Alfred and Susanne Batzdorff are among the dwindling few — witnesses to anti-Semitic violence in Germany on the eve of World War II.
On Sunday, the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, Alfred recalled the looting and burning of Jewish homes and businesses as well as the synagogue in his Breslau neighborhood, one of many targeted on a night of Nazi-inspired terror. He described his escape from a group bound for the Buchenwald concentration camp and his subsequent flight to Britain.
"The worst night of my life turned out to be the entire salvation of my family of four," Batzdorff told 300 people gathered at Santa Rosa's Congregation Shomrei Torah.
Susanne, who lived in the same building as Alfred and married him six years later, shared her Kristallnacht memories at the same event as well as on these pages on Saturday. "Step by ruthless step," she wrote, "Jews were branded with yellow stars, deprived of jobs, homes, deported to camps and finally murdered."
In the not too distant future, first-hand accounts of life in Europe before the war will be limited to oral histories and memoirs, just as it's increasingly rare to hear directly from the men and women who served during World War II.
Yet stories are still unfolding nearly 70 years after the final shots were fired.
Last week, the German magazine Focus reported on the February 2012 discovery of more than 1,400 pieces of art in a Munich apartment, many of them confiscated by the Nazis from museums or family collections. One of them, Max Liebermann's "Riders on the Beach," belonged to a family in the Batzdorff's hometown of Breslau, which is now part of Poland and called Wroclaw.
The trove in Munich also included works by Picasso, Chagall, Matisse and Renoir as well as more modern pieces seized under Nazi Germany's "degenerate art" law. The estimated value: $1.4 billion.
The search for the plundered art of Europe started before the war was over. Other masterworks have been found but never so many in one place.
In 1998, the United States, Germany and 40 other countries drafted a statement of principles to guide the search. The principles include publicizing discoveries and acting "expeditiously" to locate the rightful owners or their heirs to achieve "fair and just" solutions.
As with listening to survivor accounts of Kristallnacht, there is little time to return looted art to pre-war owners.
That makes it difficult to understand why the German government allowed 21 months to pass without any public acknowledgment of the discovery in Munich. We trust that Monday's announcement of a task force charged with investigating the ownership of this art "as quickly and as transparently as possible, and a promise to begin posting images online, reflect a greater sense of urgency from the German government.
All of these stories are awaiting a proper ending.