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Kristallnacht and tales of survival

A tribute: On the 70th anniversary of my father’s deportation

_JStandardCover Story
Published: 05 November 2010

Seventy years ago last month my father, grandparents, and some 6,000 other Jews were deported from the border region of southwest Germany to internment camps in southern France.

For the next 18 months my father, Kurt Lion, now 84, endured lice, hunger, and deprivation as he nursed his ailing parents first in the Gurs and later in the Rivesaltes camps.

“There was little food, no medicines, and the suffering was terrible,” my father remembered, his voice hoarse with emotion. “It was especially hard on the elderly and sick, death was everywhere.”

His father Philip, 69, died from the horrible conditions; his mother Rosa, 59, was eventually transported to Auschwitz, where she was gassed.

Both had reiterated to him the same burning wish — that someday he make it to America for a new life and a reunion with his two elder sisters, living there since 1937. My father, just 16 then, vowed to survive and avenge his parents’ suffering.

At Rivesaltes he had been forced to hide in crawlspaces to evade the Nazi SS squads that increasingly sought young Jews for lethal work details. Certain he must flee to live, he slipped away, was later arrested, and was taken to a holding depot for shipment to another camp. But that night he managed to escape by squirming through a sewage pipe, then jumping into a nearby river.

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Kurt Lion attended gunnery school to become able to “punish the Germans.” Courtesy Ed Lion

He lived on foraged food and eventually was able to get I.D. papers for himself under a gentile name. With this alias, he found work as a farmhand for a landowner in a village in east-central France. There he managed to replenish his strength from the camp deprivations.

But with his increased strength, something else within him grew stronger — his desire to strike back against the Germans. “I saw how my parents, all the others had suffered because they were Jews,” my father recalled. “I wanted vengeance, to punish the Germans for what they were doing. I wanted to get them back.”

And strike back my father did, first by attacking German troops and supply lines in the French underground. Later, he served as an aerial gunner in a U.S.-supplied “Free French” B-17 bomber that rained explosives on Germany during raids coordinated by the American Air Force.

After a dozen successful bomber missions, my father’s plane was shot down and he ended the war performing other duties for the French military. His status gave him access to trucks and, with these, he secretly helped in the clandestine smuggling of Jewish refugees out of Germany and en route to Palestine.

Today my father is retired in central New Jersey after a career in textile designing. He lived for 40 years in Dumont, where he raised my two sisters and myself. Age, my mother’s death, and the passing of so many he knew have given my father a philosophical outlook on life.

But when we, his children, ask about his early life, the years seem to melt away for him. He sounds not like an old man but like the teenager he was on Oct. 22, 1940, when he was deported from Ihringen, his birthplace village near the French border. His voice resonates with a gamut of emotions — nostalgia for his childhood, then sadness and anger for the people deported via packed trains to the filthy, flea-ridden Vichy-run camps.

But usually when he is done recounting his wartime experiences, a measure of satisfaction comes to his voice. It is satisfaction derived from the facts that yes, he fought back, and yes, he fulfilled his parents’ wish, reuniting with his sisters and building a successful and happy life in America.

“When I look back on it now, it seems unbelievable,” my father said, commenting on his time in the war. “The chances of getting through the camps and the fighting were so slim.”

My father paused to smile, then added ruefully, “I wouldn’t have bet a dime on my chances of making it.”

But my father indeed made it and, with my mother Giselle, herself a Holocaust survivor, went on raise his family as active members of the old Bergenfield-Dumont Jewish Center.

“I think the fact that we Jews are still here and doing well,” my father said, “is the best revenge against the Germans. It’s a victory for us.”

 
 

Kristallnacht and tales of survival

Wayne man recalls childhood after ‘night of broken glass’

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Ernst Pressburger looks through a book chronicling the journey from the Jews of Rexingen, Germany, to Shavei Zion, Israel. Josh Lipowsky

Ernst Pressburger, 75, sat in his Wayne home on Monday looking over pictures of his life in Germany before World War II. And though he was but a child at the time, he remembers the aftermath of the pogroms of Kristallnacht, Nov. 9-10, 1938, which many consider the beginning in earnest of the Holocaust.

