'I promised I would continue to tell his story': Remembering Kristallnacht 80 years later
The story belonged to his father, but Schaumburg resident Ron Coppel recites the tale like it's his own.
It was February 1938, and the place was Moers, Germany. Thirteen-year-old Werner Coppel -- that's Ron's dad -- was celebrating his bar mitzvah in the local synagogue, reading from the Torah for the first time before his family and community.
But the Nazis were in power, and outside they were marching and singing loudly.
Inside the temple, young Werner couldn't shut out the angry voices. Years later, he told his son what he heard.
"Translated, it was: 'When Jew blood splashes from our knives, life will be twice as good,'" Ron Coppel said.
Nine months later, on Nov. 9 and 10, 1938, Nazis burned the Moers' synagogue as part of a violent pogrom against Jews across Germany, Austria and occupied Czechoslovakia.
The attacks came to be known as Kristallnacht -- the Night of Broken Glass. In addition to synagogues, hate-fueled mobs ransacked, vandalized and torched Jewish-owned homes and businesses. Nearly 100 Jews were killed and thousands were arrested and sent to concentration camps.
It was the start of the Holocaust and the systematic extermination of some 6 million Jews and millions of non-Jewish Soviets and Poles, Roma and others by the Nazis during World War II.
Werner Coppel was imprisoned in a concentration camp during the Holocaust but survived. His parents and younger brother weren't as fortunate. Many Chicago-area Jews have similarly tragic stories of relatives taken from their homes, never to return.
On this 80th anniversary of the Night of Broken Glass, we remember.
A family obligation
A retired sales executive, Ron Coppel volunteers as a docent at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie. He talks with visitors about the Holocaust and his father's experiences.
It's a family tradition. Before his death in 2016, Werner Coppel often spoke to students and civic organizations about the Nazis' atrocities -- and Coppel felt driven to keep the mission alive.
"I promised I would continue to tell his story," the 70-year-old Coppel said.
Werner's father was killed in a Latvian ghetto and his mother was killed at Auschwitz II-Birkenau. Werner's younger brother, Guenther, likely died with their mother.
In January 1945, the Nazis evacuated the Auschwitz complex as the Soviet Army approached, marching nearly 60,000 prisoners -- including Werner -- away from the camps. After learning prisoners were being shot, Werner and two other men ran into the woods and escaped.
"He could hear the bullets whiz by as he ran," Coppel said.
Werner returned to Germany after the war and in 1946 married a half-Jewish woman named Trudy. Her father had been killed in the 1930s for being Jewish, but she and her mother were spared.
Ron was born in 1948, and the following year the family immigrated to the U.S.
Coppel and his younger brother, Steve, learned about their father's ordeal in bits and pieces as children, sometimes overhearing conversations with other survivors.
Coppel learned more when his father began speaking publicly. Because of his father's words, Coppel began protesting any prejudice he witnessed.
That philosophy remains strong.
"You have an obligation to speak up," Coppel said. "You have to put your foot down and say, 'Not in front of me.'"
A concrete reminder
Fred Bernheim was a 9-year-old boy living in Laupheim, Germany, when Nazis marched his father and other Jews to the local synagogue on Kristallnacht and forced them to watch the building burn to the ground.
"He followed (his father) on his bicycle and hid in the bushes and watched while the Jewish men were made to kneel while they burned down the synagogue," said Bernheim's daughter, 55-year-old Lisa Lavin of Bannockburn.
Bernheim, his younger sister and his parents immigrated to the U.S. in 1939 and settled in Chicago. Decades later, after establishing a career as an architect, Bernheim designed a new synagogue in Northbrook for Temple Beth-El, one of the region's oldest Jewish congregations.
His inspiration was the Laupheim temple. In particular, two pillars outside the synagogue's sanctuary represent the towers of the former German temple.
Bernheim died in 2013. Two years later, one of the Beth-El pillars was dedicated in his honor.
Bernheim's daughter and her family remain members of the congregation, which includes hundreds of Jews from across Chicago and the North and Northwest suburbs.
"I am blessed to belong to this synagogue," said Lavin, who lost maternal relatives from Poland in the Holocaust. "I can simply sit in the sanctuary and know that my dad designed the space and was inspired by his own sanctuary."
The Laupheim temple never was rebuilt. However, a museum in Laupheim documents the town's former Jewish community. Among the items on display are side-by-side photographs of the old Laupheim synagogue and Temple Beth-El.
That association adds to the holiness of the Northbrook building, Temple Beth-El Rabbi Sid Helbraun said.
"Every time I give a tour of our building, I tell Fred's story," he said. "When I share the story with visitors, they are always touched by a spark of that holiness."
'A useful skill'
Long Grove resident Toby Kriss' parents survived the Holocaust, as did her maternal grandparents. But her paternal grandparents and other relatives were murdered by the Nazis.
The Holocaust, Kriss said, "informs everything about who I am."
A retired marketing researcher, Kriss had what she described as a "rudimentary understanding" of her family's role in the Holocaust by the time she was in grade school.
"My dad had nightmares and would scream out in the night," Kriss, 64, recalled. "I didn't have grandparents. I didn't have aunts and uncles."
Kriss' mother, Florence, was Lithuanian. In 1941 when she was about 13, Florence and her parents were forced into the Vilna Ghetto in Lithuania and then the Theresienstadt concentration camp in what is now the Czech Republic. All survived.
Florence's brother, however, was killed in the ghetto.
Kriss' father, Marvin Ridzinski, was Polish. He, five siblings and his parents were sent to ghettos and concentration camps when he was about 22. Marvin Ridzinski was the only one who survived, thanks in part to being a talented tailor.
"He had a useful skill for the Germans," Kriss said. "He would sew uniforms."
Every time Ridzinski was transferred to a different camp, his sewing machine went with him.
At one camp, a German soldier asked Ridzinski to make a pair of pants for his girlfriend. The soldier was so pleased with the job that he sneaked Ridzinski food as a reward.
"(The soldier) told him to tie his pants closed at the ankles and gave him extra rations to drop down his pants legs," Kriss said.
Kriss' mother didn't talk much about the horrors she experienced. Her father, who ultimately was liberated from the Buchenwald concentration camp by the U.S. Army in April 1945, was more open and stressed the importance of remembering.
They died in the 1980s.
Through the generations, Jews have assimilated in the U.S. and anti-Semitism has become less of a concern -- until the recent rise of white nationalism.
A founding member of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and a member of other Jewish groups, Kriss worries the current overt bigotry could turn into a movement like the one that swept through Europe in the 1930s.
She was particularly shaken by the Oct. 27 massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue that left 11 Jews dead.
"Now we all need to be more vigilant," Kriss said.