Summer Reading 2018: Rebuilding a World Shattered by Kristallnacht

NJ Spotlight | August 23, 2018 | 2018 Summer Reading
Fred Behrend and Larry Hanover chronicle Behrend’s journey from Nazi Germany to the suburban streets of Voorhees — and his undaunted drive to tell his family’s story

2018 Summer Behrend Broken Glass
The writers and editors at NJ Spotlight like to take advantage of the August slowdown to ease back on the throttle themselves and spend more time with family and friends. While we’re recharging, however, we’ll be posting an excerpt from a book or author with a New Jersey connection every day as part of our Summer Reading series. We’ll be back rested and ready on September 4. Have a great Labor Day and keep reading.

With eyewitnesses growing fewer with time, the stories of the Holocaust are critical to tell and retell. For Fred Behrend of Voorhees, it’s the story of his father’s arrest on Kristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass) by the Nazis, and the life he and his family escaped, fleeing to Cuba and then the United States and ultimately New Jersey. Co-authored by Cherry Hill writer Larry Hanover, “Rebuilt from Broken Glass” is Behrend’s memoir of that journey. It closes with the following chapter and the 91-year-old author’s drive to keep the stories alive.

Chapter 10: Looking Back

The first service call was as ordinary as could be. The second—thanks to my accent and the fragrant Cuban cigar belonging to what turned out to be one of the most distinguished gentlemen I ever met—would change my life and prove one of the key reasons I decided to write this book.

It began one day in the late 1970s with a phone call from a Mrs. Moyers. She said I came highly recommended and wanted me to give a price on installing air conditioning in her new apartment on Central Park West. So I came over and took a look at the apartment, which had no furniture and bare walls, and told her I would get back to her. But she wanted a favor. While she was not worried about getting a fair price, she said she would appreciate it if I would look at the apartment again when her husband returned from an overseas business trip so he would be part of the decision. I said that wasn’t a problem and ended up coming back a couple weeks later.

When I returned, I was transfixed. There was beautiful furniture throughout the apartment. More impressively, pictures of kings and queens, as well as presidents and prime ministers, hung everywhere on the walls. Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson were just some of the world leaders gazing down at this wide-eyed air-conditioning man. And her husband was standing alongside them in the pictures.

“Where did you meet all these people?” I asked her husband in wonderment.

“I met them when I worked in the Kennedy administration and when I was press secretary for Johnson,” Bill Moyers replied.

Then I asked him where he had been on his business trip. He told me he had been in Cuba for his job as a journalist. Considering I had never heard of him, I didn’t realize he was well known and had a show on PBS called “Bill Moyers Journal.”

“Oh, now I know where you got your Cuban cigar,” I said.

“How you do know it’s a Cuban cigar?” he asked.

“Well, before I came to the United States, I lived for over a year in Cuba, and I know what a Cuban cigar looks like and what it smells like. Aside from the fact that I smoke myself.”
Well, that statement caught his attention. Now he asked for the whole story of where I came from and how I got to the United States, because he knew for sure my accent was not Cuban.

“That’s a long story!” I told Moyers. “And I have other customers.”

“That’s OK, just tell me the short version,” he said.

I kept protesting, but he refused to take no for an answer. So I told him about being born in Germany. I told him about Kristallnacht, of my father’s detention in Sachsenhausen, and how my mother secured his release by proving we would leave Germany as soon as possible. When that wasn’t enough to satisfy him, I told him how we escaped to Cuba with my Uncle Otto’s help, how I had my bar mitzvah there, and how we came to the United States after nearly a year and a half of waiting for our quota number to be called. The conversation must have lasted at least 15 to 20 minutes.

When I finished, he said, “You must be very grateful to this country for allowing you entry.”
That statement took me by surprise. I suppose it is a reasonable assumption that many people would make, but that is never the view I took.

“Mr. Moyers, the United States should be the one that’s grateful,” I said. “It should be grateful that it was the choice of the cream of European intelligentsia. The doctors, scientists, writers, and artists who adopted this country made it what it is today. Our achievements in the fields of health, space, and literature would not have been possible were it not for those that made this country their home.”

This time, Moyers was the one caught off guard. But after a moment to absorb what I had just said, I could see from his face that he was formulating an idea in his mind. When he told me what it was, I was floored.

“Let me ask you something,” he said. “Would you allow me to interview you on a program I have on television?”

I was flattered, but it didn’t take long for me to say “no.” “My opinions may not be the same that my customers would like to hear,” I said. “If when I retire you’re still interested, I’d be more than happy to.”

He reluctantly accepted my answer and, no, he never kept track to see when I retired. I won’t hold it against him, though. I think he’s been busy.