Pressburger was born in the small village of Rexingen, which had a population of about 1,000, of which 260 were Jews. In 1935, many of the village’s younger Jews decided they needed to get out of Germany. They looked to what was then Palestine, and, like the biblical spies Moses sent to the land of Canaan, Rexingen’s Jewish leaders sent three people to Palestine to see if the villagers could make a living there. And although upon their return they spoke of hardships, they said the Rexingen Jews could make a living in the holy land. In 1938, a group of 41 people founded a moshav called Shavei Zion, Return to Zion.

Not everybody wanted to go there, though. Many thought themselves too old to start over, while others, like Pressburger’s father, didn’t like the idea of a Communist-style collective. Ernst Pressburger, his sister Anne, and their parents, Adolf and Paula, remained in the village.

In November 1938, the village’s synagogue, dating to 1710, was set on fire.

“Several of the Jewish men went down to put out the fire,” Pressburger said. “A lot of the regular firemen stood around and watched. The police stood around and watched.”

Then just 4, Pressburger remembers that the police and firemen largely ignored the emergency. Except one policeman, Pressburger said, who saved a Torah from the burning synagogue and gave it to one of the villagers headed for Palestine.

Pressburger doesn’t remember Kristallnacht itself well, but he remembers the next day when Paula Pressburger told her children that a salesman was bothering her and she didn’t want to talk to him. If he came to the door, she told her children, the family should pretend they are not home. The next day, two men in leather coats and hats came to the Pressburger house, pounding on the door, and the family hid behind the sofa, silent, until they left.

Someone had alerted Adolf Pressburger that the Nazis were coming to arrest him, so he fled to the nearby Black Forest, where he stayed for a few days. When he came back he was arrested and held in the town’s prison. Pressburger’s mother said she was going to take some things to him, and young Pressburger threw a tantrum until his mother agreed to take him along.

When they arrived at Adolf Pressburger’s cell, young Ernst shouted at the guards, “You can’t take him! I won’t let you!”

Adolf Pressburger, through his cell, calmed his son, telling him, “Your sister and mother are going to be alone without a man to protect them. Would you do that until I come home?”

“I stood up and said, ‘I will,’” Pressburger said. “From that day on my childhood ended because I had the responsibilities of a man.”

Adolf Pressburger was sent to Dachau, but returned several weeks later with stories of how the inmates had to stand outside in the cold and the Nazis would turn hoses on them.

In 1940, the U.S. consulate allowed Pressburger’s parents to go to the United States, but Pressburger and his older sister Anne would have to stay in Germany with their grandparents until their parents could show that they could support their children.

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Ernst Pressburger visited his childhood home during his first trip back to Rexingen in the 1970s.Courtesy Ernst Pressburger

In 1941, 9-year-old Anne and 6-year-old Ernst were finally set to leave Germany. They boarded a train for Paris, where they would take another train to Spain. After a week, they boarded a ship.

“You have to be lucky in life. We were very lucky in that we got on that ship,” he said, noting that German U-boats were trying to sink ships crossing the ocean.

On April 3, the children arrived in Brooklyn. Their father had found a job taking care of a nearby farm, and the family soon moved to Washington Heights.

People from Germany would ask one another what they had heard about the war. Some letters from the camps, not many, Pressburger said, were able to get out through the Red Cross. Pressburger recalled that one day his sister came home from school and their mother was sitting shiva. She had received a letter from her father that said not to bother looking for him after the war.

In 1944, the remaining Jews of Rexingen, 128 people, were sent to concentration camps. Three survived.

“The Jewish people in Rexingen, before the Nazis came, really had a good life and they enjoyed it,” Pressburger said, flipping through a journal commemorating 70 years of Shavei Zion. The journal chronicled life in the moshav and Rexingen, and Pressburger pointed out pictures of himself as a child and his family in school and at Purim celebrations.

The Jews from Rexingen who came to America formed a benevolent association and erected a monument at Cedar Park cemetery in Paramus. Members still meet there every year on the Sunday closest to Nov. 9.

Unfortunately, he said, Kristallnacht does not receive the recognition it should, even in the Jewish community.

