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Holocaust survivors observe 'night of broken glass' at Seton Hill University

Stephen Huba
| Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017, 9:03 p.m.
Holocaust survivors Shulamit Bastacky (left) and Yolanda Willis, both of Pittsburgh, watch as candles are lit Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017, during the Kristallnacht Remembrance Interfaith Service at Seton Hill University. Kristallnacht, or the “Night of Broken Glass,” was a 1938 pogrom that targeted Jewish people living in Nazi Germany.
Shane Dunlap | Tribune-Review
Holocaust survivors Shulamit Bastacky (left) and Yolanda Willis, both of Pittsburgh, watch as candles are lit Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017, during the Kristallnacht Remembrance Interfaith Service at Seton Hill University. Kristallnacht, or the “Night of Broken Glass,” was a 1938 pogrom that targeted Jewish people living in Nazi Germany.

Ruth Drescher and her family got out of Germany in the nick of time — they were at sea on the Dutch passenger ship SS Veendam in September 1939 when Germany invaded Poland.

Drescher, 83, of Pittsburgh told an audience at Seton Hill University on Tuesday that the events of Nov. 9, 1938, started her Jewish family on the path to a new life in the United States, safely away from Hitler's Germany.

On that day, Nazi Party functionaries of the SA and the SS went on a burning, looting, vandalism and killing spree against Jewish homes, businesses and synagogues in Germany. The November 9 pogrom came to be known as Kristallnacht — literally “crystal night,” but usually translated as “Night of Broken Glass” — because of the glass from Jewish storefronts that littered the streets.

Although estimates vary, the night of violence is thought to have resulted in the deaths of 91 Jews, the looting of 7,000 Jewish businesses, the arrest of 30,000 Jewish males and the desecration or destruction of 267 synagogues.

Drescher said her father, a proud German who had earned the Iron Cross for his service in World War I, had stubbornly believed that “this Hitler business will pass.”

But the events of Kristallnacht convinced him and other patriotic German Jews otherwise.

“It was this night that removed the blinders from their eyes. What they could not believe, what they would not believe, could no longer be denied,” Drescher said.

Her father obtained a visa, and the family boarded a train for Rotterdam, Netherlands, where the Veendam was waiting, she said.

Drescher was the keynote speaker at Seton Hill's annual Kristallnacht Remembrance Interfaith Service at St. Joseph Chapel. With her were two other Pittsburgh women — Shulamit Bastacky and Yolanda Willis — who were child survivors of the Holocaust.

The observance is sponsored by the National Catholic Center for Holocaust Education and the Office of Campus Ministry at Seton Hill. The center was founded in 1987 in response to the urging of Pope John Paul II for Catholics to recognize the significance of the Shoah, the Hebrew term for the Holocaust.

At Tuesday's service, participants lit six candles — for the 6 million European Jews killed during the Holocaust — and recited a litany of remembrance.

Greensburg Rabbi Emeritus Sara Rae Perman said the Shema in Hebrew and then led the audience in an English recitation of the Jewish prayer, which begins, “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.”

Drescher returned to her hometown of Stuttgart, Germany, in 2000 at the invitation of the municipal government. The visit was at a time when Germany was making efforts to reconcile with Jewish citizens who had left during the war.

“The message was: The Germany of today is not the Germany of the Third Reich,” she said.

Some Holocaust scholars reject the popular use of the term Kristallnacht because of its Nazi provenance.

Author Victoria Barnett, in her 1992 book, “For the Soul of the People: Protestant Protest Against Hitler,” notes that the Nazi press coined the term Kristallnacht as a way to boast “about the German streets being covered with the glass of Jewish store windows.”

For that reason, many Germans refer to the event as the November 9 pogrom instead, according to Barnett.

Stephen Huba is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-1280, shuba@tribweb.com or via Twitter @shuba_trib.

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