I filed that conversation away for perhaps 25 years. But you never know what happens once a seed is planted. In 2003, I started speaking at my synagogue in Scarsdale, New York. Considering you’ve read this far, you’ve probably already figured out what happened next. Once I started talking, I couldn’t shut up. I haven’t since. I enjoy speaking to both young people and adults, and I enjoy the conversations that result. I’ve spoken in front of public schools, Jewish groups, and practically anyone else who wants to hear my tale, including the governor of New Jersey. I feel compelled to ensure the world never forgets about the Holocaust, and I feel it is important to share my perspective because, as Moyers discovered, it varies so much from other people of my generation. Ultimately, that desire contributed to me writing this book.

If I was busy in retirement in Yonkers, I was busier upon moving to be near my children in Voorhees, New Jersey. My activity accelerated in 2008 while spending a few free moments at what is now called the Esther Raab Holocaust Museum and Goodwin Education Center, located inside the Jewish Community Center (JCC) in neighboring Cherry Hill. A female JCC staff member was talking to a group of children about the museum’s various artifacts, including the yellow star that Jews were forced to wear on their clothes. She sensed I had more than a passing interest and said, “I think there’s somebody here who might have a better explanation of this.” Once I explained my history to her, she sent me to the office of the person who oversees educational programs for the museum. Soon enough, I had agreed to speak about the Holocaust to schools throughout South Jersey.

That fall, the head of the Jewish Federation of South Jersey asked if I would like to go to the State House in Trenton to speak at a statewide event hosted by then-governor Jon Corzine, commemorating the seventieth anniversary of Kristallnacht. I gave them my firsthand account of the burning synagogues in Cologne and told them of my father’s arrest in Lüdenscheid and detention in Sachsenhausen. More than 200 individuals, including Holocaust survivors, attended that event. “Hatred is a learned behavior,” I told the gathering. “Don’t be a follower of bigotry. Be a leader against it. Until hatred and bigotry no longer exist in this world, the meaning of the words “never again” can never be realized.”

We live in a chaotic world. Even the worst crime in the history of humanity, the Holocaust, has not cured the world of its ills. Genocides still occur. They have happened in the Sudan. They have happened in Rwanda. Anyone could wonder what kind of God would let this happen, and I don’t have an answer. What I do know is everybody has to believe in something. I don’t care if you believe in Allah. I don’t care if you believe in Jesus Christ. I don’t care if you believe in Buddha. You have to believe in something. Having something to pass down b’chol dor v’dor is what sustains us. It surely sustained my family from the Final Solution to the New World.

As so much of this book has been about Passover, I feel it appropriate to tell you one last Seder remembrance. In an entry to my father’s diary on my twentieth birthday in 1946, he wrote about Abraham’s jewel, which in talmudic tradition was worn around the patriarch’s neck to protect him upon leaving his parents’ home. This passage was something that he read during a Seder:

“Before Abraham left his parental home, God hung a jewel around his neck that possessed the strange power, to greet Abraham with love, respect and friendship where ever he wandered …
It therefore must be, that the good Lord in his infinite wisdom provided you with the same precious amulet given to Abraham to work its marvels and looking back 153 miracles for you. May he never remove this magical amulet from your neck, that you may look to a carefree, happy and blessed future.”

I do feel that my life has been truly blessed in such a manner and that this amulet will sustain us b’chol dor v’dor. In fact, one type of “amulet” survived from Germany and passed from my father, to me, and then to my children and grandchildren. It is a yad, which literally means “hand” in English and is a Jewish ritual item used for pointing to the words when reading the Torah. It was during Kristallnacht, hours before my father’s arrest and detainment in Sachsenhausen, while he wandered the streets of Lüdenscheid after the Nazis’ night of ransacking, that he found the long, silver item lying on the ground. He picked it up and placed it in his coat pocket.

Fortunately, the Gestapo did not consider the tarnished item worth confiscating. It survived and made it with our other belongings out of Europe. It was used in 1939 in Cuba at my bar mitzvah, and again when Andy and Evelyn were called to the Torah for their ceremonies. In 2014, 76 years after Kristallnacht, at our synagogue of Congregation Beth El, with tears in my eyes, I handed it to my granddaughter Marisa. The yad was in the same shape that it was when my father found it. Purposely, I have never polished it so that it looks the same as it did on that fateful day. As she read from the Holy Scriptures, I felt my father’s approving presence once more.

This excerpt of Rebuilt from Broken Glass: A German Jewish Life Remade in America (© Copyright 2017 by Fred Behrend. All rights reserved) is used with permission from the publisher, Purdue University Press. Order directly from Purdue University Press and use code PURDUE20 for a 20% discount. Also available from all online and local booksellers.

Read more from the 2018 Summer Reading Series.