Seventy years ago this week, Eric Straus was torn from his sleep in his German town by his father's screams that their synagogue nearby was in flames. Little did the 14-year-old boy know that across Germany, thousands of Jewish businesses were being systematically ransacked and destroyed.
More than 200 synagogues would be set ablaze in what history would call "Kristallnacht," or "The Night of the Broken Glass." The atrocities started the night of Nov. 9, 1938, and included a mass arrest of Jewish males, including Straus' father, a scrap metal businessman, three days later.
Germany's Nazi regime was sharply stepping up its persecution of Jews, and Kristallnacht would come to be regarded as the boldest action foreshadowing the Holocaust that decimated the Jewish population of Germany and much of Europe.
Straus, now 84, only began talking about those events in the past few years through the pressing questions of his grandchildren.
At the 7:30 p.m. Shabbat services Friday at Temple Emanuel of Tempe, 5801 S. Rural Road, Straus will tell the congregation what he remembers of the tumult from so long ago in the town of Bad Cannstatt, now part of Stuttgart in southwestern Germany.
The retired IBM engineering manager from Poughkeepsie, N.Y., is the father of Rabbi Andrew Straus, spiritual leader of the Reform Jewish congregation in Tempe. His oldest son, Rabbi David Straus, leads a congregation in Wynnewood, Pa.
'THE SYNAGOGUE IS ON FIRE!'
Eric Straus said that about 4 o'clock that morning in 1938, "my father hollered out, 'My God, the synagogue is on fire!' so I got up and looked out the window, and we saw the synagogue burning." When his father called the fire department, he was told they had already been notified and that "the engines are on the way." Straus said he observed three men leaping a picket fence from the temple site and driving off in a brown car.
A half-hour later, the car was back with three men dressed in Schutzstaffel (SS) uniforms. "They might have been the same three guys that put the synagogue on fire," Straus said. When firefighters arrived, they merely watered down nearby buildings, and let the wooden temple burn.
The 80 families of the congregation had no rabbi at the time, but when the cantor showed up, he was arrested.
When the brownshirts came for Straus' father on Nov. 12, he was put in the local jail and then transferred to Stuttgart. "He was put in a big cell with lots of friends and acquaintances - other Jews," Straus said.
"My mother did go to the Gestapo, the secret police, to speak to somebody about my father," he said, "and the guy happened to be born in Strausberg where my mother was born also, and the net result was that she promised if my father was released, we would leave Germany as soon as possible. I am not sure she knew where we could go."
Jews were "completely integrated" in communities across Germany, he said. "I think it was a decision, in the very beginning, that (German Chancellor Adolf) Hitler was preaching a certain amount of anti-Semitism. He used the Jews as a convenient scapegoat," especially to explain the worldwide depression and slow recovery from the German defeat of World War I. Straus said Jews in Germany experienced a continual escalation of restrictions, from being banned from public schools and swimming pools to not being allowed at cafes on weekends. However, southwestern Germany was not as restrictive on Jews as other parts of the country, he said.
Getting out of Germany depended largely on having relatives in countries who could vouch for, or sponsor, them. Earlier in 1938, they had taken a number at the American consulate in Stuttgart to be on a list for emigration. A cousin in New York provided the required affidavit.
AMERICA AT LAST
In January 1939, they arrived in England, but it wasn't until Dec. 5 that they got to New York City. By that time, Germany was invading its neighbors and World War II had begun, largely closing the door for Jews to legally emigrate. About half of the Jews in Germany, or about 300,000, were killed in the Shoah.
The family later moved to Newark, N.J., and then to Poughkeepsie where Straus' father got in the scrap metal business anew with the cousin. Eric Straus joined the U.S. Army for the last part of the war and was with the 4th Infantry Division that landed on Normandy Beach on D-Day on June 6, 1944. He was a German translator for an engineering battalion, but never saw any remnants of Jewish death camps.
Rabbi Andrew Straus said his father had always been sparing in talking about his boyhood in Germany. "My nephew said, 'I want momma and papa to take me back to Germany to hear the stories,'" the rabbi said. "It was really my nephew who pushed them."
In 2006, the senior Straus shared his story with a New York congregation, and in the summer of 2007, he and his wife of 54 years, Marlene, accompanied David Straus' family to Germany to sites of their family history and to visit cemeteries.
Besides his talk to Tempe Emanuel today, the senior Straus will spend an hour Wednesday speaking to students in the temple's religious school. "I want people to understand what has happened," he said, acknowledging that, as years pass, there are ever-dwindling witnesses to those events. "It becomes only history unfortunately."