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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Kristallnacht in Wisconsin

Last week marked the 72nd anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night of Nov. 9/10, 1938, on which hundreds of German synagogues were burned, thousands of Jewish-owned businesses destroyed, and 25,000 to 30,000 innocent people were arrested for deportation to concentration camps.

We tend to categorize the Holocaust as "back then" and "over there," so it is odd to discover the truth -- that it is still here with us, in the memories of neighbors like Manny Chulew who settled in Kenosha.

Historians estimate that as many as 1000 Holocaust survivors came to Wisconsin after World War Two. They built new lives in cities such as Green Bay and Milwaukee and in small towns like Merrill and Monroe. Some still live here today. The fabric of our communities is stitched together by memory, so the Holocaust is simultaneously far away, long ago, and yet also right next door, tonight, in the assisted living center down the block.

Here is part of a recollection by Rabbi Manfred Swarsensky of Madison, whose synagogue was destroyed that night:

"Well, at about 2 o'clock in the morning of November 9-10, the telephone ring and the Shamash, Mr. Jacob Gera, a Polish Jew who was the resident sexton of the Synagogue Prinzregentstrasse, called me and shouted over the phone, 'Our synagogue is burning.' Then, I got up, ran to the synagogue, pushed my hat way down in my face so as not to be recognized by anyone, and there I saw German SS troopers pour gasoline into the interior of the building and over the walls... And there was a mob around, I don't know how many, and shouting "Death to the Jews" and all the other things… There was nothing I could do but stand and look at the horrifying situation, the people who were there did nothing, except jeering, and the SS colors egged the people on."

You can hear him tell the rest at our Oral Histories: Wisconsin Survivors of the Holocaust online collection.

Eva Deutschkron, also of Madison, was 22 years old and living with her parents in Berlin that night:

"...on November 8 we heard the people that lived in between our apartments calling out to the people that lived in the attic of the building, 'Tonight at this and this hour (I forgot), we pick up Hirschhahn, Frank,' and there was another... And I ran in and told my parents what I had heard and we all quick grabbed whatever we could grab and grabbed the small suitcase for my mother to leave for America, and went to aunt in Neukolln, another part of Berlin, to hide us. And sure enough, during that night they picked up -- we called all the other Jews what we heard, that something is going on during the night. Some disappeared like we did, and others didn't want to believe it and stayed. They were picked up during the night and taken to concentration camp. That was the Crystal Night. All the windows were broken... mugs were thrown and stones up into our apartment into the windows and everything was in shatters."

Ms. Deutchkron was soon arrested and sent to perform forced labor in a munitions factory. After Nazi troops took away her family members, she and her husband Martin went into hiding and managed to survive the war underground. In 1948 they emigrated to Wisconsin, operating a clothing store in Madison until the 1980s. She tells her story here.

Rabbi Swarsensky was taken from his home at gunpoint and sent to a concentration camp, where he was tortured. He was released a few weeks later, on condition that he would leave Germany. He arrived in Wisconsin in 1940, and served as rabbi at Temple Beth El in Madison until his retirement in 1976. He died on Nov. 10, 1981, the 43rd anniversary of Kristallnacht.

Ms. Deutschkron and Rabbi Swarsensky are just two of the Wisconsin survivors whose testimony is now online. Take a few moments to honor their memory.

:: Posted in Curiosities on November 9, 2010

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