February 20, 2019

Survivor Susi Kaminski Klein: Asleep in the synagogue on ‘Night of Broken Glass’

Susi Klein (née Kaminski), almost 9, was jolted awake by loud pounding on the large wooden synagogue doors. Her father, Josef, came running into the bedroom she shared with her older brother, Heinz, in the family’s ground-floor apartment in the synagogue in Reichenbach, Germany. 

“Heinz,” he instructed, opening the window, “run to the police station and tell them thieves are breaking in.” The 13-year-old boy jumped out and took off, barefoot and pajama-clad.

Meanwhile, Josef hurried back to his bedroom, where he helped his wife, Amalie, escape out their window. Dressed in only her nightgown, she called to the neighbors watching from their raised windows to throw down a wrap. No one obliged. 

Wanting to rescue something from the thieves, Susi grabbed a packet of Josef’s laundered dress shirts from a cabinet in her room, tossing them outside. Josef then returned, pushing her and then himself out the window. But as Susi and her parents began walking, rounding the corner to the front of the synagogue, they came face to face with several SS, their rifles and daggers drawn. 

Rein, rein,” the SS ordered. “Inside, inside,” motioning to the synagogue entrance. 

It was early morning on Nov. 10, 1938, the second day of coordinated attacks in Germany, Austria and the Sudetenland regions of Czechoslovakia, which came to be known as Kristallnacht, in which 267 synagogues were destroyed, 7,500 Jewish shops looted and some 30,000 Jewish men arrested and sent to concentration camps. 

The SS led Josef to the basement, where they held a knife to his chest and demanded he show them the hidden ammunition. When Josef insisted he had none, they went back upstairs and ordered the family to get dressed.

But Amalie was in tears, frantically searching for Heinz. “Where’s my boy?” she asked, unaware that Josef had sent him to the police station. “We will get him,” an SS trooper threatened. Then a Gestapo agent in civilian clothes, an older man whom the family knew, walked by Amalie. “The boy’s at the police station,” he whispered. “He’s safe.”

The city’s synagogue in 2014, after the exterior had been renovated. Photo by Joanna Sliwa-Cichon

Susi was born on Nov. 25, 1929, in Beuthen, Germany (now Bytom, Poland). But when she was 1 year old, Josef lost his men’s and boys’ clothing business because of gambling debts accrued by his partner, who also was his brother-in-law. He then purchased a similar business in Reichenbach (now Dzierzoniow, Poland) and put down a deposit on a cooperative-style apartment.

But as the family prepared to move in, the administrators realized they were Jewish and turned them away. Not knowing what to do, Josef approached the town’s Jewish elders, who allowed the family to live in the synagogue’s vacant apartment, with the stipulation that they serve as honorary caretakers. 

The Kaminskis enjoyed their new living quarters, especially the large garden, where they served beer and lemonade and hosted other Jewish families. Susi especially loved climbing the stone tower and walking on the town wall, fortifications from the 13th century that were integrated into the garden. 

The Reichenbach Jewish community was small — an estimated 67 in 1933 — and the sanctuary was used only for the High Holy Days and the occasional bar mitzvah, when a rabbi came from Schweidnitz, 13 miles away. Additionally, Rabbi Franz Rosenthal traveled 36 miles from Breslau weekly to teach religion to the children. During other holidays, Amalie prepared activities for them. 

After Hitler came to power in 1933, Josef’s business was confiscated. To earn some money, Amalie began serving lunch daily to a few apprentices from Breslau, who were working in local Jewish-owned textile factories. Desperate after a year of unemployment, Josef approached the Weyl & Nassau textile factory, offering to take any job. He was placed in the payroll department. 

With no Jewish schools in the city, Susi was enrolled in the Catholic school in April 1936, at age 6 1/2.  She especially remembers the day her teacher, Mr. Lenz, was showing the class pictures of birds. “Children, see the beak of the condor?” he asked. “That’s the way the Jews have their nose.” 

