I have long known that my grandmother witnessed Kristallnacht. But it is only this year — as we mark the 80th anniversary of the vicious antisemitic pogrom that exploded across Nazi Germany on Nov. 9 and 10, 1938 — that I have come to learn the details of her harrowing experience.
Now Esti Kalms, my grandmother grew up as Esther Weinstock on Lilienbrunngasse, a small street in Vienna’s 2nd district, just south of the River Danube. In March 1938, nine months before the pogrom, Austria was incorporated into Nazi Germany through the infamous “Anschluss,” and Adolf Hitler was greeted by adoring crowds on the Heldenplatz when he triumphantly arrived in Vienna.
The area where my grandmother lived was home to a significant Orthodox Jewish community, alongside non-Jewish neighbors. The street was relatively narrow for Vienna, lined with fairly large apartment blocks, all four stories high. “From your window you could look into the windows of the houses opposite,” my grandmother told me. There were a few stores on the block and a synagogue that was housed directly below her apartment.
It was the family’s proximity to the synagogue that made her a front row observer to the events of that brutal night, when more than one hundred Jews were murdered, thousands deported to concentration camps, and hundreds of synagogues and Jewish-owned stores were destroyed in the antisemitic frenzy.
My grandmother was 9 years old at the time. She recalls huddling silently at the window of their apartment with her siblings, her mother, who sold knitted goods for a living, and her father, a kabbalist and local rabbi, and “hearing a lot of noise outside in the street.”
The road below was dimly lit, and in their apartment all lights were switched off. “We were told to stand well back from the window, so as not to be seen from the street,” she said. “We thought we would be next.” Down below she saw a group of soldiers and “a lot of the contents of the shul that was one flat below us in the middle of the street.”
“We were obviously quite scared,” she added.
And then a vivid recollection: “In the middle of it all there was one SS man holding up a Sefer Torah (Torah scroll) and kicking downwards with his boot to try and tear it, to destroy it.”
“How stupid is he,” she remembers thinking. “He thinks it’s made out of paper and I know it’s made out of parchment, why doesn’t he realize he’s not going to tear it.”
The scroll didn’t tear, and shortly afterwards the family moved away from the window.
The following day she walked alone to her mother’s shop. On her way there she passed by a large synagogue that they had often attended growing up. “I saw the destruction of that shul and I had to walk into the middle of the road to get past because of the destruction and the rubble,” she said. “You could see the inside of the shul right outside in the street. That made a big impression on me.”
“I was extremely puzzled,” she said. “I didn’t know that this had gone on all over the place and whatever else had gone on that night. It took time to seep through.”
Shortly afterwards she told her parents that she wanted to leave the country, and a month or so later she left for England on the “Kindertransport” with two of her sisters and one of her brothers. Both of her parents, my great-grandparents Dovid and Chaye Ides Weinstock, perished at the hands of the Nazis.
Reflecting back on that fateful night, I asked why she felt the memory of the Nazi with the Torah scroll had remained so lucid all these years.
“It was in fact a microcosm,” she said. “It symbolizes how we are indestructible really. Just as the written word on the Sefer Torah, on the parchment, couldn’t be destroyed in the way he wanted to destroy it, we’ll go on forever.”