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Horrors of Kristallnacht remembered in Santa Rosa


Although it was 75 years ago, Alfred Batzdorff still remembers seeing still-smoldering rubble of Jewish homes and businesses from the back of a police car in his hometown of Breslau, Germany.

Batzdorff described his growing terror when, taken at age 16 by a group of Nazi storm troopers, he felt the thud of their vehicle as it drove over water hoses being used to save non-Jewish homes adjoining the synagogue that had been burned to the ground and blasted with dynamite.

"There are images that, of course, you never forget," Batzdorff said Sunday before more than 300 people at Santa Rosa's Congregation Shomrei Torah.

On Nov. 9 and 10, 1938, Nazi officers and troops staged a terrifying night of violence and destruction later known as Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass.

Nazi rioters burned or destroyed 267 synagogues, vandalized and looted 7,500 Jewish businesses and killed at least 91 Jewish people, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Kristallnacht was in many ways a turning point in the Nazi party's anti-Jewish campaign. That night, years of discrimination and anti-Semitic indoctrination transformed into systematic destruction, incarceration and mass murder.

On Sunday, Batzdorff and his wife, Susanne, shared their memories of that night at an event marking Kristallnacht's 75th anniversary at the Bennett Valley Road synagogue.

"Every time I remember, I shudder," Susanne Batzdorff said to the group that filled the sanctuary.

Susanne Batzdorff, who met Alfred when she was 11 years old and married him in 1944, read from two poems she wrote about that night. In one, she remembered the three young children she cared for who were killed in the Holocaust, including a girl still in diapers and a boy not yet in school.

"The children / Went to sleep / Before their time. / Their lullaby / The bark / Of German shepherds," she read.

Organized by an offshoot of the Sonoma County Holocaust Memorial Committee, Sunday's event included presentations by academic experts on how the Holocaust shaped our society's understanding of genocide.

"What happened in Germany has happened before and has happened since," said committee member Robert Raful, a member of Congregation Beth Ami in Santa Rosa.

The steps that led up to the Holocaust take on a pattern that is echoed in mass killings from the Ottoman Empire's slaying of more than one million Armenians around World War I to the mass killing of 800,000 Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994, said Myrna Goodman, director of the Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Genocide at Sonoma State University.

The group in power moves from propaganda campaigns that classify a group as separate to active stages including creating lists, IDs and ghettos to extermination and fostering denial.

"Genocide is still with us," Goodman said, noting conflicts in northern Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Sergio La Porta, an expert at California State University Fresno on the Armenian genocide, emphasized that often these stages are noticed by neighboring nations and international groups but not enough is done.

After Kristallnacht, "there was a flood of good words, noble intentions and pity," but other nations did little to help Jewish people in Europe, La Porta said.

But two exceptions to widespread inaction while the Jewish people in Europe faced persecution helped Alfred Batzdorff escape.

That night, Batzdorff was shuttled to a railroad station where carloads of men were being sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp. The wily 16-year-old hid among a group of men over 70 and veterans who were held in a local jail.

Police discovered him and forced him to spend the night carrying pails of excrement out of the cell and bringing the same pail back with water for the men to drink. But after that horrifying night, one officer pulled Batzdorff aside and allowed him to escape, he said.

Three weeks later, Batzdorff was on the first Kindertransport train, the British Parliament's humanitarian effort that brought nearly 10,000 Jewish children from Nazi-occupied regions of Europe to England. He later secured temporary visas for his parents and little brother and brought them to England.

"The worst night of my life turned out to be the entire salvation of my family of four," Batzdorff said.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.