Irma ( R) and her friend Lydia pose in front of the Frauenkirche.
There will be no communal event to commemorate the Reich Kristallnacht pogrom on 9 November this year. Some of us may easily overlook the date. We may even ask ourselves of what relevance Kristallnacht is to our lives today.
For Irma Hanner, aged 90 years, Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, will be etched in her memory forever. On 9 November, a memory candle will be lit by Irma from her orange bricked Caulfield villa.
Irma was eight years old when Kristallnacht turned her life upside down and changed it forever. Irmgard Conradi (birth name) was born on 9 June 1930 in Dresden, capital of Saxony, Germany. Her family had lived in Germany for centuries, making Dresden their permanent home in the nineteenth century, when Dresden had earned its reputation as Florence on the Elbe. Vast green spaces, splendid Baroque architecture, museums and galleries made Dresden a cultural capital of Europe.
The Jewish population of Dresden was tiny, even compared with other cities in Germany, constituting less than 0.2 percent of Dresden’s population. One third of the community were not wealthy enough to pay taxes. Nevertheless, the Jewish community was a tight knit, optimistic and organized one that believed in a future in Dresden. Jewish Community representatives bought a plot of land on the east side of the Elbe River in the 1830s and commissioned the liberal architect Godfrey Semper to design a Jewish Temple there.
Semper, who had designed seven other major buildings in Dresden, including the breathtaking Opera House, undertook the commission for a modest fee. It was a spectacular building, the biggest synagogue in Germany at the time, housing 300 men and 200 women. Services were conducted in German and accompanied by organ and choir. The exterior of the Temple was designed in a Romanesque style whilst the interior spoke to the oriental origins of the Mosaic people, resplendent in Moorish style. Semper also designed all the interior furnishings of the Temple including the eternal light and Stars of David placed at the entrance and exit. The Semper Temple had been inaugurated on 8 May 1840 “for all eternity”, by Rabbi Zacharias Frankel, who declared it a “symbol of respect for religious freedom inspiring this people”.
Even as late as 1935, the same year that the Nuremberg laws were issued, an additional wing opened in the Temple, planned in the previous years to accommodate an extra 150 people as a result of Jewish emigration to Dresden from the East between 1905-1925. It was simply inconceivable for some Dresden Jews that apartheid style laws could become a permanent fixture in Dresden. For others, it was totally unbelievable that long lasting harm would come to the Jews of Dresden in a city that prided itself on the saying ‘die Kunst hatVoorang’, ‘art takes precedence’. Still others watched with horror and dread, precluded by lack of resources from leaving Germany. Irma’s family belonged to this latter group. Her grandmother Martha died in 1935, perhaps from a broken heart and the vicissitudes of her family’s life.
Over the ensuing years, the reality of the Jewish position in Germany became apparent. Socially and economically isolated, life for Dresden Jews, poor and rich alike, became intolerable. By 1938, the few Jewish businesses left operating were compelled to display yellow signs declaring “Jewish business”. Those non-Jews married to non-Jews prior to the ban on interracial marriage, were placed under tremendous pressure to divorce and excluded from their profession. Irma’s gentile Uncle Walter Hempel, married to her mother’s sister Charlotte, had already dismissed from his position as a musician in a swing orchestra, on account of it being ‘degenerate’. Walter was hauled before the Gestapo, imprisoned and interrogated. As ‘punishment’ for refusing to divorce Charlotte, Walter’s apartment was confiscated. The ‘mixed racial’ couple were forcibly relocated to a poor industrial area and forbidden to ‘fraternize’ with any Aryans. The Gestapo paid nightly ‘visits’ to the couple. Walter never performed again.
In October 1938, Irma was still able to attend school as she was enrolled in the elementary Jewish school which was attached to the Semper Synagogue. Jewish children enrolled in non-Jewish schools were already forbidden from attending school. However, Irma’s class size continually dwindled owing to the ‘disappearance’ of her classmates. During October over 700 Dresden Jews of Polish origin were deported to Riga from Dresden’s main train station. Irma became withdrawn and unable to focus in the classroom.
