Veterens: Crystal clear memories of Kristallnacht

John Katten tells of the night the synagogue in Bamberg was burned to the ground – and how they escaped.

John Katten (photo credit: Courtesy)
John Katten
(photo credit: Courtesy)
John Katten, born Hans in 1928 in Bamberg, Germany, remembers Kristallnacht as though it happened yesterday.
“The older I get, the more I remember,” says the 84-year-old architect who grew up in England, who managed to escape with his family in 1939 and made aliya with his wife Brenda in 1988.
“My father was the spiritual leader of the Bamberg community and, even though the anti-Jewish decrees were getting worse, he did not want to leave,” recalls Katten. “Even when all the Jewish children, including me, were thrown out of school and shops had signs saying ‘Don’t sell to Jews’ and ‘Boycott Jewish shops,’ he still thought it could not get any worse. ‘We can live with it,’ he said.”
“My father was very German,” he continues.
“He had fought in the First World War and his family could trace their being in Germany back to 1646. My mother was Hungarian, the daughter of the head of a rabbinical seminary in Breslau, and they met when my father went to study there; He fell in love with her smile, he used to say.
They used to argue constantly about leaving, but it wasn’t until Kristallnacht that my father agreed.”
On the night of November 9, 1938, the beautiful Bamberg synagogue was set on fire, as were hundreds of others throughout Germany.
“We watched in disbelief,” he recalls. “At first we thought it had been an electrical fault. I was allowed to go and look and I cycled there, although my mother stopped my father from going, which probably saved his life, as the president of the community, Willy Lessing, was beaten and later died.”
The 10-year-old boy with artistic leanings assumed it was more of a lark than anything else. Only later did he come to understand the significance and the depth of hatred into which the German people had sunk.
Many years later, when he took up painting as a hobby after he moved to Israel, one of his most searing works is of the synagogue of his childhood going up in flames.
With the intervention of Chief Rabbi of the UK Joseph Hertz, who knew his Hungarian grandfather, the family managed to get visas to England.
“We flew from Frankfurt, and from the airport in London a bus took us and dropped us in the middle of London in Tottenham Court Road. My father had a pound and a few shillings and found us a hotel for the night. One of the waitresses spoke German, being Swiss, and she took us to her Italian landlady who had a spare room. My father spoke to her in Latin.”
The next day they found a soup kitchen where, for a penny, one could get a bowl of soup and for tuppence a piece of bread with it. Somehow, like all the other refugees, they managed to survive and made a good life for themselves in England. For John, everything was an adventure; for his sister the events were much more traumatic and affected her mental state for many years.
Katten became an architect and met his wife Brenda – a past president of WIZO as well as of the Israel, Britain and Commonwealth Association, and today chairwoman of the English-Speaking Residents’ Association – through a friend from his student days.
“He said he’d met a lovely girl – eight years younger than us – and he really liked her but she was too tall for him,” he recalls.
And indeed, even 50 years later, the Kattens make a very distinguished – and tall – couple.
With a son living here and a growing family of grandchildren, they visited often but could not leave elderly parents until 1998 when they settled in Herzliya Pituah. Brenda is busy with her various public offices and activities, and John decided to take up painting as a hobby.
In 1995 he received an invitation from the mayor of Bamberg to be his guest at the consecration of a monument that would mark the place where the synagogue had once stood. The event was to take place on November 9 and, together with 22 other ex- Bamberg Jews, the Kattens travelled to his old hometown.
“It was very strange to be back in Bamberg,” he recalls. “It was as I remembered it but it looked different, with modern cars on the roads and signs not in Gothic script as they had been when I was a child.”
The guests arrived at the place where the synagogue had once stood and the commemorative ceremony began, with speeches about the contribution of the Jewish community to the city. All Katten could see in his mind’s eye, as the officials droned on, was the picture of the flames engulfing their house of worship while the fire brigade stood by just to make sure that none of the adjacent buildings caught fire.
“This is where you stood and celebrated the destruction of our synagogue,” he thought, remembering the photo that documents the event in a 1995 book about Bamberg by Karl H. Mistele. He recalled also the photo dedicating the synagogue in 1910, with the speech from the mayor promising to protect the place, and looked around at the same German people now praising the Jews for their contribution.
“It just made me realize, listening to all this, how humanity can be manipulated and twisted by evil people,” he says.
Today, a new community is growing in Bamberg and a small synagogue was dedicated a few years ago, established mostly by Jews from the former Soviet Union.
“Jewish life is slowly returning to Bamberg,” he says.