April 2, 2020

Witnesses to Kristallnacht

On a Wednesday evening in late 1938, the sounds of broken glass shattered the quiet streets of Germany, Austria and the Sudetenland. Over the next 24 hours, Nov. 9-10, rampaging Nazi mobs would torch more than 1,000 synagogues; vandalize Jewish homes, businesses and cemeteries; and kill nearly 100 Jews. As many as 30,000 Jews were arrested and carted off to concentration camps. These coordinated attacks, which came to be known as Kristallnacht —  the Night of Broken Glass — mark the beginning of the Holocaust.

Survivors who lived to tell the story of the terror of Kristallnacht  — some quite young at the time — remember vividly the horrors of that night. These four, who share their memories on the 76th anniversary of Kristallnacht, are among the lucky ones whose families were able to escape and who, eventually, made their way to Los Angeles. 


Herbert Jellinek, Vienna

Late on the morning of Nov. 10, 1938, Herb and his father, Leo, were walking home from their weekly visit to the public baths,when from a distance they saw the Turner Temple in flames. Only a year and four months earlier, Herb had become a bar mitzvah at this Vienna synagogue, but now Nazi Brownshirts, also called SA or Stormtroopers, were standing around with the local police, watching the building burn, and a crowd of Austrians had gathered and were cheering the sight. Herb and Leo stayed in the shadows. “We were very afraid,” Herb said. “We tried to get home as quickly as possible.”

They arrived at their apartment on Mariahilferstrasse, Vienna’s main shopping street, around noon to find Herb’s mother, Irma, in tears. Later that afternoon, Herb peeked out of their living room window and saw hordes of Brownshirts going from building to building, breaking the windows of apartments and stores where Jews lived and shopped. He also witnessed the Brownshirts roughing up Jewish men, dragging them out of their apartment buildings. Herb’s family fully expected the Nazis to come to their door to take Leo, and possibly 14-year-old Herb. They sat on the couch, wearing their overcoats because the apartment didn’t have central heat, and waited. 

Suddenly the doorbell rang. Irma opened the door and was surprised to find their electrician standing there, responding to their call from several days earlier to repair a broken radio. “I can’t understand what’s going on,” he told the Jellineks. “It’s ridiculous.”

Herb and his parents waited the rest of the night, listening to their newly repaired radio and staying quiet so as to not draw attention to themselves. They learned later that their concierge had steered the Nazis away, informing them no Jews lived in the building. 

The next day, Herb’s parents resolved to leave Austria. 

The situation had been deteriorating, especially since the Anschluss on March 12, 1938, when Germany annexed Austria. Three days later, Hitler had entered Vienna, the climax of a triumphant tour of Austria. Despite a warning over loudspeakers that anyone leaning out a window or leaving curtains open would be shot, Herb peered out to see Hitler riding in an open car with his hand raised. He heard people cheering and saw buildings adorned with swastika flags and banners. “It was like everyone all of a sudden became Nazi,” he recalled. 

Shortly after, Herb was forced to transfer from public school to a Jewish school, an hour’s streetcar ride, and at least weekly he found himself fighting members of the Hitler Youth. 

But Kristallnacht was the turning point for the Jellineks, and the following week Herb accompanied his father to the American consulate, where Leo filed an application to immigrate to the United States. But the waiting list was long, as it was at other consulates they visited. Weeks later, they learned that only Shanghai, which the British had established as a treaty port in the 1840s, would take them without a visa. With difficulty, Leo secured second-class tickets on an Italian passenger ship, departing Trieste in the spring.

In June 1939, Herb and his parents left Vienna. As they crossed the border into Italy and an Italian customs official entered their train car, they felt great relief. 

“A lot of people forget. You can’t forget what we went through,” Herb said. 


Rita Feder, Berlin

As evening fell on Nov. 10, 1938, Rita heard a huge crash outside her family’s apartment on Berlin’s Metzer Strasse. She looked out the front window and there, next to the entrance to their building, she saw four or five Brownshirts throwing cement blocks through the windows of the stores that occupied the ground floor. Rita’s mother, Fanny, started screaming. She dragged 10-year-old Rita away from the window and closed the drapes. 

