NEW YORK, Oct. 8 (JTA) Until last month there was always one seminal date in Fred Gompertz’s memory: November 9.
On that day in 1938, Gompertz, then 14, woke in the middle of the night to “a tremendous explosion of glass.”
While he hid upstairs in his family’s apartment in the German town of Gelsenkirchen, Nazi thugs vandalized and ransacked his father’s clothing store below.
“We were scared to look out the window,” he says, “scared to be seen.”
Kristallnacht the “Night of Broken Glass” heralded the end of Gompertz’s life in Germany. While his family was fortunate enough to escape to the United States and build new lives here Gompertz became a globe- trotting fur designer he never forgot the fear, the broken glass and the pain of being uprooted from his home.
Almost 63 years later, Gompertz has again been uprooted from his home, a 34th-story apartment in Battery Park City, an upscale, meticulously landscaped development overlooking New York Harbor and just yards away from the World Trade Center.
For now, the events of Sept. 11 which came as Gompertz was sitting at his kitchen table, reading the newspaper remain a whirl of disconnected, nightmarish fragments.
A phone call, in which a friend in Connecticut suggested he come stay with him for a while. Peering out the window and seeing a swarm of people on the esplanade outside, some running, some with faces turned upward in horror. Flames coming out of the World Trade Center’s twin towers.
Reports on television about a terrorist attack. Then everything going dark the window covered in a cloud of black soot, the television going dead, all electricity stopping.
“There was nothing to see,” he recalled. “Just black.”
Gompertz remained in his apartment for almost two days, until his son who first was told that Gompertz had been evacuated to a New Jersey shelter came in to rescue him.
He is not sure what happened in those two days or why he stayed put. He recalls passing out at one point and falling asleep “to escape.”
Unable to get up, he kept thinking about what he’d been told in kindergarten in Germany: If something unusual happens, just stay where you are so your parents will know where to find you.
He remembers listening to a portable, battery-operated radio and hearing that Battery Park City had been evacuated. He peered into the hall, but it was dark and eerily quiet, and he “didn’t dare” venture down the more than 30 flights of stairs in the dark.
The experience “brings me back to November 9,” Gompertz says several weeks later in an interview with JTA at the Tribeca hotel where he is staying temporarily.
He darts back and forth across the years, from Nov. 9 to Sept. 11, stopping at one point to talk about a recent visit to his hometown at the German government’s invitation.
Suddenly he is back in the present, noting how his son recently got close to the ruins of the World Financial Center’s Winter Garden, a huge glass atrium that until Sept. 11 was filled with palm trees and a bustling shopping center.
“It was all flattened,” he said. “It’s just horrible to believe.”
Impeccably dressed in a stylish wool jacket and matching black pants, Gompertz looks at least a decade younger than his 77 years. But he still is feeling disoriented, tired and unable to concentrate, overwhelmed by even minor decisions.
Kristallnacht “was a totally different experience but maybe it prepared me for such a shock,” Gompertz says, his English still bearing traces of a German accent.
“I was more hurt than angry then,” he says. “When you’re small, you see it differently. You’re not totally conscious of what’s going on.”
Now, he says, his main emotion is anger at “these stupid idiot bastard terrorists.”
“They destroyed my neighborhood,” he says. “It was the best place to live in Manhattan. Now, even if they rebuild it, it will never be the same.”
SEPT. 11 POSES SPECIAL TRAUMA FOR SHOAH SURVIVORS
For Fred Gompertz, the devastating Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center just yards away from his apartment building brought back memories of hiding upstairs on Nov. 9, 1938, while Nazi thugs destroyed his father’s clothing store on Kristallnacht.
That may explain why, as most people were evacuating their buildings and trying to escape the disaster area, the 77-year-old retired fashion designer froze instead, sitting alone in his dark apartment for two days until his son was able to rescue him.
Gompertz’s proximity to the World Trade Center attacks was unusual. There appear to be no other known cases of survivors of Nazi persecution who were directly caught up in the Sept. 11 events.
Yet even for other Holocaust survivors, the shock and trauma of the massive terror attacks in the United States a place they viewed as uniquely safe are reawakening long-dormant childhood memories and emotions.
“When there is a repetition of an experience of annihilation, for Holocaust survivors it brings back all their terrible nightmares of what they’d experienced,” said Eva Fogelman, a psychologist whose practice includes Holocaust survivors and children of survivors.
“It brings back their vulnerability,” Fogelman said. “It brings back the fact that there is no secure place on this planet, so it creates a lot of anxiety and tremendous fears that make it difficult to have restful sleep.”
With the massive death toll in which bodies cannot be located and the acrid smoke permeating the air for days, the Sept. 11 attacks have special resonance for Holocaust survivors. Fogelman calls it “deja vu of the world they’d thought they’d left behind.”
Herself the child of survivors, Fogelman is an advisor for The Hidden Child Foundation, a 6,000-member group of Jews who escaped the concentration camps by hiding from the Nazis.
Fogelman and the foundation recently distributed a letter to members, noting that “our underlying physical, mental and emotional tolerances for stress may be different from those who did not have early traumatic histories” and that the recent events “probably have caused us to feel powerless, shocked and numb.”
Other likely feelings, according to the letter, are “rage, depression and overwhelming anxiety.”
Fogelman advises survivors to avoid watching television for too long at one stretch and to try to rest, eat and drink regularly.
Not all survivors are reporting special problems, and several Jewish agencies say they’ve been surprised by the level of resilience among this population.
“This is a very independent and very brave group who don’t ask for help easily,” said Karen Wies, a spokeswoman for Selfhelp Community Services, Inc., which provides home care, housing and community-based social services to over 2,000 survivors of Nazi persecution.
Elihu Kover, Selfhelp’s vice president for social services, said his group is hearing contradictory things from clients. Some are feeling anxious and afraid to leave their homes. Others seem relatively unaffected or say the Sept. 11 attacks which occurred during just one terrible day are not as bad as the Holocaust, a persecution that continued over a period of years.
Survivors are experiencing the same “range of emotions as in the general public, but with this one really big piece firsthand experience of trauma directed against them as Jews, as a target population,” Kover said.
David Stern, of New York’s Jewish Association for Services for the Aged, said, “at this point, very few Holocaust survivors are openly expressing fears or concerns,” although there have been a few cases of people “whose memories of the past have been reawakened by the events.
“I think we’ll begin to see among Holocaust survivors some reawakened fears, but we’re not seeing it yet,” he said, noting that the Jewish holidays and the family gatherings that come with it may be postponing the trauma.
Ann Shore heard her father being shot by the Nazis in 1942, and she survived the Holocaust with her mother and sister by hiding for three years in a hayloft and scavenging for food at night.
Shore, who is the president of the Hidden Child Foundation, said survivors are reacting differently to the Sept. 11 attacks.
“Our great concern is not as much for ourselves any longer but for our children and grandchildren. It reminds us of the disaster that was, and it’s pretty frightening,” she said. “I’m in a feeling of weeping and crying. It brought up all this pain that had festered.”
However, Selfhelp’s Kover suggested that survivors may also be able to help the rest of Americans as they struggle to get on with their lives after Sept. 11.
An acquaintance recently told Kover that she had told her mother, a Holocaust survivor, that she did not know how to comfort members of her synagogue who had lost family and friends in the attacks.
The mother reportedly urged her to “get everyone together and build a sukkah.”
“Just the act of building will help you,” the mother said. “That’s what we did. We came here and we rebuilt. You find ways to heal yourself.”