Atoning for `Kristallnacht': West Berlin's special guests

`CRYSTAL NIGHT,'' Berlin, Nov. 9, 1938. The night of the broken glass sent shock waves through Germany's Jewish community. ``I still remember organized gangs of Nazis coming in,'' recalled Fred Eisenberg of Atlanta. ``I was in the garment district, and I saw a building of four stories and all the windows being smashed from the inside, equipment, typewriters, dummies, clothing, and everything being thrown out into the square, and the police standing at the corners and laughing and enjoying the spectacle.''

Mr. Eisenberg was among the thousands of Jews who fled the country in the months that followed ``Crystal Night.'' His mother perished in a concentration camp.

Harry Lawton of San Mateo, Calif., survived a death camp. He and his parents had been packed into a train to Riga, Latvia. His mother was separated from him and he remembers standing at the station with his father. ``All of a sudden a car arrived and several Gestapo people got out. One of them called for auto mechanics. My father said to me, `Listen, why don't you raise your hand, at least you get a job?'''

That night, the mechanics saw bundles of clothes piled on trucks, and the drivers told them that everyone else had been shot.

Mr. Lawton was liberated in 1945 and went to Sweden, where he met his future wife, who had been in the same camp.

In April, they returned to their birthplace, flown back by the West Berlin government along with other Jewish refugees from Berlin for one-week visits to their hometown. There are only 6,000 Jews in West Berlin and a few hundred in the East out of some 175,000 Jews who lived in prewar Berlin. Since 1969, more than 20,000 Jewish former Berliners and their spouses from all over the world have come back as the city's guests in a program that has been copied elsewhere in the country. On ``Crystal Night's'' 50th anniversary, the program provides some political and moral lessons.

Katharina Ziebura, who helps run the visits, said that they were started because ``my generation and other people who live in Berlin now are ashamed for what happened, and we hope that our guests enjoy the time here and remember that the new generation thinks in another way.'' She said the goal was for the former refugees ``not to forget the past, but a little to forgive the past.''

Four hundred guests, most from the United States, were entertained at the theater and the opera. On a bus tour, they visited the Pestalozzi Street Synagogue, which was partly destroyed during ``Crystal Night'' and then confiscated by the Nazis. They stopped at a site used for executions of the Nazis' political opponents. They attended a reception at the Reichstag, the old parliament that is now a museum, where they saw a video and exhibits of Nazi anti-Semitism.

They listened to the head of the German Jewish Community at the Jewish Community Center, they reminisced about old Berlin on a boat ride through the canals, and they heard the city's farewell at a luncheon hosted by the Senate.

The reactions were complex, but the theme that emerged was that despite bitterness toward the Germans of the Hitler years, these refugees did not blame the new generations.

Lawton said, ``I had felt I could never go back to Berlin, but in the meantime I got a little older, a little mellower. The first couple of days here, there was still bitterness. You look at a person, and automatically you are trying to find out in your mind how old he is. After all, if I look at a German today, I still feel he could have been the one who killed my parents.'' But he also said, ``The younger people can't really be blamed for anything. They are doing a fantastic job.... I think they really feel that they should do something.''

In a world where most countries prefer to quickly forget their immoral acts, many West Germans have accepted, politically and personally, their guilt for what their countrymen did to the Jews, and they recognize a responsibility to atone for those crimes. That contrasts sharply with the attitudes of Austria, which rejects any obligation, and of East Germany, which only this year acknowledged the need for restitution.

The West Germans' efforts have been well repaid by the willingness of Jewish victims ``a little to forgive'' the German people by their generous attitude toward the postwar generations. In the exchange, both sides reaffirm the best parts of their own humanity.

Lucy Komisar is a New York journalist who writes about foreign affairs.

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