The girl who witnessed the Kristallnacht

The girl who witnessed the Kristallnacht

Ruth Winkelmann on the roof terrace of her former schoolimage rights
Stefan Thissen

Eighty years ago, the Nazi persecution of Jews suddenly became violent on a night of chaos. This and the next day is called Kristallnacht, the Night of the Broken Glass – and there are some who vividly remember it.

"Our father hugged me and my baby sister that night and said: This is the beginning of a very difficult time and we will try to survive it."

Ruth Winkelmann is now 90 years old, but looks much younger than her years. Her eyes are light brown as she looks into the sky above the roof terrace of her old Jewish elementary school in the heart of East Berlin.

"When I stand here and look into the clouds, I think my dad is taking care of me, and it feels good," she says.

Then Ruth points across the rooftops to the domes of the New Synagogue in Berlin, which has now been restored and shines in the sunlight. She remembers the smoke she saw when she was set on fire by the Nazis exactly 80 years ago.

She was just 10 years old on November 10, 1938. The day started normally, but when her father drove her to school, they experienced disturbing scenes.

"Along the way, we saw broken windows and broken glass in the streets, and then we saw a shop where someone had painted the word" Jew "and smeared a Star of David."

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They drove on and saw a Jewish man in a black coat.

Some Nazi stormtroopers had seized him and pressed a star of David on his coat. And then they hit him too.

"I thought," My dad is with me and nothing bad can happen to me ", but it was a very disturbing sight and I was shaking."

Ruth had every reason to be afraid.

When she came to school, the headmaster brought the girls directly to the congregation.

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Ruth Winkelmann

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Ruth (right) with her younger sister Eddi

"There we heard what had started in the night in Berlin – Jewish shops had been destroyed and people brutally killed – shop windows were broken everywhere and the words" Jew "or" Jewish pig "were written in many places.

"We were all very scared, and on that day, for the first time since my first visit to this school in 1934, there were prayers, it was Jewish but not Orthodox, religious."

The little girls tried to look out of the school windows, what happened down the street.

"You could not see the stormtroops from where we watched them, only their flags – and they screamed and made a terrible thug. They barricaded the entrance and smeared stuff all over the school – stars of David and & # 39; "Jew" and "Jews out" and stuff like that. "

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A burning synagogue in Fasanenstrasse, Berlin

The Nazi government had consistently passed laws that discriminated against Jews, including children like Ruth, who was born of a Jewish father, Hermann Jacks, and a mother, Elly, a Protestant who had converted to Judaism to marry him.

In 1935, the Nuremberg Laws had become the legal basis for the expulsion of Jews from public life in Germany. The Nazis defined exactly who was Jewish and to what extent: definitions that for many meant the difference between life and death.

On the Kristallnacht, the creeping pursuit broke out in open and bloody violence.


Find out more

Take a look at the report by Caroline Wyatt News at ten, on Saturday, November 10, at 22:00

Listen to Caroline's radio documentation for heart and soul at the BBC World Service – The Girl Who Has Seen Crystal Night


That day, Ruth and the other girls had to escape through the loft of the school and walk through the attics in pairs until they found a flight of stairs down to a backyard behind the main road.

"Our teachers told us to go home immediately because the storm troopers could still see us from there, we were terribly afraid."

When she finally got home, Ruth realized that not only were the children scared, but also their parents and grandparents.

They had also seen the smoke come out of the New Synagogue after Nazi stormtroopers invaded, desecrated Torah scrolls, and set fire to anything they could find.

It was one of several hundred Jewish places of worship that were attacked in Germany that night, as well as Jewish homes, schools, hospitals, and more than 7,500 businesses. Almost 100 Jews were killed and around 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and sent to concentration camps.

Ruth first realized that this happened when she returned to school, and discovered that some of the fathers had disappeared – arrested or deported: first the Polish Jews and then the German Jews.

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Ruth Winkelmann

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Ruth and her mother, Elly

When I sit with Ruth over a cup of tea in her cozy house near the forest in northern Berlin, she shows me black and white photos of her family and the house where she grew up, in a tree-lined street just to the north.

Thanks to the Nuremberg Laws, her father's parents were forced to sell their scrap business, leaving her father jobless. Then they had to sell their house. Later, her grandparents and Ruth's other Jewish relatives were deported. Fifteen of them died; Only one survived. Her paternal grandparents starved to death in the Theresienstadt concentration camp in today's Czech Republic.

The sudden violence of the Kristallnacht is burned in Ruth's memory.

"In retrospect, I grew up that day," she tells me. "The pogrom night took my childhood away from me."

She shows me a water-stained copy of her Nazi ID card, stamped J for Jew.

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Ruth Winkelmann

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Ruth's family – her mother and younger sister (left), her father, Ruth and an aunt

The complex Nazi racial laws had labeled children like Ruth and her younger sister Eddi a "first-degree hybrid," because while her father Hermann was Jewish, her mother had been born Protestant. For the Nazis she was still considered "Aryan" despite her conversion because of her German blood.

