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Habonim Kristallnacht Story

“Because That’s What You Do”:
A Habonim Kristallnacht Story
As we are all too aware, in between the years 1938 and 1945, the
worst tragedy ever inflicted on the Jewish People - and possibly
any other people in history, took place. Many mark
the beginning of that tragedy in 1933 with the advent of Adolph
Hitler to power in Germany through democratic means.
But it was in November of 1938, on the “Night of Broken Glass”,
that the world first gained an inkling of the savage intentions of
Hitler and the Nazis. Kristallnacht turned out to be a grim
foreshadowing of what was to happen to the rest of Europe’s
Jews. Spread out over just two days - Nov. 9th and 10th - at the
direct order of Nazi leaders, hundreds of Jewish owned stores
and synagogues were burned (their glass shattered all over the
streets of Germany and Austria), and scores of Jews were
murdered. Over 30,000 German Jews were arrested and sent to
concentration camps. Many of our own synagogue’s members
were among those who experienced these horrific few days.
But as we remember the horror of these days, there are
also courageous deeds that are worthy of being recalled.
One such story concerns one of our late members, Alfred.
Many of your are familiar with this name -
the Altman family were generous donors to a variety of
Habonim’s activities. Alfred was involved in many aspects of the
religious services in the early years, and Denise, Alfred’s wife was
president for a number of years. Every Rosh Hashanah, Alfred’s
gentle voice would be heard reciting the order of the shofar blasts,
followed by his son David blowing the shofar, after each soft
Together with his daughter Jacque, Alfred would chant
the Martyrology on Yom Kippur in memory of the six million
Jews murdered in the Holocaust. And all of this was done in the
presence of the beautiful wooden and bronze ark that Alfred
Altman had built for Habonim, which I am now standing in front
The story about Alfred Altman story I would like to share with
you begins in Alfred’s hometown, Dusseldorf, on Kristallnacht
Dusseldorf was not spared the excesses of Kristallnacht. In fact it
suffered more than many other communities, since the Nazi
diplomat Vom Rath (whose assassination a few days prior to
Kristallnacht was used by the Nazis as a pretext for the riots) was
a native of Dusseldorf. But through a stroke of good fortune,
Alfred and his father escaped physical harm at the hands of the
Nazi storm troopers. Upon hearing that their beloved synagogue
was on fire, father and son left their home in the direction of the
burning synagogue. (After the setting the synagogue aflame, the
Nazis condemned it as unsafe and then forced the Jews -
impoverished from years of Nazi persecution - to pay to tear
down the remains of their beloved synagogue.) Just after Alfred
and his father left for the synagogue, the Nazi troops broke into
the Altman family home, destroying much of the family property
and throwing their possessions on to the sidewalk outside their
store. (Before being expelled, the Altman family owned a custom
dress design shop on Konigs Alle, one of Dusseldorf’s main
streets, and lived in an apartment above the store.)3
A loyal employee, Marta (one of the sowers at the shop the
Altman family owned) witnessed all of this happening. She could
not bear what she saw, and later that night, called her husband to
the scene to help return the family’s possessions to the apartment.
Dusseldorf, the city that was once the home of Heinrich Heine,
Felix Mendelssohn and Rabbi Leo Baeck, saw virtually all of its
Jewish inhabitants annihilated, through deportation and murder.
Only 249 Jews survived out of a pre-war population of 5,100 Jews
and only 25 Jews remained in Dusseldorf in 1946.
Fortunately, the young Alfred Altman was able to escape Europe
shortly after Kristallnacht, as his parents were able to secure a
place for Alfred on the Kindertransport in 1939.
Tragically, Alfred could not take his parents with him - and this
would haunt him for most of the remaining years of his life.
Alfred said goodbye to his parents in a railway station in
Dusseldorf, but for the rest of his life he remained devoted to
their memory – and their tragic fate was to haunt Alfred the rest
of his life.
The question of “Why could he not help his parents” whom he
was so devoted to, stirred up feelings of guilt inside of his soul for
during his life in Canada.
For many years, it seemed as if Alfred was still that young man at
the train station saying goodbye to his parents, unable to forgive
himself for their deaths, and never feeling he had the right to a
happy life.4
And yet, this too began to change in the latter years of his life,
when he returned to Dusseldorf. The critical moment happened
when his children - Jacque and David - were on their own trip to
Dusseldorf. Amazingly enough, they were tracked down by
Marta, the same woman who had helped the family collect their
possessions in the aftermath of Kristallnacht. She shared with
them how she had tried to help Alfred’s parents before the Nazis
deported them to the death camps.
During the first few years of the war, every week this same Marta
would carry a suitcase full of fruit and vegetables to a different
park. At the park she would exchange the suitcase for an empty
one with Alfred’s father, also leaving him a note in the keyhole as
to where the next meeting would take place.
The woman took Jacque and David up to her small apartment
and showed them something that to this day still amazes me. In
the corner of her tiny dwelling there was a collection of items, all
belonging to the Altman family.
Remarkably, for over half a century, this same woman had
guarded the family’s possessions – plates and pieces of art even
one, which still had the imprint of a Nazi boot stamped in it. She
has been faithfully guarding these items, waiting all these years to
return these precious possessions to the Altman family. What a
contrast to so many other stories where neighbors could not wait
to plunder their Jewish friends homes after they were deported.
(According to his wife Denise, Alfred’s return trip to Dusseldorf
and his reunion with Marta was a catharsis for him. It gave him
confidence and helped him lose some of his fears about life.” As a
result his relationship with his family further deepened and
matured with each passing year.)5
When Marta was complimented for her actions, she would
interrupt gruffly and say:
‘I did it, because that’s what you do. And my daughter would do
the same...”
Thus even when we recall the grim events of the Holocaust, we
must also remember there were people who resisted the evil that
surrounded them, whose actions we much pledge to honor and
perhaps emulate, in some small way, in our own lives.
[Congregation Habonim, established in 1954, was the first synagogue in
Canada to be founded by Holocaust survivors. Many of its founders and
early members fled from Germany and Austria, and were first hand
witnessed to the horrific events of Kristallnacht. Given its history and
early composition, the synagogue traditionally holds a service or event
marking the anniversary of Kristallnacht. The above introduction was
given by Eli Rubenstein, Religious Leader of the Congregation, for a
number of years following the passing of Alfred Altman in 2002, at the
Congregation’s annual Kristallnacht commemoration.]

Thu, June 13 2024 7 Sivan 5784