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Survivor recalls Kristallnacht

22 November 2013


Flame: Joshua Kirk, grandson of a survivor, lights a candle by the high altar

Flame: Joshua Kirk, grandson of a survivor, lights a candle by the high altar

KRISTALLNACHT, for most, is mainly a historic event. But a significant proportion of the congregation at Westminster Abbey for a service of commemoration and hope a fortnight ago had family connections to "the Night of the Broken Glass". A very few were actually in Germany on the night of 10 November 1938.

Among them was John Izbicki, who gave an eye-witness account of how he had screamed at the atrocities he was witnessing until he passed out.

"I heard a loud crash of broken glass. I looked out of the window, and saw that a large group of Hitler Youths had smashed a window of the leatherware shop opposite," he said. "An elderly woman doubled up with arthritis limped past and started to scream 'Heil Hitler! It serves you right you Jewish swine.'

"A slither of glass still holding on to the frame began to quiver, and as another 'Heil Hitler!' reached a crescendo, it broke away and split open her head. She collapsed in a growing pool of blood, and I, as a child, vomited. And when I stopped vomiting, I believed in God.

"It was a night to remember. It was certainly a night that I have never forgotten. My screaming had left me with a hoarse voice which is still with me 75 years later, just after my 93rd birthday - a present from Hitler which I would dearly love to return."

A Holocaust survivor, Lilian Levy, spoke of the wider atrocities committed against the Jews by the Nazis. She and her parents, hiding in Holland, had been tricked by a radio announcement that a prisoner exchange had been agreed between Germany and Britain.

"My family and I left our hiding place, and applied to be exchanged," she said. "But instead we were transported to Belsen, where people starved to death, or were shot at random, or savaged by dogs at the whim of sadistic guards. In those conditions, my parents made me eat what little food they had received, while they starved to death early in 1945. I was then five years old.

"I would like to think that my parents' hope for me has been fulfilled. They gave me their food that I might live. And they now live on in me, and in my children, and in my grandchildren."

Three Holocaust survivors spoke during the service. Their testimonies were painful to hear; but also full of hope, fulfilling the event's billing as "A service of solemn remembrance and hope on the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht".

At the start of the service, the Shoah candelabra from Belsize Square Synagogue was processed into the Abbey's Sacrarium. Later, its six candles were lit by a Kristallnacht survivor and her grandson; a rabbi; a canon of Westminster Abbey; and by senior diplomats from the Israeli and German embassies in London, including the Israeli ambassador, Daniel Taub.

The service included elements of both Christian and Jewish worship, including music led by the choirs of Belsize Square and West London synagogues. The Cantor from Belsize Square, Paul Heller, recited the Holocaust prayer El Malei Rachamim. There were readings from Lamentations, and the Sermon on the Mount.

The music included a new composition, Through a Glass, Darkly, which had been specially written for the service by Cecilia McDowall, using words from the Hashkiveinu prayer, and an unsigned inscription found on the wall of a cave in Cologne: "I believe in the sun, though it is late in rising; I believe in Love, though it is absent; I believe in God, though he is silent."

The actress Ruth Rosen read an extract from Martin Gilbert's book Kristallnacht: Prelude to destruction, which summarised the events of 10 November 1938: "A day in which violence against the Jews of Germany was unleashed in a whirlwind of destruction.

"In 24 hours of violence, 91 Jews were killed [and] more than 30,000 Jewish men between the ages of 16 and 60 . . . were arrested and sent to concentration camps. There they were tortured and tormented for several months."

After the service, the Dean of Westminster, the Very Revd John Hall, described the gathering as "extraordinary".

"This is obviously a profoundly moving and important anniversary.We had no idea that it was going to be as popular as this. To have over 1500 people here was really quite extraordinary."

Forthcoming Events

2 July 2022
Bringing Down the Mighty: Church, Theology and Structural Injustice
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4-8 July 2022
HeartEdge Mission Summer School
From HeartEdge and St Augustine’s College of Theology.

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