Palo Alto man shares his memories of Kristallnacht

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

Al Kuhn remembers the knock on the door on Nov. 9, 1938, as clearly as if it were yesterday.

“It got dark early [in central Germany] at that time of year,” the 79-year-old retired aeronautical engineer and Palo Alto resident remembers. “Jews were not supposed to be out at night on the streets.”

Just 4 years old at the time, Al had been put to bed early. At about 10 p.m., a local official arrived to take him, his parents and his older sister, Thea, to city hall in their little town of Barchfeld.

The family was loaded onto a tarpaulin-covered truck filled with other Jews. No one told them where they were going or why. “I wasn’t afraid,” Kuhn recalls. “To me it was an adventure.”

But when he lifted the tarp to look out, one of the guards spoke sharply to him. The group was held — women and children on one side of the room, men on the other — in a basement overnight.

“I remember the walls were painted an ugly green,” Kuhn says. To this day, the image of that night comes back to him whenever he sees that particular shade of green.

Al Kuhn at age 3 in 1937.

Just before dawn, the women and children were driven back to town. The men, including his father, were taken to Buchenwald concentration camp. It would be six months before his father returned, released early probably because he had brought along a certificate of thanks from the German government for his military service during World War I.

Kuhn says that before Nov. 9, Jews in Barchfeld, a village nestled amid lakes and resorts in the Thuringian countryside between Frankfurt and Leipzig, “thought things would blow over.”

But “all that changed with the events of Kristallnacht.”

All over Germany that night, Nazi storm troopers ignited an orgy of assaults and murders of Jews, and destruction of synagogues and Jewish-owned businesses. Kuhn’s father was one of about 30,000 Jewish men interned in concentration camps for months, with hundreds dying from mistreatment. The broken glass that littered the streets in Germany, Austria and the Sudetenland (German-speaking areas of Czechoslovakia) gave the event its name.

Returning on the morning of Nov. 10, the Jews of Barchfeld saw that their synagogue had been ransacked and vandalized. Its contents, including wooden pews, prayer books, and Torah scrolls, had been piled on the street and burned. Every family had its own pew, with its own set of goose down pillows.

“In their rage,” Kuhn says, “[the looters] apparently cut the pillows open, then threw them into the bonfire and the feathers just flew up into the air from the heat. For the next day or two, feathers flew everywhere.” Al, then called Alfred, watched as a single white feather floated down into his yard. The synagogue was never used again.

At right, his sister, Thea (younger girl), and other family members on the streets of Barchfeld, Germany, five years before Kristallnacht

Kristallnacht, Kuhn says, “accelerated our need to get out of town.”

However, the German bureaucracy had turned the

requisition of the necessary chain of exit visas, transit visas, tickets and immigration documents into a Kafkaesque affair. Moreover, anti-Jewish edicts and laws continued to restrict daily life; for example, it was illegal for Jews to own silver and gold.

Still, Kuhn’s mother came up with the funds to purchase their passage out of Germany. Later, Kuhn found out how: His family had buried a cache of coins in the backyard, which his mother dug up and took to a silversmith in Hamburg. The silversmith turned the coins into silverware, which his mom then sold on the black market.

Although relatives in the United States would have sponsored them, U.S. quotas put the Kuhns on a waiting list. They would not have been able to leave until 1942, a date “equivalent to a death sentence,” Kuhn says.

Through the grapevine, they heard of a European man (whether he was Jewish or not they never knew) starting a dairy farm in Bolivia. He needed workers, and accepted Kuhn’s parents among them. They were finally able to leave around Passover in 1940.

Kuhn says his family was “literally the last Jews to leave our town” before those who remained disappeared into the camps.

From Munich, the family of four traveled to Genoa, Italy, and set sail on the SS Conte Biancamano. By the time they reached the Panama Canal, Italy had joined the war, and the ship and its many Jewish passengers were nearly denied entry. When they finally reached Bolivia, Kuhn’s parents realized they were not cut out for farming at an elevation of 12,000 feet. His father, a storekeeper, had never milked a cow; he ended up in La Paz as a sales representative for the dairy. But the family stayed for 10 years, finally immigrating to Worcester, Mass., then to New York City.

A dishtowel used by Al’s mother in the late 1930s photo/courtesy of moldaw residences

Kuhn graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in aeronautical engineering from New York University. He worked on Grumman Aircraft’s propulsion systems team responsible for the lunar module that put Neil Armstrong on the moon.

If Al Kuhn survived by luck, his wife survived by love.

Liliane Rosenfeld Kuhn was hidden as an infant outside Lyons, France, by a Christian farm family who treated her as their own. Reunited with her parents four years later, she now corresponds with the granddaughter of her rescuers.

During the interview for this story, she turns to her husband and tells him, “[The Nazis] robbed you of your childhood.”

Although Kuhn and his wife are avid world travelers — they took a trip to Antarctica last year — he has never returned to Barchfeld. The synagogue was razed after World War II, but the family home at 36 Nürnberger Strasse still stands (now with a satellite dish on its roof). He has seen an image of it on Google Maps, and one of his two grown sons visited the home en route to India. Kuhn maintains family trees for both his family and his wife’s, asterisks on numerous names indicating death during the Holocaust.

“I don’t want to look back. I want to look ahead,” he says.

Yet the memories, etched out of trauma, remain vivid.

Of his family’s preparations to leave Germany in 1940, he recalls, “You had to make an appointment.” An official would come and “watch you stuff a crate.” Each emigrating family was allowed to fill one large crate, or “lift,” with possessions.

Kuhn can remember what was in his family’s crate: his mother’s sewing machine, a meat grinder, pots and pans, clothing of all sorts, including his father’s wedding tuxedo, and Alfred’s only toy, an erector set. There were also linens and towels from his mother’s trousseau.

In fact, Al and Liliane Kuhn still use a number of dishcloths that were in the wedding dowries of both of their mothers (Al explains how they were made in true German fashion, industrial strength to last forever).

Al and Liliane Kuhn of Palo Alto photo/courtesy of moldaw residences

Talking with a reporter in their living room at the Moldaw Residences on the Taube Koret Campus for Jewish Life, Kuhn grabs one of the towels and carefully smoothes it out; it is hand-embroidered in red with his mother’s initials, C.W. (which stands for Chrissie Wolf, although Al isn’t positive that’s how she spelled her first name).

Kuhn, who is not related to Rita Kuhn, the subject of the other article in this package, says he plans to address Kristallnacht this week during the short talk he gives every week at Moldaw’s Shabbat services. Earlier this year, he and his wife were among the 10 survivors living at Moldaw who spoke and lit candles at a Holocaust Remembrance Day event.

However, in the days leading up to the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, Kuhn expresses concern about the relative lack of public commemoration on the West Coast as compared with back east. To many people in their 40s and younger, 1938 is “ancient history,” he says.

 “People just don’t understand,” he continues. “You cannot just tolerate little edicts” as injustices pile up. “There was constant harassment and nobody did anything … That’s why it’s important that those of us who survived tell the story.”

Kristallnacht 75th anniversary commemoration events are scheduled in San Francisco, Santa Rosa and Sacramento. For details, see calendar, pages 22-23.


on the cover

photo illustration/cathleen maclearie

Al Kuhn at age 3 in 1937 (top left); Rita Kuhn’s parents, Fritz and Frieda, on their engagement (top right)