Survivors Returning Home 60 Years After Kristallnacht

Next week, the newly built synagogue in Mannheim is scheduled to receive four visitors from America.

But Karl Richter, Erwin Hirsch, Ernest Michel and Rudi Appel are no strangers to this western German city.

The four were, respectively, the former rabbi of Mannheim’s main synagogue, the cantor there, a former congregant and the last youth to celebrate a Bar Mitzvah there before Jewish public life in Germany was brought to a harrowing end on the night of Nov. 9-10, 1938 — Kristallnacht.

This year marks the 60th anniversary of that Nazi pogrom, known as the “Night of Broken Glass,” when 30,000 German Jews and 8,000 Austrian Jews were arrested and sent to concentration camps, when an estimated 1,400 synagogues were demolished and burned, including the one in Mannheim, and when Jewish homes and stores were vandalized and looted, their windows shattered.

“It was really the physical end of the German Jewish community,” Michel said to a group of American and German reporters gathered this week at the New York office of the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, which is working to revitalize Jewish life in Central and Eastern Europe. At the news conference, plans were announced for two upcoming ceremonies — Nov. 8 in New York and Nov. 9 at the Mannheim synagogue — to commemorate one of the fatal turning points in the history of Europe’s Jews.

The four former Mannheim residents, living witnesses to the horrific events of Kristallnacht, will come together to pay tribute to the their hometown’s once- thriving Jewish community of 6,000 and to celebrate its rebirth.

Today Mannheim boasts a growing Jewish population of 800 people, part of a German Jewish population of more than 70,000, many of whom immigrated from the former Soviet Union.

The new Mannheim shul, which was funded in part by the German government, stands one block from the site where the imposing Hauptsynagogue was erected in 1853.

Michel, who was a teen-ager at the time, survived six years in concentration camps before coming to America as a displaced person in 1946.

“We could not have believed this would happen,” Michel said, his blue eyes sparkling. “To be able to go back to the same town, to have a service in the synagogue. The only way to describe it is, it’s a miracle.”

A former director of New York’s United Jewish Appeal-Federation, Michel worked with Ronald Lauder, president of the foundation that bears his name, on a 1988 ceremony in New York to mark the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht. That event led him to the three other men.

But with each passing decade, opportunities fade for the men to tell about Europe’s vibrant prewar Jewish life and to recount their personal tales of survival.

“Undoubtedly this is the last time that four men who were alive in Germany from the same town will get together” said Michel, who is 75.

In a lingering German accent, Hirsch recalled with obvious pride and emotion the grandeur and beauty of the Hauptsynagogue, which he joined as cantor in 1937.

Hirsch said he could make no promises about attending a 70th anniversary reunion, but his wife, Marta, sitting at the back of the room in a bright red blazer, nodded an emphatic “yes” to the question as the cantor spoke.

After the briefing, Appel — who at 13 had fled Mannheim and eventually reached his brother in the United States — embraced Hirsch and said, smiling, “People from Mannheim are tough guys.”

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