On the 72nd anniversary of Kristallnacht — the 1938 Night of Broken Glass that is widely regarded as the start of the Holocaust — three survivors stood before a hushed audience in Congregation Beth Ohr in Old Bridge and spoke of the loss of their families and childhoods in Germany.
On the night of Nov. 9-10 that year in Germany and Austria, more than 1,600 synagogues were burned, Jewish homes and business were destroyed, and 30,000 Jewish men were sent to concentration camps.
Vera Nussenbaum of Monroe left her native country at the age of 12 on the Kindertransport — which took thousands of Jewish children to refuge in England — never to see her widowed mother again.
She was joined by Dr. Eugene and Ruth Gottlieb of East Brunswick, who met in Philadelphia after the war, but shared similar tragic childhoods.
In the 1930s, life under Nazi rule in her hometown of Lahnstein on the Rhine River “had become unbearable,” said Ruth. “You couldn’t go to school. They ridiculed you wherever you went.”
Although her own immediate family escaped to the United States, all their relatives except an uncle perished.
Her mother corresponded with relatives left behind but those letters stopped coming in 1942 “and we all knew hope was gone and their future was sealed,” she said. “My family had been starved, shot, and gassed.”
In 1998, after her mother died, Ruth found letters from family members “begging any country to let them in.” Some were donated to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington; others are in a scrapbook Ruth brought with her to the program.
Eugene was raised in Venningen near the French border where his family had lived for hundreds of years. He recalled walking home with his father from a neighboring town, where they had gone to get haircuts.
“We couldn’t have our hair cut in our own town where they knew us because gentiles could no longer give haircuts to Jews,” he said.
They were stopped by police, who arrested his father. Eugene ran home crying. That night, home with his mother, grandmother, and aunt as Kristallnacht raged, they heard a knock on the door. They fled out a back entrance and ran to a neighbor’s barn, where Eugene hid in a wine barrel.
His father was released from jail the next morning, but the Jews were expelled from the town. The family managed to come to America months later, eventually settling on a chicken farm in the Jewish farming cooperative in Woodbine.
Nussenbaum recalled huddling with her mother and relatives in their Leipzig home as the synagogue across the street was ransacked. “We saw a bonfire and our prayer books and holy Torahs thrown on the fire,” she told the gathering. “My aunt and uncle arrived as their home had been ransacked and burned. It was the first time I had seen a grown man cry.”
She was later escorted by her mother, cousin, and grandmother as she boarded the Kindertransport.
“No one shed a tear,” she said. “Today looking back, I find that kind of courage heroic.”
Nussenbaum was placed with a “wonderful” family in England with whom she spent eight years. While raising her own children, she said, she didn’t realize just how heroic her mother had been because “I was too busy.” “Only when I held my granddaughter in my arms for the fist time,” said Nussenbaum, “did the immensity of my mother’s sacrifice and all the other mothers hit me.”