b. Constance, Germany, 1925
My father was shaving when they came for him.
“Can I finish shaving?” he asked.
“Wipe it off and get moving, ” they growled.
It was November 10, 1938, the day after Kristallnacht, the Night of the Broken Glass. They had blown up the synagogue early that morning, our beautiful synagogue where I had celebrated my bar mitzvah just six months before. We had heard of many other Jewish men in Constance having been arrested by the Gestapo before they came to us. Now, my father was gone.
The two Gestapo agents took him to their car, drove a few blocks and stopped in front of a tobacco store. They ordered him to stay in the car while both agents went into the store to buy cigarettes. This was very irregular behavior, especially since the Swiss border was only a fifteen-minute walk from there. Either the agents wanted my father to escape into Switzerland, or they wanted him to make a run for it, giving them, or hidden accomplices, justification to shoot their prisoner “while trying to escape.” My father also considered the possibility that the border might be heavily guarded on this particular day and of the likelihood of punitive action against the family if his escape were to succeed. All these thoughts went through his mind. Only thoughts. No facts. He decided to sit still. After a few minutes, the agents returned and drove him to headquarters without any further conversation.
Most of the thirty thousand Jewish men imprisoned in camps on that day were released again one to six months after their arrest. But many, especially the old and the sick, did not survive the ordeal. My uncle in Stuttgart was neither old nor sick when he was sent to Dachau. After two months, my aunt received an official government letter informing her that if she would send one hundred marks to a specified address, the government would send her the ashes of her late husband.
One evening, at the end of December, there was a soft knock on our door. It was Papa! He had been released from Dachau concentration camp. He was very sick, had lost a lot of weight, was barely able to walk. With rest, he did recover during the following weeks.
Did my father make the right choice while waiting in the Gestapo car? Today, looking back, we have tons of wisdom about what should have been done. But at the time, we had to make life-or-death decisions without the slightest idea of what our options were. We guessed. Then we lived or died.