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Twelve-year-old Robert May looked at his reflection in the broken glass and saw a young boy whose eyes were filled with fear and uncertainty. He remembers thinking, “Broken glass, broken spirits … no place is safe. Everything has changed, and our lives will never be the same.”
Kristallnacht occurred on November 9, 1938. In one night, hundreds of Jewish synagogues were destroyed; 91 Jews were killed; 30,000 Jews were arrested, many thrown into concentration camps; 7,500 Jewish businesses were vandalized or destroyed; and thousands of Jewish homes were ransacked. In the aftermath, Hitler’s regime made certain that Jews would no longer be safe. Kristallnacht came to stand for the shattering of Jewish existence in Germany.
When Hitler came to power, Robert was a seven-year-old student in public school in Camberg, Germany. At first, neither he nor his parents felt threatened or experienced antisemitism. But within three years, everything changed. By the time Robert entered third grade, he was tormented by the Hitler Youth, and his parents’ store was boycotted daily.
In 1936, Robert went to live with his Aunt Emma in Frankfurt so that he could attend the Philanthropin, a Jewish Day School. On Kristallnacht, he and his aunt were warned that something bad was going to happen and that they should be out of the apartment that night. They left and spent the day and night on the street. When they returned, everything in the apartment had been smashed. The situation was much worse in Camberg where Robert’s parents had also been warned by a neighbor. Robert learned that his parents had spent Kristallnacht hiding in the Jewish Cemetery and were later taken to jail (in “protective custody”) for a few nights. They were released unharmed, but their store and home were destroyed.
The next month, it was arranged for Robert to travel to Brighton, England, to attend a Jewish boarding school. In June 1940, because of the bombing in England, he and the other students were evacuated to Wales. Meanwhile, his parents moved from Frankfurt to Holland to England. The family anxiously awaited visas so that they could leave war-torn Europe and travel to America. On August 8, 1940, they boarded a ship in Liverpool, England, and docked in New Orleans on September 9, 1940.
Not everyone in Robert’s family escaped the Holocaust. Three family members perished, including his Aunt Emma who died at Auschwitz.
Today, on a shelf, in a special place in Robert’s home, sits one small remnant of his childhood – a tiny silver bowl that was rescued from the rubble of Kristallnacht. As he turns the bowl around in his hand, his thoughts return to the past.
“So much was destroyed that night, but I have this one piece that survived, this one small keepsake from home.”