This week on November 9th was the annual observance of Kristallanacht, “Night of the Broken Glass”. It was a series of attacks against Jews throughout Nazi Germany and parts of Austria on 9–10 November 1938. Jewish homes were ransacked, as were shops, towns and villages, as SA stormtroopers and civilians destroyed buildings with sledgehammers. Around 1,668 synagogues were ransacked, and 267 set on fire. In Vienna alone 95 synagogues or houses of prayer were destroyed.
Every year I lead a group of women from my synagogue to the Westchester Jewish Film Festival. This past year I met a woman named Ruth Bachner at a screening of Hidden Children at the Jacob Burns Film Center. The film had been sponsored by the American Jewish Committee, who brought her to the festival. Meeting her left an impact and mark on my soul, and I pledged silently to myself to bring her to my synagogue in Westchester to speak. She had shown me her Jewish star and passport that got her to America eventually and I have never forgotten her.
When I discovered that she witnessed Kristallanacht, I felt it was a good time to bring her to speak to my congregation. She remembers the night clearly, as she was living in Vienna, when synagogues were burned, businesses brought to a halt, Jewish cemeteries desecrated, and, for the first time, Jews were imprisoned on a massive scale. She and her family were devastated and frightened. She was 9 years old, her brother 5 and she said that even her parents weren’t sure how to protect them.
Her father escaped to Belgium right after that. But not long after, she and her family were asked to evacuate by the building’s janitor wearing a SS uniform. Her mother soon obtained forged passports, allowing them to board a train to Germany in January, 1939. Their hope was to go from there to Belgium to reunite with Bachner’s father.
The family, reunited in Belgium, hoped to immigrate to the United States. On May 10, 1940, they had an appointment to take immigration physicals at the American consulate, but the Germans invaded Belgium the same day.
Then it all really started. They had to wear a yellow Star of David on the left side of their clothes inscribed with a “J.” Bachner remembers the curfews, the ration cards, and the constant raids that followed. With conditions growing increasingly horrible and dangerous for the Jews, her parents, desperate to save her and her brother, entrusted them to a priest, who saved nearly 400 Jews. He helped hide her at a convent and her brother at a Catholic orphanage. Her parents hid in a Christian estate. During the war, she was incredibly angry at her parents for years for sending her away but came around and is thankful they did what they did. Her father gave her three $100 bills and a list of relatives in America and hemmed it all into her coat. She remembers telling him, “Don’t worry, I’ll always be Jewish.”
For the next year and a half, Bachner lived in the convent, often fearing she’d be discovered. To protect her, the nuns changed her name to Marie Renée Le Roi and she became very attached to Christianity. Looking back, Bachner feels she was brainwashed. “When a nun keeps telling you your soul will burn in hell forever if you’re not baptized, you believe it.” When she was in hiding, she asked the nuns to baptize her and for private Cathlocism lessons. They wrote to her parents, who were also in hiding, and asked for their permission. Her father wrote back, “If it will save my child’s life, by all means, baptize her.”
When the war end wanted to stay with the nuns. When the war ended, she wanted to stay in the convent, but her family fortunately survived and she was able to reunite with them. The nun told her, “You can’t be a nun. You have to go home. If you decide to come back in a few years on your own will, you can come back.” Bachner took her rose beads and Bible home and even went to church that first Sunday back with her brother. Her parents didn’t comment. She put a statue of Virgin Mary on the mantle. One day she came home from school and it was gone. When she asked her mom where it had gone, she told her it had fallen down to the floor and smashed. That was the end of that.
She knows that her entire family surviving the war was a miracle. She later married a man she met in America and they were married 53 years before he recently passed away. They live in Somers, Westchester.
She told us about a trip, in the early 1980s that she and her husband took their children to visit concentration camps, as well as the convent in which she survived the war. At her family’s old apartment building in Vienna, she says, “I was trembling as I rang the bell to our apartment. I saw it was the same janitor who had forced us out. I wanted to come in, but he would not allow me. He slammed the door in my face and I cursed him out in German.”
Ruth Bachner’s visit was sponsored by The Holocaust and Human Rights Education Center.