German Holocaust Survivor Recounts Kristallnacht in New Book
“Mazel Tov” is the customary response to the sound of shattering glass at the conclusion of a Jewish wedding ceremony. But for a young Fred (Fritz) Behrend, the sounds of breaking glass were not a time to celebrate.
The harrowing events that defined Behrend’s formative years are chronicled in an engrossing new book, Rebuilt from Broken Glass: A German Jewish Life Remade in America, which was co-authored with Larry Hanover.
In the book, we learn about the years leading up to Holocaust as witnessed though the eyes of a 12-year old child, who led a life of innocence and privilege — a life shattered by the Nazis, and eventually Kristallnacht (“the night of broken glass”).
Young Fred grew up in Ludenscheid, a city in western Germany. He vividly recalls the parades and sharpshooting contests, where he was thrilled by the goose-stepping Nazi stormtroopers giving a proud “Heil Hitler” salute to the cheering crowd. His parents stood in silence, under banners emblazoned with swastikas, never uttering a word of disapproval — for fear of being reported to the authorities by some anonymous informant.
In those years, Fred’s father owned a financially successful ladies’ silk and linens store, called Robert Stern. The shop was later looted and destroyed by Nazi thugs — on Kristallnacht.
Prior to that ill-fated night, the family lived in a compound reminiscent of the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port — but on a smaller scale — replete with a gardener, cook, maid and chauffeur. Incidences of antisemitism were initially only a small part of Fred’s early life, but over a short period of time, they became overt — to the point that one of his boyhood neighbors threw stones at him, accompanied with shouts of “Judenschwein” (“Jewish pig”).
At first, the Behrends were immobilized by disbelief at to what was happening in their beloved Germany. The family had lived in Germany for more than 400 years, and never dreamed that a highly civilized country could undergo such a hate-filled transformation against fellow Germans. Fred’s father even received the Cross of Honor for having served on the front lines of defense in World War I.
But none of that mattered to the growing menace of an irrational and infectious hatred of Jews by their fellow countrymen — a hatred fueled by the propaganda machine of Joseph Goebbels, which blamed Germany’s woes on the Jews.
In September 1935, the Nazis enacted the Nuremberg Laws. Those laws excluded German Jews from Reich citizenship, and prohibited them from marrying or having sexual relations with Germans or persons with German-related blood.
From that time, it was but a short leap to the “beginning of the end” of life in Germany for the Behrends and all other Jews. During Kristallnacht, which occurred in 1938, Fred’s father was arrested and deported to Sachsenhausen concentration camp. That terrible night was the darkest moment in young Fred’s life.
Fred and his family were forced to flee what had been their family’s homeland for more than four centuries; luckily, the family eventually made its way to the safe harbor of the United States.
Undeterred by a tragic past, Fred Behrend was determined to gather the shards of what had been his life, and craft a new future for himself and his family. At age 18, he joined the US Army, and was assigned as a companion German translator to the father of the US space program, Wernher von Braun.
After the war Behrend raised a family and became a successful businessman. Today, Fred is retired, and has embarked upon chronicling the history of his family as a way of teaching the lessons of the Holocaust to future generations — so that they learn why it is important to “never forget.”