A night never to forget: shattered glass, broken hearts and rebuilt lives

A night never to forget: shattered glass, broken hearts and rebuilt lives

Brandon Blache-Cohen, grandson of a Holocaust survivor, and Lauren Bairnsfather, director of the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh, stand in front of a Holocaust exhibit. (Photo by Simone Shapiro)
Brandon Blache-Cohen, grandson of a Holocaust survivor, and Lauren Bairnsfather, director of the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh, stand in front of a Holocaust exhibit. (Photo by Simone Shapiro)

Werner Cohen was a young man with a promising future. He had a good position as a chemist in a successful, Jewish-owned paint company. He was single, good looking and came from a well-to-do Jewish family that had been in Germany for over 400 years. But it was the early 1930s in Germany and Hitler had called for a boycott of Jewish businesses. As a result, Werner lost his job and was replaced with an “Aryan.” Thus began a period of wandering around Germany and across Europe doing odd jobs, trying to make ends meet. He wanted to leave Germany, but there was nowhere to go.

On the night of Nov. 9, 1938, during the German pogrom known as Kristallnacht, Werner Cohen was arrested and carted off to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. While incarcerated he endured many deprivations and humiliations such as being forced to defecate on command in front of the sadistic Nazi guards. If he didn’t “perform” fast enough, he was pushed into the stinking trench of human feces to the amusement of the German guards. But Werner Cohen was fortunate: He was a survivor.

Judy Wallach’s maternal grandfather, Jacob Oppenheim, was also taken away during Kristallnacht. Judy’s mother, Irmgard, had left Germany the year before, when she was just 20, coming to America with the hope of bringing her parents over later. But Irmgard’s father died within a few weeks of being taken to the concentration camp; Irmgard never saw her parents again, a searing pain to the end of her life.

Ruth Drescher was a German 5-year-old in Stuttgart on that “night of terror.” The next morning, the family learned that her older sister Margo’s Jewish school had been burned to the ground. (Even now, at age 90, Margo still feels the “emotional scars.”) Ruth’s mother pleaded with her husband to take the family and leave Germany, but “he would not hear of it. He loved all things German. He refused to believe that the Hitler regime would amount to anything.”

Every year all over the world, Kristallnacht commemoration events are held on the anniversary of that dreadful night. This year, the 77th anniversary, the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh, in partnership with the Senator John Heinz History Center, presented “Lessons From Kristallnacht.” Ruth Drescher spoke about her family memories of Kristallnacht, and Brandon Blache-Cohen, keynote presenter, spoke about his grandfather Werner Cohen’s life.

The theme of the evening was “Rebuilding of Lives: Post Holocaust Life, 1945-1955” and was underwritten by Edgar Snyder. Held at the Heinz History Center, the event included free admission to the History Center’s exhibit on World War II, “We Can Do It.” David Schlitt, director of the Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives, welcomed Holocaust survivors, family and friends and the community to the event. Lauren Bairnsfather, director of the Holocaust Center, introduced the speakers, Drescher and Blache-Cohen.

Drescher’s father was a decorated veteran who had fought for Germany in World War I. “His identity was more closely tied to being German than to being Jewish.” Drescher points out, “Many of the Jews of Germany felt that way, much as American Jews do today. They were highly assimilated.” Nine months after Kristallnacht, the family fled Germany. (At that time, the Nazi policy toward the Jews was to “encourage” forced emigration.)

Blache-Cohen never knew his grandfather who died before Blache-Cohen’s birth, but he became interested in him while doing a fourth grade family history assignment. As he got older, Blache-Cohen became intrigued with his grandfather’s Holocaust history, but was shocked to learn that some of his cousins did not know that their grandfather was a Holocaust survivor. “It became important to me to document this and learn about it and continue to spread the story.”

Werner Cohen was released from Sachsenhausen in February 1939 on the condition that he leave Germany. He never saw his immediate family again. He was able to flee to Shanghai, the only port that was willing to accept Jewish refugees. Cohen lived in the Jewish ghetto and made a good living as a sign painter until the Japanese invasion. In 1948, he made his way to Pittsburgh, where he married, embarked on a new career as a carpenter and raised eight children.

Werner Cohen built a new life in Pittsburgh and was not interested in returning to Germany after the war. His descendants now number in the scores and are living in Pittsburgh, New York, California and Israel.

Werner Cohen and Jacob Oppenheim were only two of the close to 30,000 Jews who were attacked, brutalized, arrested and dragged off to the Buchenwald, Dachau or Sachsenhausen concentration camps during the state-sponsored pogroms in Germany, Austria and the Sudetenland on Nov. 9 and 10, 1938. It’s called the Night of Broken Glass because shop windows were smashed, more than 900 synagogues were burned and looted, businesses were ruined, schools were vandalized, homes were destroyed, and Jews were murdered. The German police stood by and watched while the gangs of storm troopers rampaged.

Afterward, the German government ruled that the Jews were liable for the damage and fined the Jewish community and confiscated all insurance payouts. This was their pretext for removing Jews from German life: all Jewish-owned business had to be managed by non-Jews; Jewish children were banned from going to school; a decree was issued to “eliminate Jews from German economic life.”

Alex Orbach, a professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh who attended this event, pointed out: “We have to remember that the Nazis came to power through the ballot box; that everything they did from 1933 on was legal. After having stripped the Jews of any sort of power or authority or rights and rescinding citizenship,  Kristallnacht became the last stage … a physical assault against a people without documents [who had been degraded for ] five years. So we have to pay attention to political power. The Nazi revolution was a political revolution through the system.”

Though the Cohen family had lived in Germany for hundreds of years, their citizenship, like the other Jews of Germany, was revoked in 1935 by the Nuremberg racial laws. But beginning in May 1949, German law gave Jews who fled Nazi Germany, and all their descendants, the right to German citizenship.

Blache-Cohen has chosen to reclaim his German citizenship. He explains that “part of both remembering and owning this history, and also a part of moving on, was acquiring this [German] citizenship.” His oldest daughter’s citizenship application is now pending. “This is now a distinction that, as far back as we can go — to the beginning of Germany as a state — every generation in our family has attained.”

Blache-Cohen has made it his life’s quest to research documents, validate family tales and “learn the story and tell the story.” He notes that when he tells this story, people often ask, ‘Why did [your grandfather] remain in Germany?’ I believe he didn’t really think that something like Kristallnacht could happen.” For Blache-Cohen, telling the story is his way to prevent that from happening again.

Brandon Blache-Cohen muses that his grandfather could perhaps attribute his survival to Kristallnacht because he was forced to leave before things got worse. Blache-Cohen feels “a strange pride in being a survivor. I feel very lucky to be here.”

Simone Shapiro can be reached at simoneshapiro@hotmail.com.