it were yesterday.”

With people around the globe set to observe the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht, j. spoke with four current Bay Area residents — including Doris Grasshoff — who witnessed the horrors of that night.

Doris and her family lived comfortably in a three-story brick home in Wuppertal, a small city in western Germany where Bayer claims aspirin was invented (1899) and that was home of the world’s first monorail (1901).

Day-to-day living was becoming increasingly difficult for Jewish families in Germany, even casually religious ones like the Livingstons. Doris was forced into private school when the nearby public school banned Jewish children. She was to receive an academic award from her principal at the time, but got a few books and an apology instead. Jewish students could not accept accolades in public, the principal told her.

The Livingstons had made plans to emigrate before Kristallnacht, but because they were not allowed to take money with them, they purchased extra furniture, two grand pianos and extra silver that they intended to sell once they got to the United States.

Their plan would never come to fruition.

On Nov. 9, 1938, Doris and a fellow Jewish friend were told to leave school in the middle of the day. Bewildered, they hurried home; it was on the way that Doris witnessed her father, being seized by Nazis.

At home, the nightmare continued. “These SS men came in,” says Grasshoff, alluding to the major Nazi organization under Hitler. “They were all so big to me, and they looked like they were carrying baseball bats. They went from room to room and knocked everything over. My mother was screaming because my sister was upstairs on the top floor and [the SS men] wouldn’t let her go to her.”

She went on: “The noise was unbelievable. It was a lot of crashing and glass breaking. They got everything. They hit the chandeliers with bats. It was simply terrible, and then they left. Of course, my mother didn’t know what to do. We were stunned.”

Her mother, Greta Livingston, did the only thing she could: write a letter to the police pleading for her husband’s release. In exchange for his return, she wrote, her family would leave Germany immediately.

Following two weeks of agonizing uncertainty, Eric Livingston was freed because he possessed a visa for the United States. Polish Jews gave him enough money to leave Germany, and he secured four spots for his family on a ship headed for New York in January 1939.

Left behind was a synagogue in ruin, friends whose fathers remained in concentration camps and Doris’ two grandmothers. She later learned that one was deported to Thereisenstadt; the other committed suicide.

After staying with cousins in New York for a few weeks, the Livingstons traveled by ship to San Francisco by way of the Panama Canal. They arrived during the World’s Fair on Treasure Island. “I still get goose pimples every time I talk about it, I really do,” says Grasshoff, clutching her German passport. A swastika and a large red “J” mar its first page.

Yet life in San Francisco proved to be dismal. Grasshoff says her family, considered in 1939 by many Americans to be “enemy aliens” rather than refugees, immediately stopped speaking German, even though they hardly knew English. San Francisco was among many large U.S. cities that imposed a curfew on Jews; they couldn’t travel more than five miles from their homes and shortwave radios were banned.

Without any money, Eric and Greta Livingston had to find odd jobs around the city. Grasshoff remembers her mother working as a babysitter and waitress.

Her father stocked vending machines and sprayed pesticides at movie houses for Crane Pest Control. He eventually bought the San Francisco-based business, which is still in operation today.

In 1970, Grasshoff returned to her childhood house in Wuppertal. It was a “traumatic experience” that made her feel physically ill. She did, however, say the people were nice — including the homeowner, one of Grasshoff’s former teachers, who invited her and her family to lunch.

“I thought I would pass out because nothing had changed,” she says. “The carpets were the same, the stairs were the same. It was just amazing. I went onto the veranda and nothing had changed in our garden.

“Only the street names were different.”

These days, she keeps busy by serving on various committees at San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El and attending classes for older adults at University of San Francisco.

But not a day goes by without her mind returning to Kristallnacht.

“I can’t help but replay the memories of that night over and over … It’s ringing in my ears — the noises and the soldiers marching up the stairs while my mother was screaming.

“But I count myself as very, very lucky and very blessed. We have a great deal to be thankful for. Sometimes I wonder how so many people who went through such crises live so long. I think someone gains strength by living through crises. It’s amazing.”

On Nov. 10, 1938, 10-year-old Eva saved her father’s life by giving him stern instructions: Stay away from home.

