Kristallnacht: A Survivor's Tale
On the 75th anniversary of the "Night of Broken Glass," survivor Oscar Berendsohn reflects.
The 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, also known as the “Night of Broken Glass,” which served as a violent prelude to the Holocaust in Nazi Germany, will be observed Nov. 9, but for Oscar Berendsohn its horror has not faded with time.
“It was the most horrible night of my life. You cannot imagine the terror,” says the 89-year-old Newtown resident, who was a teenager in Hamburg, at the time. “There was no judge and no policeman who would help you.”
Yet Berendsohn, who is of Jewish descent on his father’s side, would escape the clutches of the Third Reich and live a life that seems dreamed up by a Hollywood screenwriter. He arrived in the U.S. during World War II on a banana boat and later would work on national security projects so sensitive that they would be classified for more than 40 years.
Living in Connecticut with his wife and children was a world apart from the hatred and racism he escaped after Kristallnacht.
The evening of Nov. 9, 1938, began as an ordinary evening for Berendsohn and his family in their apartment just outside Hamburg’s business district. “Suddenly I heard this breaking of glass; it must have been a big store window,” recalls Berendsohn, who was 14 then. “I thought it was an accident, so I ran outside and went to the street corner.”
There Berendsohn saw an angry mob violently looting and destroying the property of a shop owned by a Jewish man. He witnessed the man crying for help and enduring physical abuse, but the police were turning a blind eye toward violence against Jews, especially that night.
Since Adolph Hitler’s election in 1933, Nazi anti-Semitism had grown increasingly brazen in Germany. While many Jews immigrated in the face of this discrimination, others refused to be driven out of their homeland.
“A lot of Jews considered themselves Germans and so did we, so we were very reluctant to move. We were always hoping that the Nazis would lose power,” Berendsohn says, explaining his family’s roots in Hamburg went back to the 1700s.
Kristallnacht was a statewide and state-sponsored series of pogroms aimed at Jews and their property. The pretext for it was the Nov. 7 shooting in Paris of the German diplomat Ernst vom Rath by Herschel Grynszpan, a Polish-Jewish student who was protesting the Nazi treatment of Jews. By the time the violence of Kristallnacht died down more than 24 hours later, thousands of synagogues and Jewish businesses had been burned or vandalized, at least 91 were dead and 30,000 Jewish men had been arrested.
Berendsohn’s father was almost among those arrested. Later that night, plain-clothed Gestapo officers entered his family’s apartment. His father was interrogated and robbed, but allowed to go free because he promised to leave the country as soon as possible.
That would not turn out to be easy. The family tried desperately to leave Germany, first attempting to get visas to the U.S.; they were denied. They then could have gone to neighboring countries like France or Belgium, but Berendsohn’s father said he “wanted the ocean between him and Hitler.” That proved a wise sentiment, as many of those Berendsohn knew who fled to surrounding countries ultimately perished in the Holocaust.
Eventually Berendsohn’s father was able to bribe officials at the Honduras consulate for visas and moved the family to Honduras, where they lived in impoverished conditions, selling off precious possessions to survive. After the outbreak of World War II, the family was able to obtain visas to the U.S.
The Berendsohns immigrated to New York City on a United Fruit Co. banana boat. Though they had made it to America, the psychological scars of Nazi hatred remained. “The worst part was the demoralizing effect it had on you,” Berendsohn says. “You had been called a skunk, a lazy pig of a person, for so long that it sank in and you got the impression that you would never amount to anything in life. That took years and years to wear off for me.”
Yet wear off it did. Berendsohn served in the U.S. Army in the 1950s and then studied engineering at the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn (now the Polytechnic Institute of New York University). After the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957, he became fascinated with the aerospace industry.
Berendsohn went to work at Perkin-Elmer Corp. in Danbury in the 1960s. He didn’t learn until after he started that he’d been hired to work as the metallurgical engineer on a revolutionary optics system for the Hexagon spy satellite, which would emerge as one of the most important intelligence-gathering devices of the Cold War era; the project was a classified secret until 2011. He also worked on the optics of the Hubble Space Telescope.
Berendsohn’s wife, Christine, died a decade before Hexagon became declassified so he was never able to tell her about the work he did on the project. Their four sons, however, did finally learn of their father’s top-secret accomplishments.
While helping to build the Hexagon, Berendsohn worked with beryllium, a toxic compound, and now suffers from scarring of the lungs, probably caused by breathing in beryllium dust particles. Because of his experience, Berendsohn now advocates for increased protection for industrial workers.
Despite the hazards of the job, Berendsohn remains proud of the part he played in building the Hexagon. “If I could, I would gladly do it again,” he says. “The challenge we met was worth a lot to our country. We were the eyes of the free world.”