“Mazel tov” is the customary exuberant response to the sound of shattering glass at the conclusion of a Jewish wedding ceremony. But for a young Fred (Fritz) Behrend, the sound of breaking glass meant anything but celebration.
The harrowing events that defined the formative years of Behrend’s life are chronicled in an engrossing book that he co-authored with Larry Hanover, Rebuilt from Broken Glass: A German Jewish Life Remade in America. In this book, we learn about the years leading up to the Holocaust as witnessed though the eyes of a young boy who led a life of innocence and privilege. But in 1938, when he was 13, the life he knew was abruptly shattered by the event known as Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass).
Young Fred grew up in Ludenscheid, a city in western Germany, in the mid-1930s. He vividly recalls the parades and celebrations of the Schutzenfest (sharpshooting contests), where he thrilled at watching the goose-stepping Nazi troops in their fine attire giving a proud “Heil Hitler” salute to the cheering crowd. His parents stood in silence, under banners emblazoned with swastikas, never uttering a word of disapproval for fear of being reported to the authorities by some anonymous informant.
In those years, Fred’s father owned a financially successful ladies’ silk and linens store. The family lived in a compound reminiscent of the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, but on a smaller scale. It was replete with a gardener, cook, maid and chauffeur. Incidents of anti-Semitism were initially only a small part of Fred’s early life, but over a short period of time, they became overt to the point that one of his boyhood neighbors threw stones at him, accompanied with shouts of “Judenschwein” (Jewish pig).
At first the Behrends were immobilized out of disbelief at what was happening to their beloved Germany. The Behrend Family had lived in Germany for over four hundred years and never dreamed that a highly civilized country could undergo such a hate-filled transformation against fellow Germans. Fred’s father even received the Cross of Honor for having served on the front lines in defense of the fatherland in World War I. But none of that mattered in the face of the growing menace of an irrational and infectious hatred of Jews by their fellow countrymen. It was fueled by the propaganda machine of Joseph Goebbels, which blamed Germany’s woes on the Jews.
In September 1935, the Nazis enacted the Nuremberg Laws against the Jews. The laws excluded German Jews from Reich citizenship and prohibited them from marrying or having sexual relations with persons of German or related blood. After Kristallnacht, it was but a short step to the “beginning of the end” of life in Germany for the Behrends and all the other Jews.
On Kristallnacht, which took place on November 9-10, 1938, Nazi thugs broke windows and looted and destroyed Jewish-owned stores, including the Behrends’ store. Fred’s father was arrested and sent to the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. That terrible night was the darkest moment in young Fred’s life. He and his family were forced to flee what had been their ancestral homeland for over four centuries. They eventually made their way to safe harbor in the United States.
Undeterred by a tragic past, Fred was determined to gather the shards of what had been his life and craft a new future for himself and his family. So at age 18, he joined the American Army and was assigned as a companion-German-translator to the father of the U.S. space program, Wernher Von Braun. After the war, Fred raised a family and became a successful businessman. Today, he is retired from business and has embarked upon chronicling the history of his family as a way of teaching the lessons of the Holocaust to future generations so that they learn why it is important to “never forget.”