Posts Tagged ‘Krystalnacht’

Karl Romberg was the youngest of the 13 Romberg children born to Julius and Fredericka.  In many ways he might have been the most successful, at least financially, of his generation of the family.  Karl was the exclusive importer of English wool for western Germany.  As a result, not only was he financially successful, but his business continued to prosper long after other Jewish businesses had collapsed because of Nazi inspired anti-Semitism.  This is because his partners/suppliers in England were not about to change importers in Germany just because of Nazi policies.  So Karl had a monopoly in English wool.

On trips to England, Karl would smuggle money out of Germany in the hollowed handle of a shaving brush.  He opened a bank account in England as a hedge against the day when he would have to get his family out of Germany.  He prospered.  The boycott against Jewish businesses in 1933 hardly affected him.  His suppliers and customers were loyal.  So he thrived when others did not.

But all of that ended at Kristalnacht.

Across the street from Karl and his family lived a non-Jewish man who had served with Karl in World War I.  He owned a set of garages and let Karl store his car there, as it was against the law in Essen in those days to park in the streets because of the regular street cleaning (part of the German phobia of orderliness).  One day, in November 1938, his war comrade came to Karl and told him to get out of town and hide for about 2 weeks.  The SS had him targeted and a large operation was being planned.  He told Karl not to ask him any questions about how he knew, or ask for any details, just to understand Karl was about to be targeted by the SS.

So Karl left town leaving his business (which was right below the family’s living quarters), his wife, his sons Manfred and Ralph, and their governess, a woman named Maria Jagode.  Maria Jagode’s story was rather interesting.  She was an orphan who was raised by nuns who ran a combination farm, school and cloister in a small town on the banks of the Rhine River.  Kristalnacht arrived.  The family, minus Karl listened from the living quarters upstairs as the Nazis took axes and sledge hammers to everything in the office below, completely destroying the business.

The main stairway to get to the living spaces upstairs ran from the garden in the back of the store.  Soon they heard the troopers stomping up the stairway.  The Nazis burst through the door with the intent of destroying the home as well.  Maria, the governess, intervened.  She spoke to the leader saying she was Catholic and that the family was leaving Germany soon and was giving all of their belongings to her.  She said she would appreciate it if the Nazis would not destroy what was going to be her furniture.  They bought this and left the apartment unharmed.

By June 1939 the family, intact, made it to Cuba, eventually moving to Chicago, where Manfred and Ralph grew up and went to college.   They learned that the World War I comrade of Karl’s who warned him was himself an SS officer who saw Karl’s name on a list to be rounded up that night.   Maria wrote to the family while they were living in Cuba.  Now comes an interesting post script to the story.

Ralph served a tour in Korea as an American GI.  He was then transferred to Germany.  One of the people he looked up was Maria Jagode, to try to aid her.  She told him that the nuns that raised her used their facilities to hide and transfer Allied pilots who were shot down during the war – a kind of underground railroad.  Ralph went to the town where the convent was to give them some help as well – but it was completely gone.  He went to question the mayor of the village who was reluctant to tell him anything.  Being an American soldier Ralph was required to always be in full uniform, so when he began to press the mayor and put on an official “air,” the mayor caved and told the tale.  The Nazis found out how the nuns were aiding Allied soldiers, locked all of them in one of the convent buildings and burned it to the ground.

The former Jewish refugee from Germany turned American officer then returned to Essen to find his old home.  It was completely bombed out except for one thing.  The stairway from the garden to the second floor was still standing – a stairway to nowhere.  A satiric monument to Maria Jagode and the nuns who raised her.

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