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Ernst Pressburger he also picked up a postcard in the 1970s featuring his village. Courtesy Ernst Pressburger

“In the United States, and rightfully so, the Warsaw Ghetto has become the key event, and that’s fine,” he said. “Kristallnacht is not considered a key event and is not even recognized by many.”

Pressburger became an engineer and in 1973, while working on a flight test in Israel, stopped in Germany with his wife, Minnie, and their two daughters so he could show his family where he had grown up. They visited Rexingen and Pressburger’s old house, then occupied by the people who had used to live next door.

“Without thinking about it,” Pressburger said, “when I met someone I automatically thought, ‘How old is this person? How old were they at the time?’”

In Rexingen, Pressburger met a veterinarian, and while their children went off to play, the doctor told Pressburger that he had served in the German army during World War II because as a 17-year-old, that’s what you were supposed to do.

Pressburger called the fact that the German people did not collectively resist Hitler “the biggest idiocy.”

“At the time, if you read the history and go back, the German institutions were very weak and they didn’t stand up,” he said. “If they had, things would have been very different, because it turns out Hitler was very political and … he would back off if he got a lot of resistance. But there wasn’t a lot of resistance.”

Pressburger recalled a TV documentary about the Japanese from which he learned that a German Jewish banker from New York had funded Japan during the Russo-Japanese War because Russians were killing Jews. In the early 1930s, Japan offered to take in any Jews who wanted to come there in order to boost the country’s industry, but European Jewish leaders turned down the offer because they thought the United States and Great Britain would come to their rescue. Those countries also could have acted differently during World War II, while the German government and army could have fought off Hitler’s rise to power, Pressburger said.

“The Holocaust could have been avoided,” he said. “Many have sinned. Things happened the way they happened. That should only make us aware of the future. History is only good if you learn from it and use it.”

Unfortunately, Pressburger said, pointing to a rise of anti-Semitism in the past few years, he does not see people learning from history. Because his first wife was Canadian, Pressburger’s children have dual citizenship, and he prefers that his children and grandchildren have more than one passport. Though his younger daughter cannot conceive of things changing as drastically in America as they did in Germany, Pressburger said, he pointed out that his family lived comfortably in Germany for 300 years.

“One would hope that when push comes to shove, things would be different,” he said.

 
 

A history lesson for South America

 

Fixing leaks and the Middle East

The United States continues to deal with repercussions of the WikiLeaks revelations, while the Israel-Palestinian conflict has taken a new turn.

WikiLeaks and Lockerbie

WikiLeaks revealed last week that Libya threatened Great Britain with “harsh, immediate” consequences if Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, the sole person convicted in the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, died in prison. Megrahi, who was diagnosed with prostate cancer while serving his life sentence, was released from Scottish prison in August 2009 after doctors said he had only months to live.

Inside the Beltway

Megrahi’s release sparked protests in the United States, especially from New Jersey’s representatives in Washington. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) has repeatedly called for a Senate investigation into Megrahi’s release. Calls to Lautenberg’s office were not returned.

Rep. Steve Rothman (D-9), told The Jewish Standard earlier this week that the latest batch of WikiLeaks documents contained “virtually no surprises” but the revelations have damaged the diplomatic flexibility of the United States and other nations.

“I find it ironic that a group that claims to be for peace would place a chilling effect on international diplomacy for the foreseeable future,” he said. “The United States government has taken immediate steps and begun long-range efforts to minimize the chances of such a massive leak of classified documents. There will never be any leak-proof system, but this latest round of WikiLeak releases has engendered the appropriate level of serious attention to these matters.”

Money for Iron Dome

The House of Representatives passed a continuing resolution last week to fund the rest of fiscal year 2011 by a vote of 212 to 206. Included in the spending bill, which divided Democrats and Republicans, was $205 million for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system, which the Jewish state is developing to defend against kassam rockets.

In a statement to the Standard, Rothman said he was “extremely pleased and proud that President Obama’s allocation for Israel’s Iron Dome program was included in the House’s funding bill for the upcoming year.

“This was a priority of Congress and President Obama, and it is the first funding of its kind for this important short-range rocket and artillery shell defense system.”

The allocation is in addition to the more-than-$200 million already allocated for the Arrow and David’s Sling missile defense systems, jointly developed by Israel and the United States.