Between 27-29 October 1938, just two weeks before the November Pogrom, 20 000 Jews were expelled from Germany to Poland. Many of the deported Jews were placed at the border as refugees and refused entry for weeks. Over 40 percent of these Jews were born in Germany. Their arrests and deportations came as a total shock.
News of the deportations to Poland reached Herschel Grynszpan, a 17-year-old German living in Paris, whose parents had been deported from Hanover. He stormed the German embassy on 7 November and shot Ernst von Rath, a diplomat on duty who later died. Goebbels, Minister of Propaganda, seized on the opportunity to galvanize the German people and called for an attack on Jewish businesses and synagogues. Within hours of Goebbels speech, Kristallnacht began, continuing all night and lasting into the next day.
In Germany on November 9, 1938, over 500 synagogues were destroyed and 30 000 Jewish males arrested and deported to concentration camps. In Dresden, a ‘spontaneous ‘protest began just a few hundred meters away from the Semper Temple on Tathausplatz. Jewish shop windows were smashed and looted before they arrived at the Temple. A group of SA had already arrived and set the Semper Temple alight. When the fire engines and even a fireboat on the River Elbe arrived, they were turned back by the SS only later permitted access to ensure the fire did not spread. Dr Kulge, the burgomaster of Dresden declared, “The symbol of the hereditary racial enemy has finally been extinguished.”
Over 150 Dresden Jews including Jewish Community representatives were arrested and imprisoned on the night of Kristallnacht, later deported to Buchenwald. Amongst these men was Irma’s Uncle Max. On November 15, 1938, the Dresden District Court authorized the demolition of the remainder of the Semper Temple by dynamite. The Jewish Community was ordered to pay the demolition costs. The demolition was filmed by a camera crew ‘for all eternity’.
In the immediate days after the November Pogrom, Uncle Walter managed to intervene, and negotiated Max’s release from prison. With no time to waste, papers were precipitously organized, and a visa obtained for England on condition that Max serve in the armed forces. As a qualified electrician, Max’s skills were highly sought after. Officially, for the Nazis, the paperwork said Shanghai. Irma remembers walking Uncle Max to the art nouveau station in Neustdadt where they hugged goodbye and cried.
Irma and her mother Rosa remained trapped in Dresden.
Later in the month, Irma’s apartment building would have been adorned with a sign, “NO JEWS LIVE HERE”. Rosa and Irma were evicted from the apartment which the family had rented for over twenty years. The Jewish Community provided free housing for Irma and her mother at 20 Bautzner Strasse where a sign saying “JEWS LIVE HERE” was on prominent display. A makeshift classroom operated for a little while at the Jewish Community School, until it was closed by the Nazis. A sad day arrived for Irma when her best girlfriend Lydia announced that the family had secured visas to Argentina and were departing imminently. Only months before, Irma and Lydia had posed together for a photograph in front of the iconic Frauenkirche, like so many Dresdeners had done before them. Innocent and oblivious of what was to come.
Irma was deported in 1942 to Theresienstadt aged twelve. She survived the Holocaust against all odds.
Only 6 children, including Irma, out of 250 children at the Dresden Jewish Community Elementary school survived the Holocaust.
Charlotte and Walter Hempel survived in Dresden amidst tremendous hardship as slave labourers.
Max Conradi served in the British Army for the duration of World War Two.
Rosa Conradi, Irma’s mother, was arbitrarily arrested for “racial disgrace” less than a year after Kristallnacht. It was only in 2009 that Irma and her family were able to discover Rosa’s fate. Rosa was deported from Bautzner Strasse to prison, then to Ravensbruck Women’s Concentration Camp. She was murdered by gas at Bernburg euthanasia Centre, Saxony, in 1942.
On the evening of 9 November, light a candle.
Even for a minute.
Remember what can happen anywhere when human rights and democracy are eroded.
There will be an on online Jewish Holocaust Centre event to commemorate Kristallnacht 2020 For details see here