Bearing Witness To Nazis' Life-Shattering Kristallnacht On Nov. 9, 1938, the Nazis burned down synagogues, destroyed Jewish businesses and arrested more than 26,000 Jews. Germans and Jews alike are still grappling with the legacy, 75 years later. Margot Friedlander is one survivor, who has returned to Berlin after decades of exile.
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Bearing Witness To Nazis' Life-Shattering Kristallnacht

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Bearing Witness To Nazis' Life-Shattering Kristallnacht

Bearing Witness To Nazis' Life-Shattering Kristallnacht

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This is WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Don Gonyea. Germany is marking a grim anniversary today. It is exactly 75 years since Kristallnacht, which translates as "the night of broken glass." It's when the Nazis staged a wave of attacks on Jews in Germany and Austria.

Today, Berliners have taken to the streets to polish the brass cobblestones that are engraved with the names of the city's Holocaust victims. There are many thousands of such cobblestones on the streets of Berlin. Esme Nicholson traces the story behind one of them.

ESME NICHOLSON, BYLINE: I'm standing on a busy street in Kreuzberg, a shabby but chic Berlin district. Above me, the raised subway rattles through the neighborhood; and here at ground level the pavement, which is otherwise gray and dirty and covered in autumn leaves, glistens with little, brass cobblestones.

Millions of these stones can be found on sidewalks all over Europe. They commemorate the last address, the last apartment the city's Jewish residents called home before the war. Etched into each stone is the name of an individual, the date of deportation, a name of the concentration camp and, more often than not, a date of death. But some stones - like this one here - are inscribed with the word uberlebt, meaning survived.

The name on this stone is Margot Bendheim, the maiden name of Margot Friedlander.

MARGOT FRIEDLANDER: As a survivor, I feel that I do something for the people who cannot speak for them - self anymore.

NICHOLSON: After 64 years of exile in New York, Friedlander who just turned 92, made the decision to return to her native Berlin for good. City officials welcomed her with open arms and Friedlander was promptly given back her German citizenship.

FRIEDLANDER: When I received my German citizenship, I said: You expect me to say thank you for it? I will not do it because you only give me back what you took away from me.

NICHOLSON: Her late husband, also a German Jew, never wanted to return to Berlin and initially, her decision to move back was met with disbelief from her New York friends. But Friedlander says America only offered her and her husband sanctuary once the war was over.

FRIEDLANDER: I don't owe America anything because when I needed them, they didn't let us in. And that's why I came back to Germany. It's just the country where I was born.

NICHOLSON: Sitting in her new Berlin apartment surrounded by books and photographs of her husband, Friedlander has not forgotten how her native city gradually disowned her, how living here became untenable. She recalls the night euphemistically known as Kristallnacht, the violent pogrom which saw Nazi-coordinated attacks on thousands of synagogues and Jewish businesses. She says the wanton terror and destruction of November the 9th came as a shock.

FRIEDLANDER: I did not hear fire engines, and we understood then that they didn't come because they wanted the synagogues to burn. We never thought that Germans would stand by and not do something about it.

NICHOLSON: Friedlander's family knew then that they had to leave Germany, but their attempts to emigrate failed - until it was too late. Her father left without them; and her brother and mother were deported to Auschwitz, where all three eventually perished. Margot went into hiding in Berlin. And it is because of those few courageous, gentle Germans who helped her that she felt able to return to Berlin three years ago. All the same, she remains wary of her own generation.

FRIEDLANDER: I don't want them to tell me we did not know because this is something that I will not accept. Everybody knew something, and so I keep my distance.

NICHOLSON: Instead, she spends much of her time with young Germans, visiting schools. She is adamant they should not feel guilt but a sense of responsibility, and responsibility is something the German state takes very seriously.

STEFAN REDLICH: The Berlin police protects all Jewish schools or hospitals or kindergartens, and all synagogues in the city.

NICHOLSON: Stefan Redlich is spokesperson for the Berlin Police. He says 250 policeman stand guard in front of Jewish properties throughout the city. But Chancellor Angela Merkel recently said she's not proud of this fact.

CHANCELLOR ANGELA MERKEL: (Through translator) I feel deep shame that there's not a single Jewish building in Germany without police protection because we still have to worry about anti-Semitic attacks.

NICHOLSON: Merkel's concerns are justified. On last year's anniversary, vandals in the northeastern city of Greifswald removed a number of cobblestone memorials. Seventy-five years on though, Germans are refusing to stand by and watch. Today, they're taking to the streets, chamois leather in hand, to polish the brief, brass biographies that serve as a daily reminder of lives cut short by the Holocaust.

For NPR News, I'm Esme Nicholson in Berlin.

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