Discovering My Mother Experienced Kristallnacht
Despite being fortunate enough to escape Germany, my mother did not escape unscathed.
As a child, I knew that my father was a Holocaust survivor and that my mother was a refugee who escaped Germany before the war. To me, and to others, my mother was not included in the group of people who suffered during the Holocaust. She was fortunate. Or so I thought until I discovered a different version of my mother’s life story.
My mother, Bella, was one of two children in the Alperowitz family. Her father, Hugo, was the town’s shochet (slaughterer), teacher, and chazzan. Her mother Ida was born in Basel Switzerland and was a member of the Goldschmidt family, famous for their publishing house. Hugo and Ida Alperowtiz, my grandparents, who had lived in Sulzberg, Germany, sent away their oldest child Pesach Meir, to learn in a yeshiva since the rising antisemitism during the years before Hitler ascent to power made it untenable for him to continue his studies in Germany.
I undertook a project, and my children and I produced a documentary featuring Holocaust survivors and their children. Naturally, I included my mother since she was a refugee, and well, she was my mother. During that interview, I learned the details of my mother’s personal experience on Kristallnacht for the first time.
“One of the most vivid memories of that night was the sound of the Gestapo’s boots hitting the pavement,” my mother recalled. She was only seven years old, but she says that the distinct noise made by those marching boots is a sound that continues to echo in her mind.
“We were in the living room and we heard them marching and then we heard the knocking on the door. It wasn’t just knocking; it was more like pounding on the door with their fists They came in and took out all my father’s books. He was a melamed in the town and he had a big library of books. They took them all. Then they grabbed hold of my father and took him away too.”
My mother and grandmother were up all night, worried, frightened and confused. The next day my grandmother went to the Gestapo office to try and find out where her husband was taken. The officer told her to leave the country while she still could. She was a Swiss citizen and could use her papers to get out of the country.
That’s exactly what my grandmother did but details of those events have not been recorded so we’ve had to reconstruct them from my mother’s memory. My grandmother traveled to Switzerland by train. She placed my mother in a “children’s home” in Siwtzerland. When I asked my mother to explain what a children’s home is, all she could say is that it was a place for children like her to live because they were separated from their parents. My mother didn’t understand why she was there, how long she would stay or where her parents were.
In the meantime, my grandmother returned to Germany hoping to find her husband, who she later learned had been deported to Dachau. She appealed to the Swiss consulate for assistance. Miraculously, their intervention was successful and after six weeks my grandfather was released. His hair, once brown, had turned completely white.
My grandparents escaped Germany and went back to Switzerland to collect my mother from the children’s home. They made arrangements to travel to Palestine and sent for Pesach Meir as well. They settled in Palestine where they lived on a chicken farm in Beit Yitzchok. My grandfather continued practicing shechita. To incentivize customers to buy his chickens, my grandfather offered a free service - the chicken came pre-plucked, this was indeed a huge incentive because plucking feathers off chicken is a most unpleasant task. Ask my mother, she’ll tell you all about it because she was the one who was assigned to it!
The details of the account I’ve relayed here are sparse. I wish I knew more about how my grandmother had the courage to return to Germany, how my she and the Swiss consulate succeeded in freeing my grandfather, what my grandfather reported about Dachau, how they decided to operate a chicken farm in poverty-stricken Palestine, and most of all I’d like to know about the children’s home in Switzerland. Six weeks for a seven-year-old is interminably long, especially because she had no idea if and when she'd be reunited with her parents. The trauma of being invaded by the Gestapo, seeing her home ransacked, her father arrested, being taken to a foreign country and left there, seemingly abandoned by her mother, was a hellish experience.
When we reflect on the Holocaust; the barbaric treatment and murder of six million, the atrocities endured by the survivors, we exclude people like my mother - the fortunate ones that found safety through escape. The events that my mother and other refugee escapees endured received little attention.
Despite being fortunate enough to escape Germany, they did not escape unscathed. My realization that their victimhood dramatically affected their lives physically and emotionally was long in coming. They have earned the right to stand in the limelight with concentration camp survivors like my father, a line that stretches far longer than the six million.
Perhaps I am reflecting on the injustice I have perpetrated in not having recognized my own mother’s trauma response to the events in her early life. Children are unable to view their parents in a realistic manner. Parents are idealized, they are larger than life. The experience of being raised by a traumatized parent can itself be traumatizing.
Today, with all my years of training in psychotherapy, my experience working with traumatized patients, my knowledge of current research and most recently, my involvement with a second generation group, I have come to a fuller understanding of my mother. Although I see her frozen in time as a frightened seven-year-old girl, I also see her courage and grit, her will to live and survive the multiple traumas she has endured throughout her life. But most of all, I see my own ability to acknowledge and forgive.