NEW YORK (Oct. 8)
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.”