But because the two girls were registered as members of the Jewish community, they were considered Jewish. Geltungsjuden, Later they had to wear a yellow star in their coat and had to add the name "Sara" to their real name.

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Ruth Winkelmann

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The name "Sara" was added to Ruth's name

In an attempt to save the children, Ruth's parents agreed to divorce. However, this made Ruth's beloved father even more susceptible. He was deported to Auschwitz in 1943.

Ruth received four postcards from her father sent from the extermination camp. She still has her. Hard to read, they make it clear that her father's last act of love to his children was to protect them from the horrors of the camp.

She reads to me one of them: "My dears, I'm fine, how are you?" Her package with bread and cake and tobacco has arrived Thank you, that was very nice, otherwise nothing new her birthday, love and kisses from your father. "

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Ruth Winkelmann

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One of the postcards that Ruth's father had sent from Auschwitz

Ruth's father was a prisoner in Monowitz, a suburb of Auschwitz, where prisoners had to work for the chemical industry. He worked on a scaffold when someone pushed him away.

Ruth found out that her father had been taken unconscious to a fatal petrol van, camouflaged as an ambulance.

"Everyone thought he never woke up, but he must have done it," she says. "Because I learned from the Auschwitz archives much later that he was killed in January 1944."

In Berlin, food became increasingly scarce for Ruth, her mother and sister. At 14 Ruth was called to forced labor. All three received a summons from the Gestapo and narrowly escaped deportation.

Ruth's mother, Elly, decided it was time to hide. She chose a woodshed on a piece of land in south Berlin that belonged to a member of the NSDAP named Leo Lindenberg, who had brought her shine.

"We did not feel safe in the shed there, but it was better than any alternative because we could live there as gentiles," Ruth recalls.

"I never wore the yellow star on my coat, otherwise Leo Lindenberg would have had a lot of trouble." We told the neighbor that our apartment in Berlin had been destroyed by the bombing, which was normal enough, so nobody asked too many questions "

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Ruth Winkelmann

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Ruth as a small child on vacation

Life in the shed was tough – there was no water, electricity or heating.

"When the outside temperature dropped to minus 10, it was also minus 10. And in the last four months, we only lived on beets and oatmeal," recalls Ruth.

They had to grind the porridge out of wholemeal grains, pass them three times through a coffee grinder and then seven. It took half an hour to make three spoons.

Shortly before the end of the war, Ruth's sister Eddi died of diphtheria. But Ruth and her mother survived.

Later, Elly married Leo Lindenberg, who asked his stepdaughter to convert to Christianity, and Ruth followed. But she still wears the Star of David around her neck.

"I was converted out of gratitude because Leo risked his life for us," explains Ruth.

"But my faith has always been mixed, I can not say that I'm a Jew, and I can not say that I'm Protestant, and if you think about it, Judaism is the faith that gave birth to Christianity I think if I follow the Ten Commandments, then I'm not so bad, my father definitely would not have condemned it, and his opinion was always the most important to me, and my mother would not mind, more than anything else she, that I live well and am happy. "

Ruth says she believed in God even in the darkest times.

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Ruth at home with the Star of David

"That does not mean I go to church a lot," she says. "But when I'm out in the wild, I have everything I want, and I thank him for the great time I have today." Not Many People live until 90 and are in good health, I'm my God very grateful. "

However, she no longer wears her Star of David in public when she sees a passenger in the subway tearing a crescent-shaped necklace from the neck of a Turkish girl. However, she prefers it for family occasions, and when she lectures – how often despite her age.

For Ruth, it's important to connect with the young and tell their story to their new generation.

"The most important thing for me is that they consider how difficult it is to live in a democracy, everyone has a different opinion and getting the most out of them requires care and attention," she says. "But democracy is the only way to live, to live under dictatorship is impossible."

Ruth takes me to the house where she grew up. Outside is a small polished brass square the size of a cobblestone. It's called a stumbling block – a stumbling block – and it bears the name of her father and the date on which he was killed in Auschwitz. She bends down and shows it to me.

"For me, this is a way of honoring my father, because of course we have no foundation stone for him, there is no grave and if I stop by here I stop for a moment – it's like a quick visit with him I feel like my father is still standing in the yard, polishing our bikes or all the family's shoes, on a Sunday morning. "

Ruth has lived her life so remarkably free of bitterness. But is she worried about the rise of right-wing extremists in Europe? I ask.

"Of course I'm worried about that," she admits.

"I do hope, however, that humanity has learned something from the Nazi era, and I am worried about the rise of these parties, but I do not believe we will ever again experience a systematic mass extermination, such as the Holocaust."

I meet Ruth again at the New Synagogue, right behind the school where she witnessed the events of Kristallnacht.

Next to the entrance, next to the armed guards, who are always present, there is a black badge with gold lettering.

It reminds passers-by that the synagogue was set on fire by the Nazis on the night of 9 November 1938 and largely destroyed in 1943 in an Allied bombing and then restored.

In capital letters it urges: "Never forget."

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Read: The hint of a Nazi who saved my grandparents

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