“In Germany, people ate their big meal at noon time. That was when my father came home from his office to eat,” Eva Levi recalls. “Evidently, the authorities knew that. I was home when the doorbell rang and there were two men asking for my father. Thank goodness he was not home. He was delayed at the railroad station talking to someone.

“The soldiers said, ‘We’ll be back.’ So I ran to the railroad station, which was about three minutes away from our house, and caught him on the platform. And I told him don’t come back, they’re looking for you.”

This is the story Levi’s grandchildren like to hear when she talks about Kristallnacht. Levi remembers vividly what happened.

She grew up in Berlin and attended public school until the law prohibited her from doing so. Her parents, Karl and Kathe Wolffheim, enrolled her in a Jewish school where she made many friends. The children participated in theater and Jewish organizations such as the Zionist club.

Surprisingly, Levi, 80, says Kristallnacht did not have a big impact on her as a 10-year-old. “I really didn’t suffer that much,” she recalls. “I wasn’t attacked on the street or anything like that. But of course, there were some traumatic things going on in my life, too.”

For example, at her regular playground, “there was a sign that said Jews weren’t allowed to play there anymore. I was heartbroken. We used to go to the ice cream parlors and all of the sudden there was a sign, ‘Jews are not allowed.’ That was bad, but how can you compare that with what other people went through?”

During Kristallnacht, the synagogue connected to Eva’s school was burned to the ground by the Nazis. She and her friends were told not to come to school.

Luckily, the Wolffheim’s home was untouched.

To elude internment, Karl Wolffheim went into hiding, first at a hospital and then at a friend’s home where the man had already been taken away to a concentration camp. Fearing he would have the same fate, Wolffheim planned for his family to go to China.

Eva’s friends departed for Holland, Belgium and the United States in the months following Kristallnacht, and the Wolffheims left for Shanghai.

Life in China was miserable, according to Levi. Jews were isolated, and when World War II broke out, her family had no idea what was happening in Germany, where her grandmother was left behind. Karl Wolffheim died of cancer at age 54, and Eva’s brother, Gunter Wolffheim, died at 18 from complications of pneumonia.

After nine years in China, Eva and her mother moved to San Francisco to start a new life. Levi enjoyed a moment of fame when, at age 72, she was the oldest graduating member of the class of 2000 at San Francisco State University. She still takes classes there.

Kristallnacht is “a vivid memory,” she says. “After all, it was 70 years ago and a lot of things have happened since then. I live in the present, not the past, and I’m surprised I remember those memories so well because they were so long ago.”

At age 95, Rabbi Leo Trepp is the oldest, and possibly the only living rabbi who was leading a congregation during Nazi control.

In 1936, Trepp, who was ordained in Germany, had the choice to serve a prosperous congregation in Berlin or poor and persecuted Jews in the state of Oldenburg. He accepted the latter, feeling Jews needed guidance during their suffering.

Two years later, Trepp received some terrible news.

“On the ninth of November in the late afternoon, the congregation’s president called to say the synagogue was on fire,” Trepp says. “I said, ‘I shall go over quickly to save whatever I can.’

“He said, ‘You cannot go, for then they will blame you of having put it to flames.'”

Trepp then answered a second call, but heard no one on the line. He was certain one of his teachers who was living in the burning community house near the synagogue had called to say he needed shelter, but was so stunned he couldn’t speak.

An hour later, Trepp’s wife heard the doorbell ring and ran to the door to let the man in. Instead, six SS men appeared. They told Trepp, “You need to get dressed; it is all over for you.”

Trepp got dressed and was arrested immediately. Soldiers stole all the money they could find in his home, including the cash for congregational needs that Trepp had drawn before the bank accounts of Jews were frozen.

Soldiers with pointed revolvers led Trepp and his fellow Jews through the dark streets, soon arriving at a large hall. The next morning, the men were led through city streets and past Trepp’s burning synagogue, where he saw men happily discussing the situation and women laughing at what they considered a victory over the Jews. Trepp spent a night in jail and then was transported to Sachsenhausen, the main concentration camp for Berlin.

“It was the most horrible place you could imagine,” he recalls. “There were other rabbis there, and it was the most inhumane kind of treatment.”

Trepp was discharged three weeks later, provided he would leave Germany within two weeks. With help from Dr. Herman Hertz, chief rabbi of the British empire, Trepp received a visa for England. Eventually he made his way to Northern California.

