89. Dark Entrance

By Peter Fraenkel

Chance affects lives more than we like to admit.  So it was at 22 Kuerassierstrasse, Breslau.  The entrance lobby on each floor was well lit. Two apartments led off on each floor. These were three bedroom apartments. All except one – ours.  In our case one room had been cut off to serve as a storeroom for the concierge. I got a quick peek in once: Brooms, brushes and cleaning materials were stored there and a vacuum cleaner. A new entrance to the flat – our flat – had been constructed a few steps further from the entrance lobby. So our brass name-plate ‘Dr. Hans Fraenkel’ was in a place a little dark, but visitors always found us without difficulty and so did the postman. It had never worried us.  And who could have predicted that this entrance in the dark might save my father from the Nazi’s concentration camp? Perhaps it even saved his life.

On November 10th 1938 – the morning of the infamous Krystallnacht pogrom – our cleaning lady, Frau Klose, arrived, as always, with warm bread rolls from the baker. That day, however, she also brought worrying news: Nazi storm troopers had been in our building an hour earlier and had arrested two men – both Jews. Similar arrests, she reported, appeared to be going on all over the town. Minutes later Uncle Max phoned to say the great synagogue was on fire. Stormtroopers were preventing the fire brigade from putting out the flames.

My father said “I’m not going to hang around here and wait for them to come for me. I ‘m walking into town to hide in the crowd.”

Thinking about it later, this was not really in character: I had never thought of my father as particularly adventurous or brave. As a small boy I had often demanded stories about his heroism during his military service in World War I but I was disappointed.  He had very few.

“If I had been a hero,” he said, “you, my son, would never have been born.”

But that day he was prepared to brave the turbulent city.  My mother, greatly agitated, protested “What if they arrest you off the street? How will I ever get to hear …. or get to know where you’ve been taken? Take the boy with you.  He can come back and report.”

Friends have often expressed amazement that my mother appeared willing to send her child into danger. But no! At that time none of us would have believed the Nazis would harm a child. We still had not grasped, by 1938, what sort of people we were facing.

I witnessed smashed up shops, posters “don’t buy from Jews”, dozens of broken bottles outside a bar and liquor flowing down the gutter.  Silent onlookers struggled to avoid puddles of booze on the pavement. And then we came to a burning synagogue – one of the largest in the country.

I was afraid, but not for myself – only for my father.

They did come to look for him an hour after we had left our apartment but they never came back a second time. He was never arrested. They were not as efficient as we had feared.

Those arrested were beaten. They were made to break up rocks and to carry heavy loads of stones. Usually they were forced to spend two months or even three in these concentration camps. Some, like my cousin Benno’s father, never recovered from the maltreatment. He died a little later in 1938.  This might have happened to my father, too.  He was far from robust.

Probably it was that entrance in the dark that saved his life.