Johannes’ Eyewitness Account of Kristallnacht, November 9-10, 1938

After 1 A.M., the Sturmabteilung (Stormtroopers) began to invade every single Jewish residence, and to destroy everything, but absolutely everything, and this part of the action then went on uninterrupted for the next 14 hours.  As long as it was night, this activity was played out in the interiors of the residences – but when it got light around 6 A.M. they started throwing the broken furniture through the windows and out into the street.

In front of a large shoe store, owned by a Jewish woman whose husband had been killed in action in the world war … a detachment of brownshirts had assembled.  We arrived just in time to see two of them starting – on a given signal – to break the shop windows.  This done, they forced the entrance and the whole group rushed into the store.  It was one of those modern places with plenty of glass, attractive wood paneling on the walls, every shelf full of shoe-boxes.  Twenty minutes later it was so completely devastated that no bombshell could have done a more thorough job.  No piece of glass, no piece of wood was unbroken.  The carpets were cut up, the lamps torn from ceiling and walls, shelves, tables, chairs smashed to pieces.  The problem of destroying thousands of shoes in a hurry other than by fire had been solved in an ingenious way:  they had been strewn all over the place and then oil paint had been poured over and into them.  When they had finished their job, the wrecking crew, lined up two deep, stood at attention in perfect military discipline, drilled into them by endless training, and marched off.

Johannes and Elfriede write about how important their exchange of letters is to them, April 1939

[Johannes to Elfriede, April 13.] It seems like I haven’t heard from you forever, and it also seems like I haven’t written forever, but neither of those things is true:  I wrote last Friday and your letter of the 30th came Saturday.  I’m a little worried by your last two letters, and I think it’s ok for me to write you that.  You’ve spoiled me with your letters, not only in their number but in their content, so much so that I have to adjust to it when you sometimes send me a letter that isn’t as cheerful as usual.  For this reason may I suggest that you only write when you are really in the mood to?  I wouldn’t want writing to me to become an obligation or even a chore, so that you heave some big sigh, oh God, now I have to write again and I’m dead tired, so that I’d rather go to bed or read something pleasant.  I hope you know without my saying so that I wait for the mail every morning and have to take care not to let the others see my disappointment if nothing’s there.

[Elfriede to Johannes, April 21]  When I read your letter, for the first time in – how long is it?  months? – I came within a hair’s breadth of really crying.  A sentence like “I wouldn’t want writing to me to become an obligation or even a chore, etc.” is something I never, never want to hear again and never, never want to read again.  Of course I write letters in different moods, sometimes with more of a positive outlook, sometimes less – you do the same.  But these letters, both those that I write and those that I get, have simply become my daily bread and I have to write them, even when I’m feeling completely miserable and even when I’m dead tired.


Johannes Gets an American Job, March 1939

A week ago last Friday, Mr. Phillips came to me unexpectedly on behalf of the Executive Director to ask if I would be able to give full time to the Charter Committee.  He said they couldn’t pay me anywhere close to what my work would be worth to them;  on the contrary, it would hardly be more than an expense allowance, but it would at least give me official standing if I were made an employee, and perhaps that would be useful for me later on.

Dear, can you imagine what these sentences meant to me?  You hold your tongue, you do what you’re supposed to do, secretly hoping all the time that it will pay off – and after three weeks someone does indeed come and offer you exactly what you were hoping for in the most secret corner of your heart.  Someone comes to me and offers me a job!  I don’t have to hide from you how I reacted:  I was barely able to make it out of the office and into the elevator;  then, however, I couldn’t help myself, so that the elevator operator was visibly astonished by the extensive amount of business that my handkerchief had to do with my eyes.  Darling, it is really only a very tiny little job, and I will get only 65 dollars, so I could hardly even support just myself on that.  In addition, any week now the whole thing could be over when we finish the bulk of our work.  But it’s a beginning, and it’s in a field that I would have chosen over all others.

Elfriede’s Narrow Escape from Europe.  Letter written shortly before she boarded a ship for America, October 23, 1939

Now it looks like we’ll finally get out of here and get to you.  I very much hope that no calamity befalls us on the way other than seasickness, because as Paul pointedly noted, you can take Vasano for seasickness but for torpedoes you can only take a life boat.  On the other hand, the prospect of torpedoes doesn’t really bother me that much.  In response to questions from cautious people at home, asking whether I was really going to risk the passage in these dangerous times, I answered that it’s pretty much the same to me whether a bomb falls on my head in Düsseldorf or if a torpedo hits some other part of my body on the ocean.  On the other hand, I have to admit that a bomb shelter is still warmer than the North Atlantic in October.


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