VACAVILLE — As dark storm clouds hovered above Solano County Sunday, an 86-year-old Jewish woman recalled the day her life changed.
Rita Kuhn witnessed the destruction of Kristalnacht – or “night of broken glass” – when Nazi troops and non-Jewish civilians ransacked a neighborhood and left shattered windows and hateful slogans on Jewish storefronts. She was only 11 when she was walking to school the next day on Nov. 10, 1938, to find shards and items strewn about a main street in Berlin.
“I always considered that day the end of my childhood and the beginning of the Shoah,” she said, using the Hebrew word for Holocaust.
The author and Berkeley resident brought her story to the Hampton Inn and Suites, where Chabad of Solano County frequently hosts special events. Rabbi Chaim Zaklos welcomed dozens of attendees to the fifth annual Holocaust lecture in the midst of the Jewish holiday of Purim, which celebrates salvation.
“This story is no less a miracle than the story of Purim and carries a message of hope,” he said.
Forced to wear the yellow star of David as a child in Nazi Germany, Kuhn faced a lifelong struggle to find meaning in the sadness that befell her people. Her father lost his job soon after Adolf Hitler took power, but eventually found work helping other Jews escape Germany. Without money and the necessary sponsorship to leave the country, Kuhn’s family were left to experience further horrors of the Holocaust – a word Kuhn dislikes because she does not believe its meaning applies to the staggering death toll.
“I do not call it Holocaust. I hate the word because it’s a Greek word for sacrificing to God, and I cannot think of 6 million sacrifices,” she said.
Vacaville school teacher Alyson Brauning read excerpts from Kuhn’s memoir, “Broken Glass, Broken Lives: A Jewish Girl’s Survival Story in Berlin, 1933-1945.”
“Nov. 10, 1938, was a gray and wintry day – the sky veiled in somber shades like a widow in mourning brooded darkly over the sleeping city. The air seemed studded with tears that clung to my skin as I stepped outside for my long walk to school . . .” Brauning read.
“Almost instantly and without warning I came face to face with a frightful sight. To my right and to my left I saw ugly slogans (scrawled) on what was left on the windows of Jewish stores. So much broken glass had scattered on the sidewalks that I had trouble not stepping on it. Merchandise soiled and torn . . . like yesterday’s refuse.”
Kuhn earned master’s and doctorate degrees in literature and has shared her story at Bay Area schools since 1986. Responding to a question from a member of the audience, Kuhn said students often don’t understand why the Jews rarely resisted the Nazi occupation.
“It’s very difficult for students growing up in America to feel what it’s like growing up in a terrorist country,” she said. “It’s a very complicated and complex problem.”
Jason Brauning, 10, asked Kuhn why she couldn’t simply take off the star of David and hide it.
“I did,” replied Kuhn. “Whenever I could, I did. It was very dangerous.”
Kuhn lost friends and family members during the Holocaust, but her parents and younger brother survived. The siblings were nearly shipped to the Auschwitz death camp in 1943 while rounded up at the Rosenstrasse center in Berlin before a group of non-Jewish women protesters swayed the Nazi troops to release the 1,200 men and children.
“I was saved by some very courageous women,” Kuhn said.
Now, Kuhn is a grandmother of five.
“We don’t know how many people – good people – the world lost in 6 million,” she said.
Kuhn didn’t start writing about her experience until 1984 after refusing to discuss the Holocaust with her children for some time. Her memoir was published in 2012.
“It was written with blood and tears,” she said. “It was healing, too. . . . I was communicating something that needed to be said.”
She reacted with “tears of joy and wonderment” upon the recent announcement that her memoir will be translated into Hebrew by Yad Vashem, a center for Holocaust education, in Jerusalem.
“I’m glad my book is going to return home – (our) ancient home – where it belongs,” she said.
Reach Adrienne Harris at 427-6956 or [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/aharrisdr.