In the middle of the night on November 9, 1938, my great-grandfather called down to the street from his second story window, “What’s going on?” A soldier hollered back, “Are you a Jew?” “Yes,” my great-grandfather replied. The soldier yelled, “In 10 minutes we will burn your house down.”
Such incidents were common by the late-1930s in Germany. My grandmother, Ilsa Dahl Cole, grew up in Geilenkirchen, a small town in the western part of the country. My great-grandparents, Emil and Clara Dahl, were in the cattle business and identified as Germans who were also Jewish. My grandmother attended a Catholic high school, and for the most part, she had a normal, carefree childhood. But, there was growing anti-Semitism in her town, and with time, the government became more hostile toward Jews. The Nazis passed laws forbidding non-Jews from entering Jews’ houses and soldiers were stationed outside of Jewish homes. A lifelong friend pretended he’d never met her.
Though there had been signs that the German government was growing more hostile toward Jews, in reality, the serious consequences of the bigotry didn’t reveal themselves until it was too late for many people. My grandmother explained that the changes were gradual. She said, “We always had the feeling, well if we can’t participate in whatever the Germans do, we’ll just go on the way we can…”
In the mid-1930s, my grandmother moved to Berlin. She attended the Jewish-only design school, but as anti-Semitism swept the nation, the school was closed. Jews weren’t allowed in theaters and couldn’t have telephones. Jewish butcher stores were closed, and other butchers wouldn’t sell meat to them. Barbers wouldn’t cut Jews’ hair. My grandmother reflected, “It was so inhumane.” Despite this, she did her best to lead a normal life. She secured a job as a dressmaker, met my grandfather, and got engaged.
When my grandparents heard about Nazis entering hotels and restaurants and arresting Jews who then permanently vanished, they knew they had to leave. My grandparents contacted relatives in America and received ‘sponsorship’ letters stating that, if need be, they would be taken care of financially. My grandfather left for England in August 1938; my grandmother was scheduled to meet up with him in mid-November. In early November, she went to Geilenkirchen to be with her parents for the couple of weeks she had left in Germany.
On November 9, nine days before my grandmother was scheduled to leave, Germany changed forever. A Polish Jew killed a German diplomat in Paris. Radio reports made it clear that non-Jewish Germans should blame and punish Jews for the murder. It was that same night that the soldier threatened to burn down my great-grandparents’ home. Heeding the soldier’s warning, my grandmother grabbed her passport, threw things into a suitcase, and took the handful of valuables her mother offered her. At the train station, they saw that all the Jews from their town were also there. No one knew what was happening. Her parents decided to go to Aachen to be with family, and she went to Cologne to secure her ticket to Belgium.
My grandmother learned that the violence she witnessed in Geilenkirchen had occurred throughout the country. November 9 is now known as Kristallnacht: the night of broken glass, when the German government orchestrated a series of violent, anti-Jewish acts, shattering glass at synagogues, stores, community centers, and homes. In Cologne, the railway station was in shambles, and restaurants had signs posting: “Jews stay away” and “Jews are our misfortune.” My grandmother steeled her courage, pretended she wasn’t Jewish, bought dinner, and rented a hotel room.
The next day, my grandmother traveled to see her parents one last time. Nazi soldiers granted her father permission to see her off at the train station but not her mother. While my grandparents were determined to leave Nazi Germany, their parents weren’t. They loved Germany. They’d been business owners and military veterans. They had financial resources. They assumed that if they kept a low profile, they could make it through the dark time. My grandmother explained that her parents “did not get out of Germany, because they couldn’t see what was coming.”
My grandmother traveled by train to Belgium and then by boat to England, where, on November 18, she, my grandfather, and her brother boarded the Manhattan and sailed to America. In America, my grandparents continued to communicate with their parents. My great-grandparents had to give up their home (which hadn’t been burned down) and moved in with family in Aachen. The Nazis moved them to a Ghetto and then transported them to Poland where they were killed in Izbica, a concentration camp. My grandfather’s parents suffered a similar fate.
My grandmother said, “I didn’t realize myself how important it was that I should get busy and try to get out of Germany because I was young and I had all this family there and I kind of hesitated, but then I thought I better make some arrangements…. I was certainly fortunate that I had these relatives here [in America]. Otherwise, I would have gone with the rest...”
Looking back, people express horror that the German government convinced their citizens to retaliate against an entire group in response to one man’s action. Yet, for over a year, we’ve heard President Trump talk disparagingly about Muslims and immigrants (specifically Mexicans): they’re rapists; they’re terrorists; they aren’t like us. As Americans, we must ask ourselves: If a trigger event happens in America, like it happened in Europe, how will we ensure that an entire group of people isn’t blamed for another’s action? Because, while I’m fortunate my grandparents immigrated to America, no one should have to leave their home, their family, or their country because of their race or religion. It’s a story that shouldn’t be repeated.
*Thanks to the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education who ensures that stories like my grandmother’s are preserved. We will never forget, and we will never let it happen again to anyone else.