2016-06-30
It was evening, and it was morning-two endless days that history records as Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass. Synagogues, Jewish-owned businesses, and homes were burned, looted, damaged, and destroyed in Nazi government-sponsored riots throughout Germany on November 9 and 10, 1938. Numbers vary greatly, but about 270 synagogues were burned, more than 7,000 shops, businesses, and homes were damaged or destroyed, and about 100 Jews were killed. Between 26,000 and 30,000 Jews were arrested and deported to concentration camps. My father was one of them.

Over the years, my father has told me of his experiences in Dachau-that he didn't know why he was being arrested; that he was photographed, fingerprinted, had his head shaved, got examined by an SS doctor, then beaten by an SS guard; that he got a cotton blue and white striped uniform, and that luck was getting a hat, that he took the long underwear off of a dead man and wore it so he wouldn't freeze to death as well; that Dachau was a testing ground for the Final Solution; that a 16-year-old boy figured out that he could stay warmer by volunteering for jobs; that each Jew was designated by the Nazis as a Schutzhaftjude-"protected Jew"; that picking up a pair of glasses that belonged to a fellow prisoner, after he'd been beaten by an SS officer, and returning them to him was all you could do; that getting caught tying newspaper around your legs to try to stay warm could get you shot by the SS; that he always had hope he would get out; that some prisoners went crazy and were shot.

The following poems detail some of his experiences.

Town Hall

"What for?" my father asked. "What
did I do? I'm only 16," and
the Gendarme told him if he didn't

like it, if he asked any more questions, he could go home,
they'd arrest his father instead. And he saw his father
paying his tax bill in the next room,

and he didn't call out, afraid they'd arrest him too, afraid
his father would want to take his place, and
the Gendarme said he had a job to do, a quota of ten men,

and he didn't care how he filled it, and my father
knew the Gendarme, went to school with his daughter.
He was told to empty his pockets, turn

in any money and weapons, and he turned in
his pocketknife, and told the Gendarme he had to go
to the bathroom, and another Gendarme, Wilhelm,

took him, and he knew Wilhelm too. He told Wilhelm
not to worry, he wasn't going to run away, and
Wilhelm said he knew, but he was doing his job.

As my father and nine other men were loaded on a truck
that said "Drink Coca-Cola," he turned and saw
Wilhelm crying like a child.

Breaking Laws

Kristallnacht
broken glass
Nazis arrest him
a 16-year-old boy

Dachau
November 1938
a striped cotton uniform
it's almost winter

he shares a bunk
with a man in his 50's
who freezes to death one night

the next morning a kapo tells him

take off the man's long underwear
do it quickly
before the SS come for the body
you will freeze at night too
if you don't

it is the custom of some Jews
not to wear clothes from a dead body
and the Rabbis teach to save one's life
one must break custom

he washes the underwear that night
places it over a chair
next to the wood stove to dry
sleeps on it
still damp
to make sure
no one will steal it

More poems
Read more on page 2 >>


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  • Testing Ground

    And my father told me he was sent
    into an immense room with high ceilings.
    He was told to sit with his legs wide open,
    the next man told to sit inside his legs.
    And the next, and the next.
    He sat until the SS finished counting
    how many would fit in the room.
    It was eight thousand.

    A Good Job

    I.

    I'd shine their shoes at night and put them under their beds
    so they'd pick me, my father says.

    I was in barracks 18, section 1, almost 2,000 men in each section, racks
    of bunks. When the bunks were full, straw mattresses on the floor. If
    the kapos picked me to sweep, wash and polish the floors, I wouldn't
    have to stand out in the cold.

    Each morning, at 4 o'clock, we were marched outside.
    We sang songs for hours in the cold, the songs were taped, played
    on the radio to show how happy, how well taken care of, we were

    An SS officer would come into the bunk, check my work,
    and I stood at attention, took off my hat, did not speak
    unless spoken to. Sometimes he
    told me to continue and left.

    II.

    I'd volunteer to be a kosttrager, a food carrier.
    While the others waited in the roll call line, three of us carried
    two cast iron buckets, enough to hold vegetable soup for 1,000 men.
    Two would hold the handles on the outside. I was in the middle,


    holding the handles on the insides. A kapo marched us
    one-half mile from the kitchen to the space between the barracks
    where ammunition bread, kommissbrot, was piled up
    like bricks on the tables where we ate.
    The kapos said, "Kirchheimer is the best kosttrager we have."

    Some men wouldn't eat the soup. They said it wasn't kosher,
    but I ate it.
    I knew they wouldn't put any meat in it.

    One night

    a man went crazy in the barracks.
    We told him to stop, my father said, told him
    the SS would take him, tried to stop his screaming, his flailing arms.

    The kapos heard him, came and tried to restrain him.
    They took him into the latrine, put his head under water.
    They couldn't stop his screaming, his flailing arms.

    They called from kapo to kapo, from barracks to barracks,
    until it reached SS headquarters. The SS came, took him outside.
    We heard the hoses turned on him, then a shot. Then we went to sleep.

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