“I was practically hypnotized by the view of this (burning) synagogue … nothing had prepared me for this. There was no wind. The column of smoke was like a column reaching to the heavens,” former University research scientist Ernest Fontheim said while speaking yesterday at the 4th Annual Kristallnacht Commemoration.
The commemoration was part of Hillel’s annual Conference on the Holocaust.
In his presentation, Fontheim revisited his memories of Kristallnacht, or “Night of the Broken Glass.” That night, Fontheim witnessed the burning of a synagogue near his home in Berlin. The synagogue was one of hundreds burned.
Remembering the Holocaust is important, Fontheim said, because the actions taken by the German government were horrible. The act of remembering could prevent future occurrences of a similar nature, but from recent events like Sept. 11, Fontheim said he has lost faith in that idea.
“I no longer believe that. There have been massacres in Africa and Kosovo and other places. Every human life killed because of their belonging to a certain ethnic group is terrible,” he said.
Though Fontheim himself survived, he knows the painful consequences of ethnic intolerance first-hand.
On Dec. 24, 1942 the German secret police arrested Fontheim’s parents in his presence. He found out later that they had been deported to Auschwitz – he never saw them again.
“The deportation produced a terror in me I still feel in my bones,” he said.
A few days after his family’s deportation he decided to “go underground” and obtained a forged identification card. The ID equated him with his Aryan superiors at a defense plant where he worked.
With this ID and three other Jews, Fontheim escaped Berlin to a city in southeast Germany. The three, a young girl and her parents, later became his wife and parents-in-law.