Seventy years ago, hatred shattered Lisl Schick's world. She remembers Nov. 9, 1938, the date that would become known as Kristallnacht, German for "Night of Broken Glass." Nazi soldiers arrested 30,000 Jews, burned synagogues and ransacked Jewish businesses. Historians regard Kristallnacht as the start of the Holocaust, during which more than 6-million Jews died.
Schick, who was 10 at the time, lived in Vienna with her parents, an accountant and a homemaker. Schick and her 7-year-old brother escaped because their parents shipped them to England on the Kindertransport, trains that took Jewish children to safety.
We spoke with Schick, now 80, last week after she shared her story with high school students at the Florida Holocaust Museum.
Did you know what was going on that night?
We had no idea. We didn't hear anything because we were five stories up in an apartment building.
When you left your building the next morning, what did you see?
Hundreds of men on their hands and knees. They had these little brushes in their hands. There was broken glass all around, and they were scrubbing and scrubbing and trying to clean it up. These horrible (soldiers) were standing there. They had these whips, and they just kept whipping and whipping. I looked at my dad and I said, "What's happening? How can this be?" We went back into the house very quickly. We never went to school that day.
Did you realize then that your family was in imminent danger?
That was really a defining moment in my life because I said, "Oh, my God, I've heard them talk about we should try and leave? Maybe it'll change." Well, it's obviously not going to change. It's just going to get worse and worse. When my parents asked me if I would go (to England), I think my first reaction was, well I don't know how to speak English. But then I had this picture in my mind. I said, "I've got to get out of here."
What was your life like in the months after Kristallnacht before you boarded the Kindertransport?
All the hobbies I talked about: the swimming pool, the library, the park, the ice skating rink, we couldn't do any of that. We couldn't go to the movies. Nothing. We just existed really, and people were being arrested. We heard of people leaving, and (my family) tried to get out. They tried every place. I remember one of the places was Trinidad. They were letting people in. But by the time we got to it, they were already not letting people in.
What did you take in your suitcase when you fled?
Embroidered handkerchiefs, underwear, some clothes that were actually too big. And then I had a little tiny doll steamer trunk with two porcelain dolls in it. One of my granddaughters has it now.
Did you think you'd ever see your parents again?
My parents assured me that they were in touch with people through my dad's bank. They were very confident they would be able to get them out to go to England. My dad (got out). My mother was trying to get into England on what is called a domestic permit. They lost her papers in London. By the time anything else could happen, the war broke out and she couldn't travel. These people from the United States (sent for her). If it hadn't been for that, she would have gone with my grandparents.
What happened to your grandparents?
We heard rumors of concentration camps and deportations. We didn't know what to believe. We finally got proof from the Red Cross. They went to an area in Russia where they had to dig their own graves and were shot. That thought always haunts me.
How many of your relatives died during the Holocaust?
I would say easily 20, 25. I think most of them were on that transport to (Russia), according to the Red Cross. Except for my young uncle. He was in some slave labor camp. Somehow, he was on a march. He couldn't keep up, and they shot him and just left him on the side of the road.
Many Holocaust survivors are growing old. What will happen when there are no survivors to give first-person accounts?
Our only hope is that we have influenced our children and grandchildren and told them our story and made them feel involved, which fortunately my children are. They will have to continue. Otherwise, this will be history. And you know what happens to history? People forget. Some people will say it never happened. Yes it did happen. I was there.
Sherri Day can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3405.