Kristallnacht was the beginning of the end

Ruth Zimbler, a Kristallnacht Holocaust Survivor reflection on how that day changed her life forever

 (photo credit: JPOST STAFF)
(photo credit: JPOST STAFF)
Ruth is 92 years old.  Born in Vienna in 1928.  Her family lived in an apartment in the biggest synagogue complex in Vienna, as her father worked in the Jewish community.  Apartment buildings lined either side of the synagogue, (which seated 2240 people). Aged just 10-years-old on Kristallnacht, Ruth watched the synagogue burn down.  Life changed drastically. On December 10th (a month after Kristallnacht), Ruth and her 6-year-old brother were sent on the kindertransport to Holland.  Her parents remained in Vienna and ultimately they were reunited in the United States.  Her message is, "We have to support one another and ensure that we teach the message of the Holocaust and motivate people to follow this dictum ‘Let there be peace on earth and it let it begin with you.’ We cannot remain bystanders, we need to be upstanders."

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Tell us about yourself, family background, before and after the Shoah.

I lived with my mother, father and younger brother, Walter (4 years younger than me) in Vienna, Austria.  I was born in 1928 and attended the local public school where I spoke German and after school I attended Hebrew School.  My father, Markus, worked in Vienna’s Jewish community as a social worker and my mother, Hella, was a seamstress. Our apartment was attached to the city's largest synagogue.  On the whole, we lived a very privileged life in Austria prior to Kristallnacht. But Kristallnacht really was the beginning of the end. With Kristallnacht everything changed. It was the last time that non-Jewish kids played with us and that our lives resembled anything close to normalcy.

What is your earliest memory from childhood?

My earliest memory is going with my mother on a vacation not too far from Vienna and not liking the tomato sauce she made for me! I also remember my mother lighting Shabbat candles every week and after she lit the candles, she would put some coins in the blue charity box.

What do you remember from Kristallnacht? Can you describe the events as you remember them, your feelings?

I was 10 at the time.  The caretaker came to my parents early in the morning of Kristallnacht and told them to leave as there were going to be problems.  We left for the day and when we came back later that day, we watched as the synagogue burned to the ground.  We could not return to our apartment for ten days and stayed with friends instead. When we did return to the apartment, everything had been stripped and looted. There was nothing left in our apartment. I watched as my father and housekeeper were arrested. My father was sent to Dachau, where he thankfully was released a few days later.  

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How did the Kristallnacht pogrom affect your life? Do you carry this memory until today?

The time after Kristallnacht was filled with fear and with indignity. I was not allowed to borrow books from the library where I loved to spend time.  Non-Jewish children simply stopped playing with us. I well remember that after Kirstallnacht, my favorite teacher wore a swastika.  My parents realized that it was not safe for their children to remain in Austria and so they made the most painful decision to send me and my brother on the Kindertransport to Holland in December 1938.  Just imagine being 10 years old, being separated from your parents and responsible for taking care of your 6-year-old brother. We were sent to a government-donated manor home in the Hague. My whole life changed drastically.  We lived in Holland until October 1939, when me and Walter boarded a boat to the United States, where we were ultimately- and very luckily - reunited with our parents.

Why do you think it is important to tell this story, 82 years after it happened?

I believe it is important to tell the story because I want everyone to understand that this is not a made-up story.  It is real. I lived through the worst kind of injustice possible with my family and I want everyone to learn from this. People must learn not to stand idly by, we cannot let injustices happen.  Everyone has to learn to become upstanders not bystanders and I hope I can motivate them to do this by hearing my story.

Do you think the world has learned the lessons of Kristallnacht?

I certainly hope so, but the world is still filled with injustices and I want to do my part to inspire others to ensure these injustices never ripen and develop into another Holocaust. That’s why I talk about it all the time. I hope that those who hear me believe it.

What is your message for the younger generation?

I hope that when I speak it gives people hope that things will get better. I lived through this horror and my life was changed forever. I want people to learn to support and love one another.  Quite simply, I want people to understand the message, "let there be peace on earth and let it begin with you."
This article was written in cooperation with March of the Living.

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