During Kristallnacht, after being taken from their apartment, Susi and her parents were marched to the police station, where they were confined in a room with mostly men. Later in the day, on Nov. 10, the Kaminskis, including Heinz, were released from the station, ordered to pick up a few belongings from their apartment and move to the white Villa Cohn. This was one of two mansions, one white and one pink, built on either side of the Cohn textile factories, which were founded in the 1870s but had been confiscated by the Germans. Now only two elderly widows lived there, one in each villa. 

That afternoon, after they were settled in a small bedroom, afraid to leave, the Gestapo returned for Josef. “Take your hat and coat and come with us,” they ordered. The family later learned he had been taken to a prison in Breslau and then transferred to the Buchenwald concentration camp. At the time, however, Susi said, “Nobody knew what was going on.”

In their villa, the widow Cohn, who Susi believes may have had some dementia, was cared for by a nurse wearing a swastika armband. “We were all afraid of her,” Susi said. But a Catholic maid who worked there secretly sneaked the Kaminski family food each evening, their only sustenance. 

A few days later, Amalie was called to the synagogue by the mayor. She was given the shirts that Susi had thrown out the window, which had landed in the trees and bushes, and told to clear all their belongings out of the synagogue.

Susi returned to the synagogue with her mother. Surprisingly, nothing was broken and the building had not been set on fire. But Susi found her and Heinz’s books torn and scattered on the floor, along with the family’s destroyed photographs. Susi rescued her English book, to continue studying the language, and Amalie sold most of their belongings, for very little money. 

Soon after, Amalie traveled by train to Breslau to seek financial help from an uncle, but he was even worse off. The same day she went to Glogau, another 68 miles, to another uncle, who was hopeful that his son living in Bolivia could help them. 

Toward the end of November, Josef returned to the Villa Cohn. He had been beaten as he left Buchenwald and sported a large, open head wound; at night he screamed in his sleep. “It was terrible,” Susi said. “He was never the same.”  

Visas from Bolivia soon arrived, and the family departed from Hamburg, Germany, on Feb. 28, 1939. Nine years later, they moved to Argentina. 

On Jan. 26, 1955, Susi married Fred Klein; their daughter, Helen, was born in September 1957. Six years later, the family immigrated to Los Angeles so Fred could attend art school.

On a trip to Germany with Fred in 1987, Susi met a woman in Berlin who lived not far from Reichenbach, which was then in Communist Poland. She promised to take photographs of the synagogue and send them to Susi. 

This connection led to others, and in 1991, Susi traveled to Reichenbach with her husband. There she met Mojzesz Jakubowicz, an older Jewish man who obtained permission to take Susi and Fred on a tour of the synagogue, which they found littered with broken glass and rubbish. “It was terrible,” Susi recalled.

The Kaminski family (from left), Josef, Susi, Heinz and Amalie in 1939.

The synagogue, which had been built in 1875, had survived the war. Susi believes, as she discovered only in 1992, this may have been the result of a secret sale of the synagogue building in 1937 to Konrad Springer, the gentile gardener who tended the Jewish cemetery and who was likely given the necessary funds by members of the Jewish community. “This is still a puzzle to each and every one of us,” Susi said. 

After the war, the synagogue thrived. Reichenbach, which was transferred to Poland and renamed Rychbach, became home to a vibrant Jewish community, peaking at a population of 17,800 in 1946, when the city was renamed Dzierzoniow. But a slow emigration began, and after the anti-Jewish riots in 1968, only a few Jews remained. In 1980, the synagogue was closed.

Susi was invited back to the city in 2008. Four years earlier, the synagogue had been purchased by Rafael Blau, who had lived in the city with his parents after the war, with the goal of raising money and renovating it. Susi, the only returning survivor familiar with the synagogue in prewar times, was able to describe the original layout and appearance. “This was a simple synagogue,” she said. “It was for rich people, but it was simple.” 

Susi is concerned, however, that little is known about the Jewish families who lived in Reichenbach before the war, such the Weyls, the Cohns and the Sterns. “No one knows that they existed,” she said. She’s hopeful that one day a plaque with all the prewar families’ names can be mounted on a synagogue wall in their memory.

“Everything they are doing in the synagogue — the teaching, the museum, the High Holiday services — should be related to the past and to the future,” Susi said. n