Kertész, Kristallnacht

The Nazis' infamous Kristallnacht, or Night of Broken Glass, occurred on this day in 1938. Seen as a point of no return by historians of the Holocaust, the nightlong pogrom left streets throughout Germany and parts of Austria littered with glass from thousands of Jewish shops, schools, and synagogues, the destruction carried out by civilians and paramilitary groups while the police stood by. Some 30,000 Jewish men were rounded up and sent to concentration camps; 2,000 died from beatings there, but many were released after consenting to emigration. In The Night of Broken Glass (2012), a collection of eyewitness accounts, shopkeeper Karl E. Schwabe describes being forced onto a train toward ''what fate had in store for us":

In front of the station there was a long row of transport vehicles, and we all tried to get into one as soon as we could; those who failed were beaten mercilessly. A harsh voice ordered us to put our heads on our knees and not to look up. The vehicles lurched forward and seemed to drive on endlessly. We went uphill, and it grew colder; finally we stopped. "Out, you swine!" Everyone jumped quickly out of the lorry onto a great open place lit by searchlights. We were completely dazed and blinded. Cursing and beating us, the SS men herded us through a large gate; we had arrived in Buchenwald.

The Night of Broken Glass occurred on the ninth birthday of Imre Kertész, winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize, born in Budapest, Hungary, on this day in 1929. The Nobel committee especially noted Kertész's Fatelessness (sometimes Fateless), his semiautobiographical novel of a Jewish teenager's time in the death camps and afterwards. In his Nobel speech Kertész reflected that "the absurd order of chance which reigns over our lives" might induce more than despair:

And yet something very special happened while I was preparing this lecture, which in a way reassured me. One day I received a large brown envelope in the mail. It was sent to me by Doctor Volkhard Knigge, the director of the Buchenwald Memorial Center. He enclosed a small envelope with his congratulatory note, and described what was in the envelope, so, in case I didn't have the strength to look, I wouldn't have to. The envelope contained a copy of the original daily report on the camp's prisoners for February 18, 1945. In the "Abgänge," that is, the "Decrement" column, I learned about the death of Prisoner #64,921 -- Imre Kertész, factory worker, born in 1927. The two false data: the year of my birth and my occupation were entered in the official registry when I was brought to Buchenwald. I had made myself two years older so I wouldn't be classified as a child, and had said worker rather than student to appear more useful to them. In short, I died once, so I could live. Perhaps that is my real story. If it is, I dedicate this work, born of a child's death, to the millions who died and to those who still remember them.

 


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

 

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