Kristallnacht: A Survivor Remembers the Tragedy and One Country’s Brave Response

This year is the 82nd anniversary of Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass, a state-sponsored pogrom, considered by many historians as a prelude to the Holocaust.

On  Nov. 9, 1938, and crossing into the next day, waves of  terror and destruction were unleashed on Jewish communities across Germany, Austria and the Sudetenland (then the northern, southern, and western areas of former Czechoslovakia).

To mark the anniversary of those events, Yeshiva University’s Emil A. and Jenny Fish Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies offered a program of remembrance, “Commemorating Kristallnacht,” on Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2020.

Co-hosted by the Rabbi Arthur Schneier Program for International Affairs and Names, Not Numbers©, the acclaimed documentary film project, the online event featured Helga Schmitz-Luden, a Kristallnacht survivor and energetic octogenarian who made New York her home more than 75 years ago. Before an audience of more than 75, she recounted the courage, brilliance and kindness that made her story of survival as inspiring now as it was then. Central to the fate she shared with her family, and with hundreds of other Jewish refugees, was the generosity of the Dominican Republic, a country which in 1941 provided them with sanctuary when others refused.

On hand to introduce Schmitz-Luden were Ambassador José A. Blanco Conde, Permanent Representative of the Dominican Republic to the United Nations, and U.S. Rep. Adriano Espaillat, whose congressional district includes Washington Heights. Both of them commented on the long history of friendship between the Dominican Republic and the Jewish community. “Kristallnacht was a horrible moment in history, and I am proud to join Yeshiva University in remembering the lives lost in this pogrom against the Jewish community in Germany,” said Espaillat. “At a time when anti-Semitic attacks are on the rise in the U.S., I have heard fears from many of my constituents about the state of anti-Semitism and hate in this country. We must learn from the past, and all of our communities must stand together against hate and oppression, against racism and anti-Semitism and xenophobia.”

Through live remarks and a recorded interview conducted by the student documentarians of Names, Not Numbers, Schmitz-Luden painted a harrowing portrait of family survival at the hands of Nazi persecutors. The events of Kristallnacht forced tens of thousands of German Jews into concentration camps and untold others into hiding across Germany and throughout Europe, among them she and her parents.

After fleeing their home in Ulmen, Germany, and spending months on the run, mother and daughter were interned in the Gurs transit camp in the Basque region of southwestern France. They eventually escaped. “My mother was a wonderful woman. But I would never have had the guts that she had during those years. One day, she said we are leaving for Marseilles and that we would be taking a trip to America,” recounted Schmitz-Luden. With scant resources but much pluck, they found their way to the port city, where they boarded the S.S. Serpa Pinto in hopes of reaching New York and safety.

But a safe haven in New York and in other ports proved elusive. Like the ill-fated M.S. St. Louis, the German ocean liner which in May 1939 was refused landing in New York, Cuba and Canada, the Serpa Pinto and its refugee passengers were similarly turned away. “The Americans, the Cubans, the Argentines, nobody wanted us,” remarked Luden “The only country that would take us in was the Dominican Republic.”

That action on the part of the Dominican Republic was a result of the Evian Conference. In 1938, delegates from 32 countries convened in the French spa town to discuss the settlement of German Jewish refugees. The only one willing to accept refugees was the Dominican Republic, agreeing to take in 100,000. In the end, only about 700 German Jews were able to make it there.

In her closing  remarks, Schmitz-Luden thanked the people of the Dominican Republic for rescuing her and her family more than 75 years ago. “We lived there for close to four years, and they were four beautiful years. My sister Ethel was born there in safety. Never once did we experience anti-Semitism.”

Dr. Shay Pilnik, director of the Fish Center, closed the program with reflections on the significance of  Kristallnacht. “The story of Helga Luden, a Holocaust survivor, reminds us of the heinous crimes committed by the Nazis against the Jewish people. The haven she found in the Dominican Republic prompts us to never forget all of those who were willing to stand up for the Jews.” He went on to comment on the Center’s mission and remarked that as “we look to teach a new generation of educators and professional leaders in field of Holocaust and genocide studies, it is crucial to remember both the persecutors as well as the rescuers and their respective effects on our shared history.”

Dr. Shay Pilnik, Director of the Fish Center
Dr. Shay Pilnik, director of the Fish Center