Huffpost Religion
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Rev. Susan Baller-Shepard Headshot

75 Years After Kristallnacht: The Story of One Family

Posted: Updated:

Kristallnacht November 9-10, 1938

This week marks the 75th anniversary of the atrocities of Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass. Seventy-five years have gone by and countless stories have been lost about those two days, and that horrific season. Stories have been lost: stories about the Night of Broken Glass, stories about the lives of those who died, and stories about those who survived but chose not to speak of it. Here's one story, that has not been lost. This is the story of two families, united in marriage, a Jewish family and a Catholic family. It's the story of Ernst and Ilse, but it's also Peter's story.

Peter grew up in World War II Germany. His father, Ernst O. Hesse, was Jewish, and survived and was not deported during the war because he spent it hiding in the woods in Germany. Peter remembers bombs landing in Dusseldorf. He remembers watching one of the Allies' airplanes crashing down into the Rhine river, where it still rests today. Peter remembers as a child during the war playing with explosive devices, not realizing how dangerous they were. He remembers the horrors of war, and the chaos. Peter has compassion for people in countries where disorder is the order of the day. Peter is my friend, a heroic human being who has spent the latter part of his life working to promote early childhood education and train teachers throughout Haiti and the Ivory Coast.

Here's the story about Peter's family on Kristallnacht, in his words:

In 1932, my grandfather Dr. Julius Hesse, a member of the important Industrie Club in Dusseldorf heard Adolf Hitler speak. Julius realized that Germany was traveling in a bad and dangerous direction. He immediately started preparations for his son, my father Ernst, to move to the U.S. to start a 50:50 venture with our family company's U.S. importer, the Grumbacher family (a paper-wholesale company), to produce "Schmincke" fine artist's colors in the U.S. In 1933, my father moved to New York, along with one top technician from the Schmincke Company in Germany. My mother, Ilse Renard, celebrated her engagement to my father by long distance telephone call, and followed him to New York to marry him there in 1934.

In March of 1937, my grandfather Julius Hesse died. I was born a month later. My Jewish grandmother Gertrud Hesse was now the sole owner of our Schmincke Company and obviously not comfortable under Nazi rule in Germany. Therefore, my father decided to come back to Dusseldorf by steamer when I become old enough to travel, in the summer of 1937.

Meanwhile, the conservative German Centre Party "Zentrum," or Catholic Centre Party, was chaired locally by my maternal grandfather Walther Renard. His family had fled one of the earlier revolutions in France, which produced a great dislike for France in his family, and therefore he joined the nationalist (conservative) "Zentrum," without being a Nazi believer or sympathizer. All of "Zentrum," was being integrated into the Nazi movement in 1933. My grandfather Renard accepted this, he believed in Hitler and became "Blockwart," or Block Warden, the lowest Nazi-function in the party. Block Wardens were responsible for the political supervision of a neighborhood or city block, establishing a link between the Nazi party and the general population, and they wore brown Nazi uniforms, designating their lowest of rankings.

On the infamous "Kristallnacht," my grandfather Renard, was informed of what was going on, he knew the stakes. He put on his brown uniform and simply stood in front of my Jewish grandmother Gertrud's house, a nice villa in a "good" part of Dusseldorf. The Sturmabteilung (SA) paramilitary Nazi hordes had, of course, also targeted this house, my grandmother Gertrud's, and appeared there while my grandfather Renard was watching.

Authorized by his Block Warden status, in his formal brown uniform, grandfather Renard sent the SA hordes away, saying, "Not here. Not here."

By standing there that night, in front of grandmother Gertrud's house, he saved the villa with its valuable collection of antiques, collected in the prosperous years between World War I and World War II. He saved the house. He saved Gertrud's life.

Two years later, as a widow, Gertrud found a respectable Swiss gentleman with the help of the Swiss consulate. She married the man, and she made her way to Switzerland in the very last moment in 1940. She was only allowed to carry what she wore on her body. This travel out of Germany and into Switzerland however kept her alive in Geneva until the end of the war, when some monies were transferred from our former U.S. Grumbacher partners to Switzerland, with the help of a Swiss lawyer, to keep my grandmother Gertrud alive there.

Peter says, "This, dear Susan, is the story, you wanted to know, written as I remember and as I learned later, when I became old enough to learn the whole story. It was much later when I woke up to the need to do my share in this world to never ever bring back what created such misery for parts of humanity."

Correction: I made a mistake, Gertrud was Jewish, but Dr. Julius Hesse was not Jewish, which mattered in that era in terms of those who were deported.