Last night, Prof. Emeritus Edgar Rosenberg, English and comparative literature, recounted his childhood experiences of a night of terror, known to German Jews as Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass. Seventy years ago, on Nov. 9, 1938, Nazis destroyed synagogues, smashed Jewish shop windows and burned Jewish books, leaving German cities littered with glass, broken furniture, and strewn shop items.
In the informal setting of a Robert Purcell study lounge, Rosenberg read to the 20 students in attendance from an excerpt that he wrote which describes the events he experienced as a 13-year-old boy. He began with the date “November 9th” and explained that its significance ranges from 1808, when Bavarian Jews were first allowed to carry arms, to Kristallnacht, to 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell.
Rosenberg then took his audience through the events that he witnessed. He heard his front door banged open by Nazis, whom he referred to as “brown shirts,” his father yelling back at the officers, and the sound of the door slam shut as they stormed out.
And he saw the Jews of his city forced to stand in subzero weather in the middle of the night, and then at about 5:30 a.m., Rosenberg describes how “the sky had turned crimson — the synagogues burned.”
After the synagogues went up in flames the Chief Rabbi of the town was forced by the Nazis to trample a Torah in the city square.
Rosenberg trailed his story from Furth, his city in Germany to Switzerland, all the way to Washington Heights, New York, always with his younger brother at his side. He explained that if his family had not escaped when they did (his father immediately after Kristallnacht, Rosenberg and his brother six months later, and his mother shortly after) they would have all been deported to concentration camps.
But despite the description of many horrific details, Rosenberg’s story was not a typical somber tale of a Holocaust survivor. Rather, it was sprinkled with lighthearted snippets about his childhood love for history, and a frequent reference to a South American puzzle that his brother busied himself with during the course of the events.
John Lauricella PhD ’93 shared his views: “It was interesting in that it recounts horrific events with wit and a light touch. It’s never somber and I think that’s a great talent because the events are certainly horrifying enough.”
Rabbi Ed Rosenthal, executive director of Hillel, said: “As the years go by and there are fewer people who have survived it becomes even more important to hear first-hand accounts. There will a time when there won’t be any survivors [still alive] and people are going to say that [the Holocaust] never happened.”
The idea for the lecture was brought to Cornell Hillel by Rosenberg himself. Rosenberg also came up with the idea to commemorate Kristallnacht 20 years ago, for the 50th anniversary, when he put together a panel with several other professors.
Rosenberg explained, “This is something which is important and I am one of the very few people who has the authority or the authenticity to speak about the subject.”