Kristallnacht, a small Torah saved from the fires – a Personal Account by Ruth Nussbaum z’l
The following account is that of Ruth Nussbaum, the wife of Rabbi Max Nussbaum, who served as Senior Rabbi of Temple Israel of Hollywood from 1942 to 1974. Ruth died in 2009, but she wrote a memoir and her account of of what occurred in Berlin on the 8th, 9th, and 10th of November 1938 during “Kristallnacht” is personal and rivetting. It appears in an unpublished memoir in a chapter called “The Fire by Night and the Cloud by Day” (All rights reserved, 1985). The photo of the small Torah is in Temple Israel of Hollywood’s Nussbaum Sanctuary Ark. It was rescued by Rabbi Nussbaum on Kristallnacht, as described below.
“It was 2 o’clock in the morning, and we had piled pillows on top of the phone to muffle the sound, but to the group of people huddled in our quiet Living room it sounded shrill and startling enough.
We let it ring a few times, then I picked up the receiver silently, listening. A voice came over the wire, artificially eerie and hollow, repeating over and over in a slow, droning, melodramatic monotone: “Vorsicht, Vorsicht – caution, careful, watch out, watch out, watch out…”.
…my husband shrugged: “Nothing really, just a crank call.”
It was the night of mass arrests of German Jews, the night of November 10, 1938. The place was our flat in the Lietzenburger Strasse of Berlin – West, and it had been a long day.
It had started with another phone call, at five o’clock in the morning. The Shammess (sexton) of the “Friedenstempel” (Temple of Peace) – the synagogue closest to our home – had awaked us: “Come quickly, Rabbi,” he had whispered breathlessly, “our Temple is burning.”
Rabbi Max Nussbaum was a young assistant to Rabbi Leo Baeck, the titular head of the liberal rabbinic community in Berlin from 1936 to 1940.
“We dressed hurriedly, and rushed through the still dark streets of the quiet Westside of Berlin, down the Kurfeuerstandamm toward the Markgraf-Albrecht Strasse where the Temple was located. The sky seemed to show the first tinge of daylight – so we thought until we realized that the reddish, flickering glow spotting the sky over the city here and there was nothing as innocent as the dawn: it was the reflection of flames.
… we saw the Friedentempel, our Temple of Peace, on fire. Clouds of black smoke fringed with red were billowing from broken windows and from the skeleton of the roof. A cordon of Stormtroopers and firemen were trying to put out the fire? Certainly not. The fire engines were idle, and the water hoses, unused as yet, were trained on the neighboring houses to protect their Aryan roofs from being ignited by a Jewish spark. No, unbelievable as it seemed, they were only trying to hold back the people who had rushed to gawk at the scene.
There were crowds of people, in spite of the early hour. Neighbors, jovial burghers of Berlin, mostly women, wrapped in shawls against the morning chill, many of them holding small children in their arms or by the hand. We stopped among them – there was nowhere else to go – and unthinkingly I said to no one in particular something like “How horrible!” subconsciously expecting to get an echo from whoever was next to me, a normal human reaction to a disaster, like: “Yes isn’t it awful?” Or: “What a crime!” But no, not a word!
Only then did I turn and look into the woman’s face, …; she seemed happy and excited, obviously having the time of her life. Surely this must be a case of singular human callousness.
The expressions I saw in this moment of horror I shall never forget: they were all simply and honestly delighted, full of glee, thrilled by the spectacular entertainment, radiant with a kind of triumphant vengefulness, approving, applauding, lifting up their children so they would not miss this historic occasion: “Look here, Karle, look, they’re burning down that Jew-Church… Wake up. Frieda, come, take a good look, that’s the least you can do since Momma took you specially to see it…”
I didn’t believe it. We had lived under Hitler for five years and not like some other people with our eyes closed or in a fool’s paradise. We had no illusions as to his and his cohorts’ capacity for evil. Nevertheless, I had preserved some of my innate faith in the basic humanness of the average person. Well aware that under terror he might easily turn into a dehumanized fiend I never thought he would do so on his own, by choice, voluntarily as it were. That moment against a background for which a Rembrandt might have mixed the colors out of fire and night with the weird palette of a Hieronymus Bosch supplying the faces, – that brief moment taught me differently, – a lesson never to be forgotten.
“Wait here for me,” my husband said suddenly, very softly, barely moving his lips. “No, better go slowly toward the Kurfeuerstendamm. Wait for me at the corner. I’ll just be a few minutes.” He gave my arm a reassuring squeeze and slowly moved away from me, melting into the crowd. I was apprehensive but knew that any protest would have been futile and dangerous.
