Kristallnacht 75th anniversary: Jewish lives changed forever by Night of the Broken Glass

Otto Deutsch at the site where his parents and sister were killed

Otto Deutsch at the site where his parents and sister were killed - Credit: Archant

A couple who experienced first-hand the destruction, intimidation and violence during Kristallnacht 75 years ago give extraordinary accounts of their memories of the night which would change their lives forever.

Bob and Ann Kirk were both aware of the escalating tensions in Germany which led up to the Jewish pogrom the Nazi’s named Kristallnacht.

They may have been young - just 13 and 10 respectively - and living almost 200 miles apart, but there was no ignoring the drop in living standards, nor the grown-ups worried whispers, and the constant talk of emigrating.

As Bob recalls, the Nazis were looking for an excuse

That excuse would come in the form of 17-year-old Herschel Grynszpan, who - angered by his parents deportation from Germany - shot the Third Secretary in the German embassy in Paris Ernst von Rath on November 7. He died two days later.

“They were just waiting for a situation to arise,” said Bob. “This was a beautiful excuse for what happened on Kristallnacht.”

For Ann - an only child living in Berlin - the first she knew anything was wrong was when she awoke in the middle of the night on the ninth, to find the adults awake.

Most Read

“My parents and the cousins [whose home it was] were rushing around in their night clothes, very upset and agitated, telling me to go back to sleep. But obviously I couldn’t.

“When I woke up in the morning, my parents told me that we wouldn’t be staying with the cousins that night, and they packed an overnight bag. I wondered what it was all about.

“We crossed the courtyard where people were standing around weeping, and into the street, and there I saw masses of glass, all the shop windows around had been smashed, glass just everywhere, graffiti everywhere. Jews, including Mum’s cousin, were being made to sweep up the glass, board up the windows. Youths just standing around jeering, police doing just nothing.

“My dad said we would be moving around all day. We moved constantly: on the tubes, on the buses, just walking.

“When we wanted food, I had bright red hair, and I didn’t look Jewish, so I was sent into a sandwich bar for food.

“During my walks, I saw very many synagogues up in flames, the sacred Torah scrolls just thrown in the streets, being trampled on, prayer books being vandalised. I remember seeing a man with his books burning around him in a cart.

“When I asked dad why we were moving around everywhere, he told me that during the night, many men had been ‘taken’ - arrested. He was hoping he would avoid arrest by never stopping still.”

That night, the family headed to her mother’s best friend’s flat, which had been empty since she emigrated. It just so happened to be above a police station.

“Dad felt the Gestapo would never look for him above a police station,” Ann said.

“We stayed in that flat for well over a week, never putting on the lights, tiptoeing around in bare feet, being as quiet as possible.”

Once Ann’s father felt it was safe enough, the family left the flat and found their own.

In Hanover, Bob’s experience was quite different. He did not know about the events of the night before until he got to school that morning.

“Apart from the fact my dad wasn’t home, I didn’t know there was anything amiss,” he said. “I was met by the one teacher who was normally quite kind - all teachers had to be in the party, they had to toe the party line.

“He wanted to know what I was doing there. I thought this was a surprising question. He proceeded to explain that our synagogue had been set alight in the night, that people had been arrested, and he recommended that I would go home and should not think of coming back to that school.

“My dad had a textile business, not too far away, in a commercial building not at ground level - if it had been, it would have been vandalised. He had been hiding there all night. I didn’t know that. I went to see him because I thought he would be at the office.

“We shut up shop, we went into the old city to find out what had happened. We got as close to the synagogue as we could - we could see smoke rising. By that time, I imagine, the flames had died down somewhat.

“We got out of there rather quickly. It would have been unhealthy to stay.

“As you went through the town you saw vandalised businesses, homes, community institutions like our school, trashed. And this is just what I saw - I know a lot more happened.”

Kristallnacht was a turning point for Bob and Ann: it was the event which forced the British government to hold a debate in Parliament during which they passed a bill to allow 10,000 Jewish children to be allowed temporary, refugee status in Britain.

It was the reason why they were able to leave Germany, escaping the Holocaust which would take the lives of the parents they were forced to leave behind.

It is the reason they met, in 1948 at a club for young refugees, just after Bob let his job in the army, and the reason they were able to go on and have two children.

And it is the reason why Ann will be at Westminster Abbey this Sunday, lighting a candle alongside her grandson at a service of remembrance and hope to mark the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht.

+ Bob and Ann Kirk will also be speaking at The Liberal Jewish Synagogue, in St. John’s Wood Road, St John’s Wood, during its special Service of Remembrance and Commemoration on Saturday at 6.30pm.