“This funding sends a strong message, to both our enemies and allies, by providing more total dollars than ever before toward these rocket and missile defense programs,” Rothman said.

Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. (D-8) voted for the bill, but Rep. Scott Garrett (R-5) joined with other House Republicans in opposing the bill because of other spending attached to it.

“At a time when American families are making personal sacrifices to reduce their family budgets and cut back expenses, I could not in good conscience vote for a federal spending bill that fails to do the same,” Garrett said in a statement to the Standard. “It’s unfortunate that the Iron Dome defense system had to be attached to such a controversial spending bill. I have long advocated separating U.S. funding assistance for Israel’s defense from contentious measures like the bill voted on last week.”

Palestine: To be or not to be

Two South American countries last month recognized the state of Palestine on the 1967 armistice lines. Increasingly, voices within the Palestinian Authority are calling for unilateral recognition by the United Nations of a Palestinian state, bypassing negotiations with Israel. The unilateral threats have been condemned in Washington, where members of Congress have begun to reconsider Palestinian financial aid.

Palestinian aid is important to U.S. and Israeli interests, as well as the Palestinians and peace process, Rothman said. “However, should the Palestinian Authority take unilateral actions, such as declaring itself a state without a prior agreement with the Jewish State of Israel, then the United States must seriously re-examine whether the Palestinian Authority is an appropriate recipient of U.S. foreign aid.”

Rothman called the South American recognition of Palestine “misguided and unhelpful” and said it would have “no practical effect” other than to draw negative attention from the United States.

“Instead of making pointless threats to unilaterally declare statehood, the Palestinian Authority must demonstrate its seriousness as a partner for peace with Israel and return to direct negotiations with Israel without preconditions and to resolve these matters in the interest of both parties,” he said.

Garrett also lashed out against Palestinian unilateral moves in a statement to the Standard, saying that such moves undermine the peace process and cause instability.

“This year, terrorists based in Gaza have fired hundreds of rockets and mortar shells into Israeli communities,” he said. “These human rights violations cannot be overlooked and I believe the P.A. has an obligation to discontinue attacks on Israel and affirm Israel’s right to exist as a sovereign state.”

Garrett and Rothman joined 50 other House members in co-sponsoring a resolution, which passed a vote on Wednesday, in support of “a negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and condemning unilateral measures to declare or recognize a Palestinian state, and for other purposes.” The resolution also calls on President Obama to deny recognition of a unilaterally declared Palestine and oppose global recognition.

 
 

A primer on Palestinian statehood

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Israeli soldiers scuffle with Palestinians during a demonstration near the west bank village of Beit Omar on Aug. 13. Najeh Hashlamoun/Flash 90

The Palestinian Authority in mid-September is expected to ask the U.N. Security Council to formally recognize it as a state.

Some analysts warn that such a request will set off a new paroxysm of violence in the west bank and Gaza, and perhaps even on Israel’s streets.

Here is a guide to what might happen, and what it might mean.

Q. What do the Palestinians want the United Nations to recognize?

A. The Palestinians want recognition of a “State of Palestine” in all of the west bank, Gaza, and eastern Jerusalem. The west bank is part of the area originally designated for a “Palestinian Arab” state in the Nov. 29, 1947, U.N. partition resolution. It was seized by Jordan during Israel’s War of Independence and held by it until it was captured by Israel in the June 1967 Six-Day War. Today, it includes lands on which Jewish settlements now sit. The two halves of Jerusalem were effectively annexed by Israel, but the international community views it as occupied territory. (Jerusalem, under the 1947 resolution, was to be an international city, belonging to no individual state.) In total, more than 600,000 Jews reside in eastern Jerusalem and the west bank.

Q. What’s the legal process for becoming a state?

A. The U.N. Security Council’s approval is required to become a U.N. member state. The United States, which is one of the 15-member council’s five permanent, veto-wielding members, has promised to veto a Palestinian statehood resolution.

Q. Is there a way for the Palestinians to overcome a U.S. veto?

A. The Palestinians still could seek statehood recognition at the U.N. General Assembly. While a General Assembly vote in favor of Palestinian statehood would not carry the force of law, the passage of such a resolution would be highly symbolic and represent a significant public relations defeat for Israel.