After the twenty longest minutes of my life we met at the appointed corner. It was daylight now, the greyish, gloomy light of a November morning in Berlin, – and it was drizzling. We held hands and walked home, without looking back at the fire nor at its admiring audience.
We walked automatically, not thinking, not talking, and only came back to reality when something made a crunching sound underneath our shoes. We were stepping on broken glass. The shops we were just passing were some of the small number still owned by Jews, and sporadic looting had just started, although none of the perpetrators were in sight. Some windows had been smashed, window displays were gone, and shelves and racks inside looked suspiciously empty.
The drizzle turned into light rain, and we walked as fast as we could without actually running. We were out of breath when we finally let ourselves into our flat; I locked the door behind us and leaned against it, exhausted and bewildered.
Hannele, my child, burst out of her room and ran up to us, wanting to know where we had been. Our combination housekeeper – friend – and nanny had taken care of her and was about to take her to nursery school, so we hugged her and promised her a story for later on and sent her off.
There was coffee waiting for us, and we sat down at our breakfast table, going through familiar motions, as if nothing had changed, knowing full well that everything had changed.
Then Max told me: he and the Schammes had managed to rescue the smallest of the Torah scrolls from the Sanctuary. “How did you do it – and where is it?” I was incredulous. “Mr. N. seemed to know the guard at the rear entrance, – that’s how we got in. And he is going to bring it over to us later, for safe keeping…”
It was about 9 o’clock then, and after a few phone calls and having listened to the official radio announcement, the enormousness of what had happened began to dawn on us: most of the synagogues of the German Reich had been burnt down during the preceding night (267 of them)…”due to the people’s indignation at the cold blooded murder on November 7th of a German consular attaché in Paris, a certain Herrn vom Rath, at the hands of a Polish Jew.”
This was the gist of the official version.
Added of course were the standard phrases always used to cover up acts of atrocity…: “Schlagartige Einzelaktion auf Grund der kochenden Volkssseele,” meaning … “Spontaneous, single acts caused by the righteous wrath of the soul of the people,” and not a masterplan instigated and mapped out in Dr. Goebbels’ office.
“The fire departments” so we heard on the radio, “had done their best, but alas, had not been able to prevent the partial or total destruction of most synagogues. Regrettably, but understandably of course” – so the radio version continued – “The boiling soul of the German people had then turned against the Jewish-owned shops, and much damage to property and decorum of the city streets had been done – all the direct result of the fiendish deed perpetrated by the Jewish conspiracy in Paris. It was obvious – and the Fuehrer in his wisdom would see to it – that the guilty party, namely the Jews of Germany, would pay in full for the damage done.…”
Synagogues burnt, Jewish shops smashed and looted, and Jews to pay for the damage…It seemed the pinnacle of insanity.
… the Jews of Germany were to pay the German Government immediately the sum of one Billion Riechsmark. … mass arrests were taking place all over the country. Jewish men were seized, rounded up and placed under “Shcutzhfat” – protective custody, a euphemistic term meaning jail or concentration camp.
Now it was night again, and our living room was filled. … my husband was not a German citizen but had a Rumanian passport. Therefore our apartment was something like an asylum, offering just a little bit more security than the homes of most of our German-born friends and colleagues.
About eight or ten of them had come to us that night, some couples who were lucky enough to be still together and at liberty…
Earlier in the evening our good friend Louis Lochner, chief of the Associated Press office in Berlin, had stopped by…to give and get information and to offer help … He was one of those gallant Christians who constantly used whatever influence he had with German or American authorities on behalf of Jews in Germany. He often risked his position and his own safety by befriending us – a man whose courage equaled his kindness.
On that night, our plea to him was mainly to discover the whereabouts of those who had been arrested and to find out, if possible, how much longer this wave of arrests would continue…
I poured coffee. Voices were hushed for the walls had ears and we had good reason to suspect that the telephone was tapped…
Rabbi Leo Baeck had just officiated at the marriage of Rabbi Max and Ruth Nussbaum on July 13, 1938 in Berlin. Ruth told me that the Gestapo had permitted their marriage as a “wedding gift” to them. They are seen leaving the synagogue immediately following their marriage.
We were all tired and enervated…Max stood up, stretched, and yawned. “Time to turn in” he said. “Why don’t’ you all relax and spend the night?”