 The Atterman family in Berlin in 1938. From left, mother Fanny, brother Jona (Heinz), Rita, brother Bill (Willy) and father Max

The family gathered in the living room, in the center of the apartment and away from the front windows and the back staircase. Rita sat in the dark with her parents and older brother, Bill (Willy). Her middle brother, Jona (Heinz), had immigrated to Palestine several months earlier. Time moved slowly. “I was so scared. It was the only time I was almost traumatized,” Rita recalled. While Max Atterman, her father, thought the Nazi hysteria would pass, Rita believed this was the end.  

The next day, Rita saw the store windows had been boarded up and the owners were sweeping up shattered glass. “There was not one store that wasn’t hit,” she said. Rita went to school that day, but no one talked about what had happened. 

Life had become increasingly unhappy for Rita as Hitler gained power. A gymnast and a sprinter, she had dreams of participating in the Olympics and desperately wanted to attend the 1936 Berlin Games. But Jews were not allowed. Her father did take her, however, to watch the men’s 50-kilometer walk, which took place along city streets.

About a year later, in 1937, Rita and her mother were walking near Alexanderplatz when the crowd began buzzing that Hitler was approaching. Everything quickly came to a standstill, and Fanny warned her daughter, “You better raise your hand now and scream, ‘Heil, Hitler.’ ” Rita shouted the salute as the Führer rode by in his open car, his arm raised. “I felt terrible,” Rita recalled.

Kristallnacht convinced Fanny that it was time to leave Germany, but Max wanted to stay. He thought again, however, as people around them began making plans to emigrate. Then, after visiting various consulates in Berlin, he discovered the world was blocked off to Jews. 

One day, a family friend came to visit. “We’re getting out of here, and you are, too. We’re going to China,” she told Fanny and Max. Max thought she was crazy.

In December 1938, Max made arrangements to send Rita to live with his niece in Antwerp, Belgium. When the smuggler came for her, Rita was frightened. “You have to go. It’ll save your life,” her mother told her. The man, who was Jewish, delivered Rita to her relatives. “They were wonderful people,” she said. 

In July 1939, the niece’s husband brought Rita back to Berlin, and a week later, Rita, her parents and her brother Bill boarded a train to Italy. “A stone fell off my parents’ hearts. They were getting away,” Rita said. They took a passenger ship to Shanghai, and in 1947, she and Bill immigrated to Los Angeles. 

“I have to give back to God and my country. I’m so fortunate,” Rita said.


Tom Tugend, Berlin

From his family’s second-floor apartment on Berlin’s Greifswalder Strasse, during the late-night hours of Nov. 9 or very early on Nov. 10, 1938, Tom heard the crashing of glass as bricks or rocks were heaved through the windows of the street-level shops. Tom’s mother, Irene Tugendreich, hustled Tom, 13, and his older sister, Brigitte, into her bedroom, and then his usually undemonstrative mother lay down and cuddled her children in the dark room. 

Tom Tugend, 14, and his mother, Irene Tugendreich, in 1939 in Philadelphia, their first year in the United States. 

At one point, the doorbell rang. The owner of the stationery store on the building’s ground level stood in the hallway, deathly pale and shaking. “Can you hide me?” he begged. The gentile landlady, who had answered the door and who also lived on the second floor, was too frightened to take him in; her Jewish husband had been sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp just a few days earlier. But she allowed the man to run through Tom’s apartment and out the back door. Tom didn’t feel particularly frightened at the time, he said, but, “I always remember his face, that absolutely horror-stricken face.”

Tom, his sister and mother returned to the bedroom. Tom continued to hear the shattering glass and the shouting mob. The three of them were grateful that Tom’s father was in the United States, as he undoubtedly would have been arrested.

The following day, Tom went to school. He remembers seeing the shattered glass on the streets and the stores being boarded up. But in a few days, life returned to what was then normal. He was riding his bike to school and playing soccer, the activity that mattered most to him at the time. 

