Sixty-nine years ago to the day, in a small German town, 9-year-old Ursula Mahlendorf — now a UCSB professor emerita — awoke to the faint-but-awful sound of screaming.
That distant din of shrieking families and shattering windows was the sound of Kristallnacht, a nationwide anti-Jewish pogrom on Nov. 9 and 10, 1938, which by many accounts marked the beginning of the Holocaust. By the time the violence ebbed, at least 96 Jews had been killed and hundreds more injured, more than 1,000 synagogues were burned, almost 7,500 Jewish businesses were destroyed, cemeteries and schools were vandalized, and 30,000 Jews were arrested and sent to concentration camps.
That night, a few blocks from her house, Mahlendorf heard the family members of her dentist, who was Jewish. They were in the middle of the street in their nightgowns, crying. German vigilantes had smashed the windows of the dentist’s home office, and had hauled him off to a concentration camp.
“The next day, before school, I ran by the house to see,” she said. “I saw papers lying in the street, and the windows bashed in. After I saw all that I went to school.”
On Friday, Mahlendorf was among three panelist survivors who spoke in commemoration of Kristallnacht, which is often translated as “Night of Broken Glass.” The discussion occurred in front of about 100 people in the downtown Jewish Federation of Greater Santa Barbara.
For Mahlendorf, who is not of Jewish descent, the anguish of the Holocaust would come much later in life, when she was old enough to comprehend the horrors of what her fellow Germans had done. As a girl, she, like countless others, was a member of Hitler Youth, whose middle-class ubiquity, she said, was on par with this nation’s Girl Scouts, or Brownies.
At the time, she never thought much of it. They sang songs, which she enjoyed.
“The only thing I hated was marching,” she said. “I couldn’t tell right from left.”
Mahlendorf, 78, is the author of a soon-to-be-published memoir called The Shame of Survival: Working Through a Nazi Childhood.
Friday’s panel also included retired medical doctor George J. Wittenstein, another non-Jew from Germany with painful memories of the past. The lone Jewish member of the panel was Mara Vishniac Kohn, the daughter of renowned photographer Roman Vishniac, who spoke from the perspective of the persecuted.
The three panelists brought to the discussion three very different points of view. Mahlendorf, whose field of study is German literature, shared insights about the middle-class, whose complicity she believes was responsible for much of the devastation, and whose widespread psychological repression of the atrocities prolonged the healing process.
Wittenstein, 88, whose father was one of the first German pilots to fly a plane, was a member of the upper class, and benefited from a high-quality education that he believes contributed to his early sense of principled opposition. Wittenstein was an active member in two anti-Nazi resistance groups.
Kohn, 81, was reared in a Jewish family that had immigrated to Germany from Russia. On the night of Nov. 9, 1938, she was a little girl in bed, sick with a cold in Berlin. On the 10th, she was on the balcony, “watching some pretty horrible scenes on the street.”
Growing up a Jew in Nazi Germany, Kohn had always assumed that being reviled is just how life had to be.
“If anybody had told me years ago that I’d be sitting here with two Germans — or former Germans — discussing what is called Kristallnacht, there is no way I’d believe it,” she said. “The world has entirely changed, from North Pole to South Pole.”
One day in the late 1930s, she said, there was a knock at their door. It was a policeman. He was friendly. The policeman asked young Kohn if her father was home. She answered no, and he responded: “Good. Keep it that way.”
“That meant absolutely nothing to me until I mentioned it to my mother,” she said. Because they were Jews from Russia — which had committed its own violence against Jews before Germany — her mother was adept at reading between the lines. “My father didn’t come home.”
German-Jews, she said, were not quite as circumspect.
“Many of them were devoted to German culture,” she said. “They were Germans first. The fact they were then (suddenly) seen as the enemy — the Jew — was a very different thing. Many of them had fought in the first World War on the side of Germany.”
Wittenstein in high school refused teachers’ orders to terminate an off-campus club he organized for intellectuals opposed to Nazis. His later involvement with resistance groups such as “The White Rose” and “The Freedom Action Bavaria” landed him on a ship full of Jews bound for the United States in 1939.
“I was shipped to the U.S. as a dissident,” he said. “It was probably the worst traumatic experience of my life.”
The Jewish people aboard, he said, were relieved to be on the ship.
“They had paid a special tax for the privilege of leaving,” he said, wryly.
But while in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, word came that the war had started.
The ship turned around.
“You can imagine the atmosphere in that ship,” he said. “The depression that hit everyone on that boat.”
His most painful memory of the trip was of seeing two young children whose parents had saved money to send them to the United States to keep them out of harm’s way. When the ship came ashore back in Europe, they had no money, and thus no way to pay for a train ride home.
Wittenstein, who had taken a car aboard the ship, drove them to their home, several hours away.
“We rang the doorbell, the door opened, and the parents saw me with the children — they didn’t know what was going on,” he said. When he told them what had happened, they thanked him mournfully.
“To this day I have not been able to find out whether they were able to survive,” he said.