Sunday, November 10, 2013

A Remembrance

November 9, 1938. Kristallnacht. The Night of Broken Glass. It was more than five years after the first official boycott of Jewish shops and businesses in Germany. Treatment of God's people had been growing steadily worse, but this date went down in infamy as the worst organized pogrom since Adolf Hitler came to power. Jewish businesses, synagogues and houses were burned and looted. Men and women were dragged out of their homes and beaten before being carted away to concentration camps. 

And all this in the name of justice, sanctioned by the government, because a man of Jewish descent had assassinated a German official. Chief of the Reich Main Security Office, Reinhard Heydrich sent a telegram to state police across the country instructing them to not interfere with the planned demonstrations and destruction. 

He even went to far as to say, "As soon as the course of events during the night permits the release of the officials required, as many Jews in all districts--especially the rich--as can be accommodated in existing prisons are to be arrested. For the time being only healthy male Jews, who are not too old, are to be detained. After the detentions have been carried out the appropriate concentration camps are to be contacted immediately for the prompt accommodation of the Jews in the camps."* 

Kristallnacht is just one of many examples of the Nazis' disregard for human life and their hatred of the Jewish people. But this time every year, I stop to think about the people whose lives were forever changed that day. Who may have never seen their homes--or their families--again after that night. Who might have not made it through the war.

Several years ago I wrote this small vignette, imagining I was a resident of Berlin, walking the streets on November 10, the morning after Kristallnacht. It is dedicated to those who were never able to pick up the pieces that the Nazis forced them to leave behind.

* * *

Glass doesn’t melt like ice. I remember walking these streets on January mornings when I was young, the cobbles iced over, sun hitting them slantwise as it yawned and stretched above the horizon, casting light between the crowded buildings. I always ran faster than I should have and fell more times than I remember, but I loved to hear the ice and wet snow under my feet. Squish, crunch, slip, smack, laughter, red cheeks, and a wet bottom. By spring it would be gone. We’d run madcap over the streets, ice and wet bottoms a mere memory, a vague one.

There is nothing vague about glass. The sun hits it slantwise this morning, scattering rainbows across the cobbles, as if an ice sculptor had gone mad last night and smashed his work all over the city. The glass doesn’t melt beneath my feet, nor do I slip. There were others who went mad last night, and they weren’t ice sculptors. In front of one house the lawn is almost white, because the glass is so thick. I walk up the front steps, tripping and falling over bricks scattered in the way. No laughter this time. The windows don’t have panes anymore. Like hollow eyes wide with horror they stare at the white lawn, at what they have lost, unable to recover it. The door is still swinging on its hinge. Maybe the people who lived here were hospitable, doors always open for friends and visitors, anyone who needed a smile. There were other visitors here last night, and they wouldn’t allow their hosts close that door one last time. The wind picks up and plays blind man’s bluff with the curtains, fingering every tear and charred edge, winding under upturned chairs, searching for any sign of life. I am searching, too.

The house smoldered all night, but the wind has blown most of the smoke away. Ashes cover everything like snow, a shroud as pure as a frosty breath on a January morning, and as painful. My chest constricts. The wind stirs again, catching the corner of a curtain and snagging it on the broken window. One tenant still remains, curled beneath the window, unaware that her cover has been removed. Her whiskers are singed, but her striped chin is pressed to the ground in that sly smile cats have when they are about to catch a mouse. I stroke her wooden back and turn away.

The wind has also shifted the ashes on the table. It is the one piece of furniture still standing. Underneath its shroud is a meal partially-eaten. The cups are mostly intact and the bowls are still full of soup, thick and white now. Only the candlesticks are broken, snapped in half with the decorations pulled off and strewn among the ashes. These decorations stare up from the snow, two triangles intersecting. Copper stars in a white sky. On the wall above there is another intersection, two lines meeting at insolent angles--black on brick like gangrene. I will leave before long; even now there is still too much smoke.

When I think of my childhood it is like looking through a frosty window--shadows, voices, impressions. I am always trying to see something that never becomes fully visible. Memories slip from my mind like an icicle in a hand warmed by running through the streets. But memories of today cannot slip away. Images of horror-stricken windows and a lonely wind that had only curtains to play with, are a part of who I am now: crystallized forever. The cold and silence of the November morning swallow me whole, and I wonder if it will ever be warm again. 


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