Of the hundreds of thousands of Jews in the lands controlled by Germany on November 9, 1938, who witnessed Kristallnacht, the night Nazis burnt hundreds of synagogues, plundered thousands of Jewish homes and businesses, and murdered 91 Jews — 31 made their way, at various points in the 1980s and 1990s, to Ramapo College in Mahwah and what is now its Gross Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies.
There, those Kristallnacht witnesses told their stories of Holocaust escape and survival to watchful, if bulky, video cameras. Their testimonies, recorded on VCR cassettes, were sent on to the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale University.
One of those 31 witnesses was Henry Stiefel. He was born in Frankfurt in 1924, so he was a young teen on Kristallnacht. His family already had been trying to escape Germany. In 1938, his father had briefly visited a cousin in Philadelphia to begin the process of immigration. On the day after Kristallnacht, as the Nazis began arresting Jewish men, Henry’s father took a train out of Frankfurt to stay with a cousin in Mannheim, hoping to escape the dragnet. But he didn’t make it. He was arrested on the train and taken to Buchenwald, where he was imprisoned for five weeks and then released, like many of the 30,000 Jewish men interned in concentration camps in the wake of Kristallnacht, with instructions to report to the police every week and leave the country within six months.
“After Kristallnacht, Henry never really saw his father happy again,” Amanda Williams said. “He had been so damaged by his time in the concentration camp that he just wasn’t the same.”
Ms. Williams, 21, of Hillsborough is a senior at Ramapo College, where she is a political science major.Until she enrolled in Dr. Jacob Labendz’s course on the Holocaust this semester, “I knew nothing about the timeline of the Holocaust and how it slowly progressed,” she said. Dr. Labendz is the director of the Gross Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Ramapo.
Ms. Williams is not Jewish.
She researched Mr. Stiefel for an assignment in Dr. Labendz’s class. Students were asked to view a survivor’s testimony and create a presentation based on it, providing the broader historical background. Dr. Labendz had found that 31 of the 134 testimonies recorded at Ramapo College included memories of Kristallnacht, and he asked each student to choose one as the basis of his or her presentation.
“I instructed them to focus on Kristallnacht, but to see where the survivor came from and where they went, their experience through the war and after the war,” Dr. Labendz said.
Henry Stiefel, his father, and the rest of the immediate family made it, just barely, to the United States. They settled in Queens; his father died not long after. In 1943, Henry enlisted in the U.S. Army, fighting in Africa and Italy. By the time his interview was recorded, he was a grandfather.
“Henry talked a lot about how after Kristallnacht he couldn’t go to school anymore,” Ms. Williams said. “That’s a recurring theme. He really just longed for an education that he couldn’t have, because of his circumstances. And he couldn’t have it in the United States, because he had to work to provide for his family here.”
On Wednesday night, Ms. Williams will share her research about Mr. Stiefel’s life at the Kristallnacht commemoration at Mahwah’s Congregation Beth Haverim Shir Shalom, a mile down the road from the college; three or four of her classmates will present their research as well.
“It’s very important that we engage college students and increase their awareness of history,” Lori Yanowitz of Wyckoff, who helped organize the event for the synagogue, said. “People need to know what happened.”
Ms. Williams said that she signed up for the course because she had run out of political science electives to take.
She’s glad she did.
“Growing up in New Jersey public schools, I’ve been educated on the Holocaust, but never in this kind of depth,” she said. “I knew the Holocaust as something that happened to Jews under Hitler. He killed a lot of them, there were in concentration camps, they were forced to labor. And that was pretty much it. It has been presented to me as a series of events that just happened.”
Now, she has read primary source documents and has a much deeper understanding of the forces that led up to Auschwitz. “We each do an individual presentation in class about primary sources,” she said. “I did mine on the Nuremberg race laws. My biggest question was, Why did they even bother making up these laws if in the end they were just going to go kill Jews?
“In doing the project, I kind of figured out that it was like a setup of a justification. If we make a bunch of laws, and then you broke those laws, it’s now valid in the law to punish you. Before these laws existed, it would look to the rest of society that you were just targeting Jews, but now they can say that’s how the laws in our government are, they didn’t obey them.”
As a political science major who already has worked on political campaigns and is hoping for a job in government, she was fascinated by the way the Nazis “quasi operated within the normal German government system.” And she sees disturbing parallels between the Nazi use of “scapegoating and an us versus them mentality” and current politics.
“It’s something I see mirrored in current events,” she said.
What: Kristallnacht program, featuring students from Ramapo College’s Gross Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies
Where: Congregation Beth Haverim Shir Shalom, 280 Ramapo Valley Road, Mahwah
When: Wednesday, November 9, 7 p.m.
More information: www.bethhaverim.org