…an uneasy quiet settled over the makeshift dormitory on the third floor of a quiet apartment house, in the heart of the capital of Nazi Germany.
…the previous nights… proved to be the beginning of the liquidation of German Jewry…
…the following morning…dispelled some of the dread of the night before; fortified by the irresistible combination of fresh coffee and hot crisp “Kneuppel” (“sticks”) as the Berliner calls his famous breakfast rolls…our friends left quickly, one by one, for their homes or offices.
They had not been gone long – I had just bundled up all the linens and, luckily, sent them off to the laundry when the doorbell rang. A look through the peephole revealed an unmistakable Brown uniform.
My husband was at the moment soaking in a hot bath, a therapy prescribed by me as an unfailing cure for a stiff and aching back which was the aftermath of a night spent on or rather between two equally stiff chairs.
I opened the door and faced not one but two brown uniforms. Two young guys, probably not much older than me, Hiel Hitlered me smartly and one of them, studying a paper in his hand, asked: “Is Mr. Nussbaum at home?” I smiled my best drama-school-smile, thinking very very fast ‘this is no good, – how do I handle this?” trying to look honest but a little bit honestly confused – so I blushed – I know I blushed, I did it easily – and said: “Frankly I’m not sure. He may have gone out while I was out taking my little girl to nursery school.”
…I saw they had their feet already in the door, so I smiled again and said: “Why don’t you come in?” figuring by invitation was better than by invasion.
They seemed a bit perplexed – this …was not in their script – but after wiping their shoes carefully on the doormat they followed me into them living room. I left them there, while I aimlessly pretended to search the apartment, opening doors, closing doors, all the while talking very loud – so my husband could hear me and understand – “No, he is not here, I hope he’ll be back soon” – which on that day, when thousands of men had been rounded up and taken to concentration camps – might have been understood by them as the devout wish of a Jewish wife – – or not.
…I had asked them to sit down…with this nice looking young woman who could have been a schoolmate of theirs a few years ago. I had gone to the kitchen and came back with some coffee and coffeecake.
“These are some schnecken, my Mom baked them yesterday.
“O your Mom makes them too?” “Aren’t they delicious?” they were obviously bewildered, but they went for it.
[Ruth then took the SS soldiers on a tour of her apartment avoiding the bathroom where Max was hiding and deeply afraid that Max would burst out “to rescue me.”]
“Na, alright Frau Doktor” one of the guys finally said in his best Berliner accent, “must have been a false alarm.”
They clicked their heels and clattered down the stairs.
“I have a gambler for a wife,” said my husband. “How did you dare do it?”
I denied it. We actually had nothing to lose, nor did I have any choice. Had they found him, all hell would have broken loose, so my way was our only chance. And it worked because I knew these kinds of boys. I knew how their dirty little minds worked; I spoke their language and could act the role of the “girl next door”, so yes, maybe it was a gamble, but a small investment for very high stakes!
It had been an inconsequential incident, compared to the massive historic tragedy of taking place around us at the same time. But then our life under the Nazis was a succession of such insignificant incidents; fate did not deal us only the unspeakable and deadly blows which have become synonymous with the Third Reich but also aimed a steady barrage of tiny poisoned arrows at us – the pinpricks of destiny, the thousand-and-one chicaneries that beset us in every phase of our daily lives in those years.”
Postscript – Rabbi Max and Ruth Nussbaum remained in Berlin to assist the members of their synagogue community in attaining visas until 1940 when they got word that the Gestapo was coming to arrest them. In the middle of the night, Ruth and Max left their young daughter Hannah with Ruth’s parents (they had no visas), took the small Torah that Max had saved from his burning synagogue ark on the night of Kristallnacht, and fled to Amsterdam. From there they journeyed to New York. Rabbi Stephen S. Wise had secured a position as rabbi for Max in a small synagogue in Muskogee, Oklahoma. Before going there, Rabbi Wise had arranged an interview for them with the New York Times to describe the situation in Germany. Ruth spoke English. Max would learn the language in Oklahoma. They met as well with Secretary of the Treasury Hans Morgenthau in Washington, D.C. who arranged passage for Hannah and Ruth’s parents who would join Ruth and Max in Oklahoma six months later.
In 1942, Temple Israel of Hollywood invited Rabbi Max Nussbaum to be its rabbi and he happily accepted bringing distinction to our congregation for the next 32 years. The small “Nussbaum Torah” (as we affectionally call it) remains in our Sanctuary ark, an icon of a memory of a story that can never be forgotten, thanks to Ruth.