My father escaped Berlin on Kristallnacht — November 9, 1938. He was two years old and carried over the border into Belgium on foot by his mother. They stayed in Brussels for the next 11 years, before eventually emigrating to the United States in 1949.
In 1938, my grandmother was 28 years old. She and my grandfather had already divorced, or at least separated. (My father describes it as one of a string of failed relationships in her life. Who’s to say whether the events of her life made her a difficult person, or whether being a difficult person made her particularly well-suited to surviving in difficult circumstances?)
In any case, my grandfather, who was a taxi driver, was making a living smuggling Jews out of Germany, and despite my grandmother’s vitriol towards him, he, of course, found a way to get her — and their son — out of Berlin on the night that happened to be Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, when Nazis famously ransacked, devastated and destroyed Jewish homes and businesses across Germany, brutalized defenseless people and carted one-quarter of Germany’s adult male population off to concentration camps.
On this terrifying night, my grandmother and my father were dropped off near an inn that was known to be sympathetic to fleeing Jews. It was within eyesight of Belgian border. While it was illegal for Jews to travel within Germany, the Belgians wanted nothing to do with Jewish refugees either. To the Belgians, these Jews were Germans and could just as easily be enemy spies.
It was already late in the evening when my grandmother arrived at the inn, only to discover it was full. She begged the innkeeper for a space, anything. Taking pity on this frightened woman with the toddler in her arms (or maybe just giving up in the face of her insistence) the innkeeper offered her a mattress on the floor of a crawl space in the attic, which she accepted. Exhausted, she slept in this dirty, dusty space. When she woke up in the morning and went downstairs, there was an eerie silence. No one greeted her, no one mingled in the lobby. The inn had been raided and everyone, it seemed, but her and my father had been taken away to near certain death in the concentration camps.
I can’t imagine what it must have been like to be my grandmother at that moment, but she did what she had to do, and with my father in her arms, she walked across the border into Belgium.