Holocaust survivor, Ernest Kan of Boynton Beach , recalls Kristallnacht

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Monday, November 10, 2008

Seventy years ago, when the Nazis began smashing the windows of Jewish businesses, temples and homes, Ernest Kan was a 16-year-old high school student in Berlin.

The night of Nov. 9 to 10, 1938 became known as Kristallnacht - night of the broken glass. More than 25,000 Jews were arrested and deported to concentration camps. It was the beginning the Holocaust.

Kan, who is now 86 and lives in Boynton Beach, shared his story Monday at a commemoration of Kristallnacht at Palm Beach County School District headquarters.

Two days after Kristallnacht, Kan's father got a letter from the school he attended in Berlin, telling him that Ernest was longer welcome there because they were Jews. The family fled to Riga, Latvia but they were rounded up when the Nazis occupied the city in 1941. Tens of thousands of Jews who lived in the Riga ghetto, including Kan's mother, were shot in the woods and dumped into a mass grave.

Kan was one of only about 1,000 people who survived the massacre. The Nazis spared him because he was young and able to work. They sent him to Kaiserwald, Stutthof and finally Magdeburg, a slave labor factory that was a satellite of Buchenwald.

Kan was down to 85 pounds when the Allied Forces began flying intense bombing raids over the camp in April 1945. He and several other men tried to take advantage of the chaos to escape but were caught.

The SS officers who discovered them lined Kan and about 100 other men up against a wall. They were taking the men, a few at a time, out of the camp to kill them, Kan said.

But just in time, he was saved by a U.S. Air Force raid. The sky was thick with bombers.

"God bless them, they let them have it," Kan said. "Beautiful."

Kan and a few other men were hustled to an air raid shelter. They tested the door to the shelter, found it open, and ran to hide in an elevator shaft. One man who was hiding with Kan eventually went out to see what was happening.

The gates to the camp were open. The U.S. Army's 30th Infantry Division had arrived.

"We are free now. The Americans are here," Kan remembers the man saying. "After 44 months in captivity. I remember it like it was yesterday," Kan said.

Eileen Shapiro, the school district's Holocaust studies program planner, served recipes baked by district cafeteria cooks from cookbook honoring Holocaust survivors at Kan's talk.

Shapiro recently won a grant to distribute the books to culinary classes in Palm Beach County schools. The book shares the recipes of Holocaust survivors, each with a story for the cook to remember, and pass on.