His father, Gustav, a highly respected pediatrician and a World War I medical officer, had believed for a long time that Hitler was an aberration. But by 1937, when Gustav was no longer permitted to treat non-Jewish patients and when the family was forced to move from their upper-middle-class apartment to a smaller one in a working-class neighborhood, Gustav realized it was time to leave. Plus, he was likely influenced by Irene’s more pronounced sense of urgency. But by that time, most countries had closed their borders, and it was impossible to obtain visas.

Gustav, however, had tracked down the American and British Quakers, with whom he had worked in Germany in 1919 feeding hungry children. They found an immigration law exception for academicians and secured Gustav a one-year lectureship at the University of London in 1937-38 and one at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania the following year, thus qualifying him for a non-quota visa. Meanwhile, after the Munich Agreement in September 1938 and again after Kristallnacht, Gustav had been writing the family urgent letters from the United States, begging them to depart as soon as possible.

Finally, on April 20, 1939, with flags bedecking the city to celebrate Hitler’s 50th birthday, Tom, Brigitte and Irene boarded a plane from Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport to London. They then traveled to Southampton and sailed by passenger ship to New York. 

Tom cautions that the trouble with writing history is that you see it through the lens of what has happened since. “Nobody could imagine at that time, even after Kristallnacht, that the Holocaust could happen,” he said.

Since 1955, Tom has lived permanently in Los Angeles. He has been writing regularly for the Jewish Journal since 1993 and serves as a contributing editor.


Risa Igelfeld, Vienna

Before Kristallnacht, and even before the Anschluss, when Risa witnessed Nazi soldiers singing and marching along the streets, she saw many Viennese turning to Nazism. “They came up like cockroaches. It was a frightening time,” she said.

Risa Relles Igelfeld, center, in Vienna in 1928 with her older sister, Edith Relles, and half-brother, Paul Knie. The girls were given the maiden name of their mother, who died when Risa was 1. 

Risa was asleep in the early morning hours of Nov. 10, 1938, when the sound of boots kicking the front door of their house awakened her abruptly. “Where’s the money?” she heard the intruders shout. Risa, 21, and her older sister, Edith, who shared a bedroom, heard them enter their parents’ bedroom. “You’re coming with us,” they ordered Risa’s father, Ruben. The girls got out of bed and started dressing. “I was shaking like a leaf,” Risa recalled. The Brownshirts burst into their bedroom, searching for money, then left with Ruben. Risa and Edith stood together, holding onto one another. “I was so scared, just so scared,” Risa remembered.

About an hour later, Risa ventured into the living room. Daylight had broken, and she looked out the window onto Favoritenstrasse, one of Vienna’s main streets, to see other Brownshirts pulling away in Ruben’s first-ever new car. She kept pacing back and forth to the window. At one point, she saw SS and Brownshirts marching up and down the street, singing. Another time, she glanced at the window of the house across the street to see a neighbor sticking out her tongue at her. 

The following night, Risa’s half-brother, Paul Knie, managed to cross Austria’s border and head for Belgium. Then on Sunday, Risa was walking alone when she was stopped by the Brownshirts, who forced her to eat grass. She also saw elderly Jews she knew, on their hands and knees cleaning the sidewalks. “That was very upsetting for me,” she recalled.

The family did not learn Ruben’s fate until a month later, when they received a letter from him. He had been taken to Dachau and then Buchenwald. 

In early January 1939, Risa, following in her sister’s footsteps, left for London on a domestic visa sent by an English family looking for a servant. Soon after, she was promoted to the position of nanny for the couple’s two young children. 

Back in Vienna, Risa’s stepmother went to Nazi headquarters and bribed an SS official, who agreed to release Ruben with the stipulation that the couple leave Austria immediately. They boarded a boat to Palestine but were refused entry. Other ports were also closed. They finally landed on the island of Mauritius, off the southeast coast of Africa, where they were imprisoned for three years. 

Before Kristallnacht, Paul had gone to the American consulate to search its telephone books for people with their surname, Knie, writing letters pleading for help. A couple in Chicago, Max and Tesse Knee, who were not related, responded, offering affidavits for all the family members. “They were just good people,” Risa said. Her parents arrived in New York around 1944. Risa and her husband, Gershom Igelfeld, whom she married in London, immigrated to Los Angeles in 1949.