Berkeley woman recalls Kristallnacht and wartime in Berlin

Historians call the events of November 1938 “Kristallnacht.” But not Rita Kuhn, “because it’s a euphemism for what happened.”

On the morning of Nov. 10, 1938, she was walking the 10 blocks to her Berlin school, housed in a synagogue building. (Jewish children were excluded from German schools.) It was early, she was alone and the streets were almost deserted. Suddenly, as she turned a corner, she came across sidewalks scattered with broken glass, ugly slogans scrawled on broken windows and tattered merchandise piled like “yesterday’s refuse.” The interiors of Jewish-owned stores resembled “gaping wounds left to rot,” she writes in her recently published memoir,  “Broken Glass, Broken Lives: A Jewish Girl’s Survival Story in Berlin, 1933-1945.” “It felt as though I were walking through a graveyard.”

Rita Kuhn of Berkeley and her five grandchildren

The worst was yet to come. Before she reached her school, classmates intercepted her, shooing her away. “Our synagogue is burning,” they cried out. “The whole building is in flames … our school too.”

November 1938, the month Kuhn turned 11, was “the beginning of the Shoah and the end of my childhood,” the resident of Berkeley says in an interview. “I somehow intuited that we were abandoned.”

The “complete silence of the world” echoed the silence on the streets of Berlin. “I’m convinced that if there had been some outcry, I don’t think the Nazis would have gone on,” she says. “For them, it was a sign that nobody cared. They felt validated.”

Kuhn, who turns 86 on Nov. 29, is not related to Al Kuhn, the subject of the other article in this Kristallnacht package. She is, however, one of 12 eyewitnesses who will share her memories on Sunday, Nov. 10 at a free, community-wide event in San Francisco titled “Broken Glass, Shattered Communities: The 75th Anniversary of Kristallnacht” (for details, see calendar, pages 22-23).

During those trying times, one by one, many of Kuhn’s friends disappeared. The fortunate ones — those whose families had money — emigrated. However, the Kuhns, who had neither money nor connections, stayed.

Initially, they were spared from the roundups because Rita’s mother, Frieda (Kruger) Kuhn, who was raised Lutheran, was considered Aryan — even though she had converted to Judaism.

The anti-Semitic and sometimes murky Nuremberg Laws were based primarily on family of origin, not on faith. However, Rita and her brother, Hans, who were raised Jewish, were considered “full” Jews, like their father, Fritz, and on Feb. 27, 1943, during a final roundup of Berlin’s remaining Jews, they and thousands of others were sent to a detention center on Berlin’s Rosenstrasse to await deportation.

Kuhn heard her mother crying outside the doors of the detention center, saying, “You can’t take my children from me. I want to go with my children.”

Frieda Kuhn was not alone. For an entire week, hundreds of non-Jewish spouses and relatives converged on Rosenstrasse, protesting the incarceration of family members. As their numbers grew, Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s right-hand man, decided it would be more politic to release the prisoners than to shoot the non-Jewish protesters.

“It was a daring and a very civil disobedience,” Kuhn says of the Rosenstrasse protest. The Nazis “were very cautious because they relied on popular support. They didn’t count on women who were brave enough to revolt, to resist.”

Released from incarceration, Kuhn and her brother escaped deportation, as did their father, one of 1,800 men now classified as so-called “privileged Jews” because they were married to a non-Jewish spouse. While this saved them from deportation or the concentration camps, it did not save them from hard work and destitution: Kuhn and her father were assigned to forced labor, toiling for 11 hours a day in Berlin railroad yards.

Rita Kuhn (right) on her father’s lap, with her mother holding her baby brother, Hans

Eventually, in 1948, with the help of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, Kuhn traveled to America by herself. She pursued her education, acquired a doctorate in comparative literature from U.C. Berkeley and raised four children in Berkeley as a single mother after a divorce.

For years, she barely alluded to the horrors she had witnessed: the burning of her synagogue and school, the disappearance of friends, a rift with a Hitler Youth cousin, and the omnipresent fear and hunger.

Leaving her parents behind was also wrenching, but she had expected them to follow along shortly. However, her mother’s exit permit was delayed. In 1950, when it was finally approved, Frieda was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and her parents remained in Berlin until they died. Kuhn’s younger brother, Hans, still lives there in a senior residence.

For years, Kuhn refused to read or talk about the Holocaust. “I just wanted to turn my back on my past,” she says. “All the people I lost, I loved.”

But with the encouragement of her children, she began to confront the past, speaking before students in the Bay Area as well as in her native Berlin.

“I felt I had to be grateful for surviving,” she says. “I had to tell my story, to speak for the voices that could no longer speak for themselves.”

“Broken Glass, Broken Lives” by Rita J. Kuhn (212 pages, Barany Publishing, $14.99)

Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, a retired senior editor at J., is writing a memoir on her late-life romance. She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at [email protected].