Candle-lighting, Kaddish, and four dramatic speeches by survivors of the Shoa marked the Holocaust Council of Greater MetroWest’s commemoration of the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht.
Three people who lived through the 1938 anti-Jewish pogrom in Germany and Austria shared their childhood memories Nov. 13 in the Harry Wilf Holocaust Memorial on the Aidekman campus in Whippany.
Launched on Nov. 9, 1938, Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, saw the destruction of countless Jewish homes, businesses, schools, and synagogues by the Nazis. About 30,000 were arrested and interned in concentration camps; some 100 Jews were killed.
Gerda Bikalis of Livingston told the group she was a child Breslau, Germany, when she and her cousin Rose “heard these noises — incredible singing and waving flags. This merry group came into the courtyard of the building, where there was a shteibel, a one-room synagogue. They put it on fire. They got the prayer books and tore them up, and we watched as they were dancing and urinating on the Torah. We were terrified. My cousin opened the window and shouted, ‘What is happening?’ and one of the guys said, ‘Your Jewish outhouse is burning.’”
Peter Lederman of New Providence, who spent his early childhood in Gotha, Germany, was seven years old in 1938.
“Our synagogue was destroyed and our school was destroyed. The SS came and I woke up,” he told the gathering in Whippany. “My grandmother came in and clamped a hand over my mouth and said, ‘Sssh, or we’ll go to jail.’ I will never forget it.”
Morristown resident Fred Heyman celebrated his ninth birthday in Berlin the day before Kristallnacht. On his way to school the morning after the attacks, he recalled seeing “every storefront of a Jewish business owner defaced with anti-Semitic graffiti.”
But, he said, as a child he “did not feel threatened. Nobody was going to attack me. I was just a kid going to school. Of course when we got to school, the teachers were told not to talk about what happened. The kids, who were hoping to get an answer in school, did not get an answer.”
Then, after he passed the burned-out synagogue his family attended, “a policeman came up to me and said, ‘Go home, Jew pig. There is no school for you today.’”
Later, at a council-sponsored Lunch and Learn session, Czech survivor George Vago told a harrowing story of escaping Nazi capture along with his mother, Blanka.
Reading excerpts from Journey Westward, a memoir the West Orange resident published in 2010, Vago told an audience of 75 about his happy childhood in the town of Vrutky before the Nazi invasion of 1938.
The Nazis arrested his father, Arpad. While he was being held at a detention center, Arpad sent word for his wife and 10-year-old son to join him.
George’s uncle, Ernest Taub, suspected the Nazis had forced Arpad to write the message. “Ernest persuaded my mother it would be foolish to go, that going would mean death.”
His mother made a difficult choice to ignore the request. The decision saved their lives. Arpad died in Treblinka.
The boy and his mother managed to hide from the Nazis throughout the war, often with the assistance of non-Jews who risked their own safety to protect them.
Then, at dawn on March 25, 1945, he said, “we heard loud shouts and we saw the Red Army running down the street. It was the greatest moment of my life.”
His hopes for a life of freedom soon faded, when the Soviet Union occupied Czechoslovakia. Vago managed to travel to Germany with a group from the Young Communist League, and escaped from East to West Berlin.
In 1961, he resettled in the United States, where he worked as a mechanical engineer. He and his wife, Danielle, have one son and one daughter.