The lasting impact a Kristallnacht survivor had on my teen and me

The lasting impact a Kristallnacht survivor had on my teen and me

Today is the anniversary of Kristallnacht. On November 9, 1938, SA paramilitary forces and civilians smashed Jewish businesses in Nazi Germany with sledgehammers and axes. Kristallnacht means "crystal night" and "night of the broken glass."

This spring, I chaperoned my teen's field trip to the  Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center. In addition to touring the museum, our group heard from Henry Strauss. He shared what it was like to live through Kristallnacht, which happened when he was a third grader living in Essen, Germany.

His description of that horrible night, as well as the events leading up to and following it, was powerful, to say the least. The teens were riveted, hanging on his every word.

He shared what the Nazis did to terrorize him, his family, his schoolmates, his community and the world. Henry explained what it was like to have his father separated from him and his mother, and later learn that he had been sent to Dachau.

Remarkably, his father made it out of Dachau and reunited with Henry and his mother. They made it to America not long after.

Henry graciously said he would answer questions from the students. One girl raised her hand.

"What gave you the strength to survive all of this?" she asked.

Henry paused.

"No one has ever asked me that before," he replied.

Then, he thought for a few moments and thoughtfully answered that his parents gave him strength.

I cannot begin to imagine the challenges and terror that Mrs. Strauss faced. The admiration her in that auditorium, decades later, was palpable.

She was the best mother she could be in the worst of times.  She handled unimaginable and horrific circumstances in a way that reassured her son. She not only kept him safe, she gave him strength.  Not only that, she kept the light inside him alive.

That light shone in his words and his smile and his gentle way talking with the teens.

It was especially bright when he recalled the hope that came with the family's arrival in the United States and what it was like for him to start fourth grade in a school in Chicago.

A student asked if he was discriminated when he arrived in America.

"No," he answered, and added with a laugh that he did figure out quickly that lederhosen was not the best fashion choice for fourth grade. But he said he felt welcome here.

When I think I'm having a tough day as a parent, I think of Henry's mother.

I am grateful for the instant perspective check she provides.

And a reminder of how parents matter and our behavior impacts our children in ways that we may not ever understand.

I'm so grateful to have chaperoned the field trip, not only because it was so moving hear Henry's experience, but also because I was introduced to Mrs. Strauss through her son.

In large part because of her and how she raised him, he was educating children about both the best and worst of human nature, and giving them his first-hand knowledge so that they are empowered to make the world better.

I am so grateful to her and to her son.

My daughter has mentioned Henry several different times in conversation since the field trip. He made a big impact on us both, and I suspect that down the road, my daughter will think even more about Henry's mother, too.

It was a privilege to watch how these 13 and 14 year-old kids processed the information, then and now.  They responded in ways that were far more mature than I anticipated or gave them credit for when we walked into the Illinois Holocaust Museum.

We all left that museum changed.

You can learn about another Kristallnacht survivor's memories on the Illinois Holocaust Museum's website here. If you are interested in learning more, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum offers many resources, including personal stories of survivors and victims of the Holocaust, here.

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