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Kristallnacht survivor recalls the 'Night of Broken Glass' 85 years later

Irving Bienstock with his late wife Lillian in 2018.
Courtesy of Irving Bienstock and The Levine Jewish Community Center
Irving Bienstock with his late wife Lillian in 2018.

Thursday marks the 85th anniversary of Kristallnacht — known as the Night of Broken Glass. On Nov. 9, 1938, Nazis terrorized the Jewish community in Germany — they smashed windows to Jewish businesses, Jewish homes were broken into and ransacked, and synagogues were burned. Some 30,000 Jewish men we arrested and deported to concentration camps.

Charlotte resident 97-year-old Irving Bienstock was a young boy in Germany when Adolf Hitler came to power and remembers that day.

He remembers seeing flames outside his family’s apartment. Synagogues were being set on fire.

 "They were burning, you could see," Bienstock said. "The firemen were there, but they made the fire."
He was 12 years old at the time and remembers the sounds elevating from the streets as Nazis went into Jewish homes.

"People were yelling [in German]  ‘out with Jews, kill them.’ They were going from house to house where Jewish people lived beating up Jewish people, wrecking their homes, and taking many of the men into custody and they wound up in concentration camps," he said.

Nazis eventually came to his front door. But Bienstock’s family was briefly spared from the ransacking when an upstairs neighbor who he describes as a Christian woman, intervened. Before they could push their way in, she told the Nazis that Irving’s family had already been deported and that no one was home. Her story worked at the time, but a mob later returned, with them a police officer.

"[The mob] started to break our dishes, the window, cutting up our bedding. My mother said to the policeman ‘You are a policeman, you can stop this!’ he says ‘You dirty Jew, we warned you to get out of Germany, you shouldn’t be here today anymore, you should be out of Germany.’"

His mother grabbed Irving and his sister and headed to the police department that was just blocks away. When they got there they asked the officer on duty for help. The officer said he would put them in protective custody. Irving’s mother knew those who went into protective custody, never came out. They returned to their destroyed home.

"So my mother tried to figure out, should we clean it up or leave it the way it is? If they come back and see that it’s clean, they would start all over again," he said. "So she decided not to clean it up. The only thing that she did was she got someone to put in new glass windows because it was cold, and we couldn’t stay there with it being that cold."

His mother knew she had to get her children out of Germany. Her husband had already left to escape being placed in a concentration camp. At some point in the chaos of Kristallnacht, she instructed Bienstock to quickly go buy a suitcase. As he walked through the streets, he was surrounded by violence.

"There were still people in the streets. There was a man who lived on the end of the street. They threw up out of the building from the second floor out of the window," he said. "He was laying there and they were kicking him and beating him. I saw it happening and I walked right past him, I couldn’t help him or do anything. Eventually, they killed him."

In the days that followed, Bienstock’s mother was able to successfully get his sister on a train to Holland. But she couldn’t cross the border with her daughter. A fellow passenger agreed to stand in as the young girl’s mother and was able to get her the rest of the way to Holland safely.

Irving is a veteran who served the United States once he became a citizen.
Courtesy of Irving Bienstock and The Levine Jewish Community Center
Irving is a veteran who served the United States once he became a citizen.

On Jan. 15, 1939, Bienstock’s mother took him to the train station. This time, she had to leave her child on the train, alone with no one there to guarantee he would make it. She had to leave him and hope he would arrive unharmed in Holland. He was left with about $4 in his pocket and one suitcase. And with a determination to find safety when the train stopped.

Miraculously, Bienstock was reunited with his younger sister, they were placed in the same children’s home run by the Jewish community. And eventually, the entire family was reunited in New York — including Bienstock’s father and mother.

This story originally aired on "Charlotte Talks," to hear the full program click here.


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Sarah Delia is a Senior Producer for Charlotte Talks with Mike Collins. Sarah joined the WFAE news team in 2014. An Edward R. Murrow Award-winning journalist, Sarah has lived and told stories from Maine, New York, Indiana, Alabama, Virginia and North Carolina. Sarah received her B.A. in English and Art history from James Madison University, where she began her broadcast career at college radio station WXJM. Sarah has interned and worked at NPR in Washington DC, interned and freelanced for WNYC, and attended the Salt Institute for Radio Documentary Studies.