by Janet R. Kirchheimer (New York, NY)
Born in a small town in Southern Germany, my father hid, along with his parents, older sister and younger brother in the basement of their home during Kristallnacht. Translated as the “Night of Crystal,” Kristallnacht is often referred to as the “Night of Broken Glass.” It was a wave of violent anti-Jewish attacks that took place on November 9 and 10, 1938, throughout Germany, annexed Austria, and in areas of the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia occupied by German troops. Instigated primarily by Nazi Party officials and members of the SA (Sturmabteilungen: commonly known as Storm Troopers) and Hitler Youth, the name Kristallnacht reflects the broken glass from the windows of synagogues, homes, and Jewish-owned businesses plundered and destroyed during the violence. Numbers vary, but over 1,000 synagogues and businesses were destroyed, at least 100 people were killed and over 30,000 men were taken to concentration camps. On November 10, 1938, my father was ordered to report to town hall. Along with nine other men, he was arrested and sent to the concentration camp Dachau. He was 16 years old.
“What for?” my father asked. “What
did I do? I’m only sixteen,” 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 men were loaded on a truck
that said “Trink Coca-Cola” he turned and saw
Wilhelm crying like a child.
Nazis arrest him
a boy sixteen years old
a striped cotton uniform
it’s almost winter
he shares a bunk
with a man in his fifties
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 to save one’s life the rabbis teach
one must break custom
he washes the underwear that night
places it over a chair
next to the woodstove to dry
sleeps on it
to make sure
no one will steal it
Janet R. Kirchheimer, the author of How to Spot One of Us (Clal, 2007), is currently producing BE•HOLD, a cinematic poetry film https://www.facebook.com/BeholdAPerformanceFilm. Her work has appeared in many journals and on line including Atlanta Review, Limestone, Connecticut Review, Lilith, Natural Bridge and on beliefnet.com and Drafthorse http://www.lmunet.edu/drafthorse/main.shtml. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee and received Honorable Mention in the String Poet Prize 2014. Janet teaches poetry, creative writing and memoir classes in New York City. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
These two poems, “Town Hall” and “Breaking Laws,” are from How to Spot One of Us (Clal, 2007) and reprinted with the kind permission of the author and Clal.
2 responses to “Kristallnacht”
I am always struck by how poems in which a narrative of facts told simply and without adornment exert their power. Your first poem is moving, that concluding line utterly heart-breaking, and would be so even if we did not know how the story progressed. Thank you, Janet.
moving poem. Deeper than the atlantic. hiding a lost world.