“The older I get, the more I come to the conclusion that the entire Holocaust was for us to proclaim the greatest and holiest bond that God has made with Jews,” Trepp says. “And if called upon, we must be prepared to die. In this way, the Holocaust has never lost its significance.”

Trepp helped start three synagogues in Northern California: Reform Congregation Beth El in Berkeley, Conservative Congregation Beth Ami in Santa Rosa and Reform Temple Beth El in Eureka. For 40 years, he served as the Jewish chaplain at the Veterans Home of California in Yountville, and worked diligently over the years to get the facility a Jewish chapel, which was named in his honor.

In the summer, Trepp travels to Germany to teach Jewish studies at a university. He’s an accomplished author and lectures at San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El and other synagogues.

“My main concern is making Judaism more meaningful for many more people,” Trepp says.

The sound of glass breaking disrupted Shabbat dinner for the Feller family. Anne Marie, 8, was sitting with her sister, Edith, and parents, Frieda and Herman Feller.

They lived in Chemnitz, a small city in eastern Germany and the location of many Jewish-owned businesses. Herman Feller had a haberdashery that sold men’s and women’s clothing.

“All of the sudden, I heard this terrible noise like somebody was throwing things against the windows,” recalls Anne Marie Yellin, 79, of San Francisco. “That’s when the glass was broken and the stores were plundered.”

The next morning, every Jewish man was picked up at his home and taken to the central police station. Yellin heard the ominous knock on her parents’ front door and watched two SS men drag her father down the stairs to take him to Buchenwald.

To get her husband released from Buchenwald, Frieda Feller secured papers that falsely stated the family would leave for Santiago, Chile. He was released around Passover, Yellin recalls.

The Fellers left for Belgium in September 1939, with a guide but without any papers. When World War II began, Anne Marie was sent to a Catholic convent, where she remained from 1942 to 1944. She became known as one of the “hidden children.”

In 1948, she received an affidavit from her aunt, allowing her to come to San Francisco. Today she still works three days a week as a receptionist. She and her husband, Elliott, have been married for 58 years.

“Kristallnacht took away a normal childhood,” Yellin says. “I had everything I wanted and then, all of the sudden, everything was taken away.”

To this day, she says, “I cannot become attached to material things. How do I know they won’t be taken away again?

“But the experience also made me very strong. I can deal with problems. It made me also very much aware that it takes me a long time to trust people. Back then, we couldn’t trust anybody.”

Local events to commemorate Kristallnacht

Several events commemorating the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht will take place in San Francisco.

• At 6:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 9, Congregation Sha’ar Zahav will conduct a special service, “From Broken Glass to Shards of Renewal.”

Rabbi Camille Angel and congregants who participated in an Eastern Europe pilgrimage will launch a sibling relationship with Beit Warszawa, Warsaw’s progressive Jewish synagogue, to help ensure the continued growth of Poland’s young and vibrant Jewish community.

A brief memorial service will be followed by a video appearance from Rabbi Burt Schuman from Beit Warszawa.

Sha’ar Zahav is located at 290 Dolores St., S.F. For more information, call (415) 861-6932 or visit

• The Holocaust Center of Northern California will host a free event, “Kristallnacht: An Evening of Remembrance,” from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Monday Nov. 10.

Anne Marie Yellin, a Kristallnacht witness and member of the center’s Survivors Speakers Bureau, will share her memories from that night. A screening of the documentary “More than Broken Glass: Memories of Kristallnacht” will follow her remarks.

The Holocaust Center of Northern California is located at 121 Steuart St., S.F. To RSVP or for more information, call (415) 777-9060 or visit

• Nine members from Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, including Doris Grasshoff, Rabbi Leo Trepp and Eva Levi, will speak about their Kristallnacht experiences 7 p.m. Monday, Nov. 10.

“I want to be helpful,” Levi said. “There are not that many people around anymore who lived through Kristallnacht. They are either my age or they are a little younger than I am and lived through it. So why not talk about it?”

Emanu-El is located at 2 Lake St., S.F. The event is free and open to the public. For more information, call (415) 751-2535 or visit

Check with your local congregation for any other information about Kristallnacht events.

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