Kristallnacht

The black taxi, exhaust gently fuming, slowly made its way through the German town somewhere in the Schwabish mountains, one of the first places that we lived – if you can call living in an apartment you don’t know in a town you don’t know in a country you don’t know for a few weeks or months before you move on ‘living somewhere’. It was a dark moonless night, cold midwinter; a pitch black night with just a few hard stars. On either side ahead in the car’s harsh headlights snow drifts billowed white and fluffy; spraying a sprinkle of sparkling dust as we passed them the narrow cobbled road into the small German town of Schwäbisch Hall, near Schwäbisch Gmünd, or perhaps it was in Crailsheim. (The latter, I believe, was were I learned about something called “kneebread”.)

I remember that street well – or at least that scene, that night, that time. We were walking up the cobblestoned street, feeling the worn rocks beneath our feet like slippery marbles; there was snow and slush in the gutters, and the sidewalks were wet. There were a lot of people gathered all around us – not because of us, but because of what had drawn them there.

It was the Christmas Market – one of many and the Germans are famous for the wonderously beautiful displays they put on. Cart after cart laden with ornaments, candy, goods of all kinds – there were rows of them; piles of them, ornaments of every kind. There were candy bears and marzipan pigs; there were glass globes piled on high. There were stuffed ‘animals’ of every kind – candy cane men with strings at their sides; elven faces – stuffed dolls in prim dresses – all kinds of ornaments for all kinds of lifestyles – including mine.

As a young kid I had never seen such a thing – wandering up that street, my parents hand in mine as we stopped at one vendor after another. The taxi had dropped us off in a culdesac at the end of the street – the main one, I suppose, for this town we were in. The name really doesn’t matter: they were all the same – beautiful and glistening at night, and sometimes during the day, especially during the spring and Christmas. Big stone and stuccoed buildings braced by large brown timbers; intricate scrollwork on the eaves; neat and tidy with well behaved Germans living within. They were everywhere and I didn’t understand a word they were saying, not that my parent’s skills were much better. I’ve been told the first German word I learned was “nein” (pronounced ‘nine”), meaning ‘no’ – which I learned as a baby at the hands of my nanny when I was one year old. But I had forgotten everything – including the land I had been born in – this one, this land, the one torn by war yet filled with beauty; the one people kept saying horrible things had happened – and yet it was just right there: this beauty, this orderliness, the spick and span way of living: the people bundled up against the cold with scarves and mittens on, the snow, the wine, the beer. My parents had quite a fondness for the wine. Beer? Not so often. But you could always count on them having a bottle of wine stashed somewhere around the house. Usually it was Rhein wine, which I didn’t care for (not that I was allowed to drink it, not even ‘sample’ it as a father might do for a child). It was white and sour, like vinegar, if you ask me. But soon I learned about ‘Blue Nun’ – a church going wine if I ever saw one, it was red and clear with a sweet fruity flavor that appealed to my young tongue. I liked “Blue Nun” – if not for the idea it embraced, then the taste. It was a sweet, honey like wine – with just a hint of the sour fermented grapes which had made it underlying the score.

I remember one ornament in particular – it was a clear glass globe with a starburst snowflake made of something like white tinsel filling the inside. I had never seen such a thing! It was beautiful and delicate – much too delicate for my touch! – and I was intrigued by questions, like: how did it get in there? How did they do that thing? What did it take to make such a perfect glass bubble, a sphere like that – so thin and delicate and hanging by one string? I know I was fascinated with this one because my parents gave us leave to buy one – each one of us buying a single glass ornament to commemorate this occasion, our first Christmas in Germany again. And I bought mine – trading my ‘marks’, some strange looking coins, and getting back some pfennigs (the German equivalent of a penny). I think my mom still has that ornament somewhere, as well as lots of the other ones we got in Germany, and I have a few (such as the black sheep my momma gave me, reminding me of who I am – the ‘black sheep’ of the family; a worthless thing – but I still treasure that thing and hang it, loving where it came from, because I had some good times there.

I wonder if anyone can understand . . .

Open a book on Germany, or go online. Look up some of those towns; look at the photos; get a ‘feel’ for this. Then remember where I came from: a poverty stricken environment in America surrounded by scrub pine and sand hills. Look at the difference – think about the difference, and the difference between a child and an adult’s mind. There was a lot of open eyed wonder at everything; everywhere I turned everything was different. Nothing was the same! While amazing and wondering, sometimes I found myself . . . lost. Not just outside, but in. Things I had known and done for years had quite suddenly vanished; all my ‘family’ which were my friends back in the ‘hood. All gone – suddenly! – in a matter of a few hours – going from one ‘thing’ or ‘life’ to another – a sudden shock to the system . . .

Anyway . . .

I remember us going through that market – we were still quite poor (but wealthy by German standards, or at least the Germans thought so – a hangover from their war time). So we bought only a few ornaments; not many! – and went back to the cab.

I remember that walk so well – down the side of the street, stepping on slush and stone; dodging other pedestrians . . . the foot traffic dropped down to none as we neared the small edged off culvert that served as a parking lot for the drivers . . . there was only one cab there, ‘ours’ – still waiting, the exhaust softly panting white fumes . . . and we got in.

And the warmth! The German driver had his own smell – something like cigarettes and cigars – and the rich warmth of the leather seats filling my nostrils; it was a Mercedes we were in – and then the soft crunching of snow as we backed up and he drove us out of the town . . . into the darkness, towards the mountain where we belonged . . .

I remember that place as well: Schwäbisch Hall, I presume – a mountain fortress set in the dark, with the road winding below – on one side was a cliff, falling off into the dark; on the other these tall stone buildings with harsh lights – a military post, for sure, standing gaunt, tall, proud – and so very isolated amongst these mountains it seemed – just appearing in the dark where we disappeared . . .

Kristallnacht. A Crystal Night – a night filled with snow and sparkles and cold in the air on one of the darkest nights I had ever been allowed to walk around – the cold stones, the friendly (yet gruff, it seemed) people; the carts piled with their mysterious goods – the gold and silver; the lights . . . our breath puffing in the air; my dad in his dark trenchcoat, my mom in hers – us kids, shivering slightly (our coats weren’t as warm) – heavy gloves on, eyes wide open . . .

It was so many things . . . like being in another life and being painlessly born into a country you do not know, things you haven’t seen . . . words you cannot speak, nor do you know what they mean . . .

A small slice in the life of a military kid . . .

Kristallnacht quite literally means “Crystal Night” in German. It’s gotten a bad name because of what happened in Germany in pre-World War Two times, when the Nazis were coming into power, and it’s come to symbolize what they did: the assault on the Jews, the destruction of businesses – and then fining the Jews for the damage the Germans had done; driving them out of business and their own homes . . .

They say the night was littered with broken glass – which is now the meaning of those words “kristallnacht” – “Night of the Broken Glass”.

But to me it means quite a different kind of thing. For me it is the sound of beauty; of winter’s wonder; of a German atmosphere on a crisp cold dark night during the Christmas time . . .

For me it means the time right up until we went somewhere else again, causing another switch in personality.

Because it was on ‘that night’, kristallnacht, that I have some of my most beautiful of memories – not just of the snow and things – but because my parents were fine, everything was going together quite good – we were still moving quite a bit – sometimes it seemed we didn’t stay but a few days, a few weeks at the most in some locations – before we’d be moving on, skipping around Germany like a couple skipping stones thrown wild – and instead of sinking into the pond, they just go skimming across some ice . . . never ‘penetrating’ and becoming one of them (the Germans) . . . but living with them all the time.

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