Q. Is there any benefit short of full statehood recognition that the Palestinians can obtain at the United Nations?

A. Yes. The Palestinians already have non-member permanent observer status at the United Nations, which they obtained in 1974.

This time, the General Assembly could vote to recognize “Palestine” as a non-member U.N. state, which would put Palestinian U.N. membership on par with that of the Vatican. While being a non-member state would not give the Palestinians much more than they have now as a non-state observer, it would be another symbolic victory.

If the Palestinians can get a two-thirds majority in support of statehood in the General Assembly, they also could put forward a so-called Uniting for Peace resolution. This nonbinding, advisory resolution would provide legal cover to nations wanting to treat Palestine as a state – for example, allowing sanctions and lawsuits against Israel to go forward. The Uniting for Peace option was first used to circumvent a Soviet veto in the Security Council against action during the Korean War, and it was employed during the 1980s to protect countries that sanctioned apartheid South Africa from being sued under international trade laws.

Q. Why are the Palestinians seeking statehood recognition from the United Nations rather than negotiating directly with Israel?

A. The Palestinian leadership has eschewed renewed peace talks with Israel, either because Abbas believes that talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will not produce desired results, or because Abbas believes he has more to gain by going to the international arena – or both.

Abbas essentially is gambling that the U.N. move will give him more leverage vis-à-vis Israel, making it more difficult for the Israelis to stick to their current negotiating positions and establishing the pre-1967 lines as the basis for negotiations.

[Editor’s note: The question of whether to set the pre-1967 lines as the basis for negotiations is semantic, not substantive. In fact, the lines are the starting point for all sides in the peace talks. Israel wants to see the lines redrawn to better accommodate its security needs. This would include retaining control over established west bank settlements. The Palestinians want the lines to remain what they were before the start of the Six-Day War.]

Q. What tools does Israel have to respond to the Palestinian bid?

A. Israel’s strategy now is trying to persuade as many nations as possible – as well as the Palestinians – that a U.N. vote favoring Palestinian statehood would set back the peace track. The argument is that it would make it less likely that Israeli-Palestinian negotiations would succeed, forcing Israel to dig in its heels.

Beyond that, Israeli experts have warned, Israel may consider the unilateral Palestinian bid for U.N. recognition an abrogation of the Oslo Accords, which stipulated that the framework for resolution of the conflict would be negotiations between the two parties. If the Oslo Accords, which provides the basis for the limited autonomy the Palestinians currently have in the west bank, are nullified, Israel may re-occupy portions of the west bank from which its forces have withdrawn, end security cooperation with the Palestinian Authority, and withhold hundreds of millions of dollars in tax money it collects on behalf of the PA.

Q. What are some of the other possible negative consequences for the Palestinians of statehood recognition?

A. The U.S. Congress has threatened to ban assistance to the Palestinian Authority if it pursues recognition of statehood at the United Nations. That could cost the Palestinians as much as $500 million annually, potentially crippling the Palestinian government.

Q. What happens on the day after the U.N. vote?

A. This is not clear. The Palestinian leadership does not seem to have a plan. The Palestinian public is expected to stage mass demonstrations. Israel is preparing for a host of worst-case scenarios, including violence.

If the United Nations does endorse Palestinian statehood in some form, it will be seen as a public relations victory for the Palestinians. In the absence of progress on the ground, however, a U.N. vote could set off popular Palestinian protests against Israel that could escalate into another Palestinian intifada.

It is possible that a favorable U.N. vote will send Palestinians marching on Israeli settlements and military positions much like Palestinians in Syria and Lebanon marched on Israel’s borders in mid-May.

It is also possible a vote on statehood would unleash a wave of violence in the Palestinian street not seen since the second intifada waned in 2004.

Such violence, however, could come at a high cost. The relative absence of Palestinian terrorism in recent years has enabled the Palestinians to rally considerable support to their cause, raise their GDP, and improve the quality of life in the west bank. All this could be lost.

That may leave the Palestinians and Israel back where they began: at a standstill. JTA Wire Service

 
 
 
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