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Kristallnacht Witness Norbert Strauss Addresses Commemoration at Teaneck High School

Speaking to a rapt audience of over 300 Teaneck High School students, Norbert Strauss, a long-time resident of Bergen County, shared his journey of escape from Germany which began on the Night of Broken Glass or Kristallnacht, on November 9, 1938. Using the excuse of the murder of a low-level German embassy official in Paris at the hands of a desperate, young Jewish teenager, Reich Minister Joseph Goebbels gave the order that “any demonstration will not be disrupted.”

During the course of two nights, over 250 synagogues in Germany, Austria and the Sudetenland were burned in full view of firefighters who did nothing to stop the conflagrations. Over 7,500 Jewish-owned homes and commercial establishments were shattered, and Jewish cemeteries were desecrated. One hundred Jews lost their lives and over 30,000 males were sent to Dachau and Buchenwald concentration camps. The Jews were ironically blamed for the loss of their own property and were fined over $400 million dollars.

Among the establishments smashed that night was the kosher family restaurant owned by Norbert Strauss’s uncle in Frankfurt. That night, Strauss’s father and uncle were both arrested and taken to a holding hall from which they were sent to Buchenwald, from which his father was released after four weeks (in skeletal shape) only after agreeing to a number of conditions including agreeing to leave the country within six months. His uncle was in Buchenwald much longer. As a young boy of 11, Strauss remembers his horror the morning after the horrific pogrom, when he witnessed firsthand the smoldering of his magnificent synagogue in Frankfurt. He quickly picked up burned pebbles and hid them in his pockets for future testimony.

Through the courage and perseverance of his mother, and the fact that his father had served Germany in World War I, the family was reunited. They then had to sell their business for pennies, turn over their life insurance policies to the government and leave the country within six months. Strauss’s father was able to book passage on the ill-fated SS St. Louis with over 900 Jewish refugees. The ship made it to the shores of Cuba only to be sent back to Antwerp, where they were distributed to Great Britain, France, Belgium and Holland which countries had agreed to take in all passengers so that they would not have to return to Germany. Many subsequently perished in concentration camps when the Nazis invaded France, Belgium and Holland. Only 270 of the original passengers survived, including Strauss’s father, who was placed into a detention camp in the Hague in the hope of receiving a visa to the United States. Miraculously, a visa came through (“This was truly a neis min hashamayim,” he said.) and the senior Strauss made his way to the US in 1939.

Strauss’s mother was left to figure out passage for herself and her two young sons within six months. They were able to fly out via Lufthansa from Stuttgart, via Lyon. From there, they flew to Barcelona where they were greeted by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS). After that, they flew to Madrid and then Lisbon where they boarded a ship to New York. The journey was fraught with danger from torpedoes and floating mines, but finally, in New York, they reunited with the senior Strauss. Because of their many stops, all but their hand luggage was lost.

Upon settling in New York, the Strauss family picked up the pieces, but never forgot what they left behind. Strauss was drafted into the US Army in 1945, and served in Korea (USAMGIK), emerging with the military rank of Sergeant. His office title was Sergeant Major of the Military Personnel in the Dept. of Commerce of the government in Seoul as well as Chief Clerk of the Korean civilian personnel there.

He went on to secure a position at the metal company Philipp Brothers for which he worked for 36 years.

Taking early retirement in 1986, he began a new career; in volunteerism. “When I departed from Philipp Brothers I wanted to pay back some of what I felt my family owed to society. The United States had given us a new home. I had a wonderful and healthy growing family. More I did not need. It was payback time,” wrote Strauss in his memoir, “My Stories: Highlights of My Life,” published in 2012.

“All my life I have been involved in volunteer work in one form or another. In 1947, after I was discharged from the army,” Strauss wrote, ”I worked for the Overseas Relief Committee in Washington Heights, which collected donations of food, clothing and shoes to be shipped to European Displaced Persons Camps.” It was this sense of volunteerism that motivated Strauss to volunteer during the Second Lebanon War in Israel, where he served guard duty on the Golan Heights. And this same sense of volunteerism will have clocked him over 30,000 hours of volunteer work at Englewood Hospital by January of 2017.

The annual Kristallnacht Commemoration is part of the ongoing programs offered through Teaneck High School’s Education Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. The Center, founded in 1984 by two social studies teachers who co-edited a Holocaust curriculum that was incorporated into New Jersey’s mandated Holocaust studies, is directed by Goldie Minkowitz. A 34-year veteran math instructor at THS, Minkowitz coordinates all the Jewish-related activities within the school. The Center is located on the third floor of the high school and incorporates a collection of videos including Holocaust survivors’ testimonies from Bergen County residents taken over the course of years. Through recent upgrades generously provided by Principal Dennis Heck, the videos can be projected to classes visiting the Center, which also features Holocaust murals, posters and albums. In conjunction with the Center, the THS library and Media Center now hosts over 500 donated volumes of Holocaust histories, diaries and memoirs, which are available for loan to the community. Through the efforts of Principal Heck, an area of the library was allocated to the collection, which also hosts a sculpture and student artwork.

The Education Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies organizes the annual Kristallnacht assembly as well as participates in the community-wide Yom HaShoah Program, interviews local Holocaust survivors, provides testimonies to Yad Vashem and arranges a yearly student trip to the US Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC.

For further information about the Center contact [email protected]

By Pearl Markovitz

 

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