By Anya Bochman
For Erwin Ganz, of Warren, speaking to congregations and schools about his experiences in the Holocaust serves a dual purpose; in recounting the events that shattered his childhood, he bears witness to Nazi atrocities as well as admonishes younger generations on the dangers of hatred. Ganz, who is 90, is a member of the last generation of survivors who experienced the Holocaust first-hand.
On Thursday, April 30 at Temple Beth Tikvah (TBT) in Wayne, Ganz told his story in a presentation titled “Growing up in Nazi Germany: Before, During and After Kristallnacht.” The solemn commemoration, ahead of May 1’s Yom HaShoah – Holocaust Memorial Day – also featured candle lighting, music and readings by Wayne representatives of temples Beth Tikvah and Shomrei Torah, as well as Chabad Center of Passaic County and the Wayne YMCA.
The program came about when TBT members Alice Osur and Mitchell Berger were discussing an educational speaker on the subject of Kristallnacht, the infamous Nazi Germany pogrom. Berger’s father, who had survived the Holocaust, was understandably reluctant to speak about his painful memories, leading his son to attempt to find out more.
“I went online and I googled [Holocaust survivors] who spoke on the subject,” Osur said. “When I came across Erwin, I saw how very engaging and easy to communicate with he is. He wants to share his experience.”
Ganz was born in Frankfurt, Germany, in August 1929, the son of a Jewish bank executive. Conditions in the country were already deteriorating when Adolf Hitler came to power, as Ganz recalled his father using a wheelbarrow filled with useless paper money to buy bread for the family. As the Nazi party gained power in the 1930s, Ganz’ father lost his job at the bank due to rising anti-Semitism.
As conditions for Jews in Frankfurt grew ever more precarious, the family relocated to the town of Bernkastel-Kues, along the Moselle River, where Ganz’ grandmother owned and operated a small department store. Ganz’ father proceeded to work for the store, sometimes selling clothes door-to-door.
Ganz describes the town at the time as home to some 40 Jewish families, with one synagogue. The bucolic setting, however, did not stave off the encroachment of state-mandated anti-Semitism for long; when Ganz was five years old, he was denied entry to the town’s public school and had to take a train to study in Wittlich, a town over 30 miles away. Despite his young age, his parents had little choice in the matter, and the dangerous commute is something that Ganz remembers all too well.
“The Hitlerjugend [Hitler Youth] used to wait at the station; they would call us names and take our books while the police looked the other way,” Ganz said. “They just let the Hitlerjugend do whatever they wanted.”
As conditions for German Jewry continued to worsen, Ganz nevertheless persisted with his education at the school for the next three years. He remembers a distinct turn for the worse when Jewish men were taken from their homes by the Gestapo and signs reading “Do Not Buy From Jews” were posted on storefronts of Jewish businesses, including that of his grandmother.
“My family had been Germans living in the country for generations and generations,” Ganz recalled sadly of the gradual disenfranchising of German Jews.
“My father would always talk to me before I went to sleep, and one night he spoke longer than usual,” Ganz said. “In the morning, he was gone.”
His father had managed to immigrate to the United States with the help of an elderly cousin living in Missouri; escape from Nazi Germany was extremely difficult for Jewish people, and without the cousin acting as “sponsor” and putting up funds – sent to him by Ganz’ grandmother – his father would not have been able to leave in time.
Ganz is acutely aware of this, reflecting that neither he nor his father may have survived at all, as the cousin died while Ganz’ father was traveling to America aboard the SS President Harding. The narrow escape is a bitter reminder of how little aid was extended to German Jews at the time.
As up until that point, Jewish women and children had been spared deportations to ghettoes and labor camps, the rest of Ganz’ family remained in Bernkastel-Kues while the father struggled to make a living in the United States.
Nov. 9, 1938, the date of the Kristallnacht pogroms, a devastating series of attacks on Jewish businesses and temples, began “just like every other day” in Ganz’ memory. It was overcast and cloudy, and his mother was waiting for him at the train station after he returned from school.
She gave Ganz a banana, a delicacy at the time, in an attempt to soften the impact of what the boy was about to see in the family home.
“All the windows in our home had been broken, and there were shards of glass in the street and in our yard,” Ganz recounted painfully. “The Hitlerjugend had smashed all mirrors, and slashed our pictures and furniture.”
As he took in the devastation to the family home, Ganz noticed hatchet marks gouged into door frames. Coals from the stove had been thrown on the family’s beds. The youths responsible were mostly teenagers whose parents had previously been customers in the family store.
“It’s called Kristallnacht, or ‘The Night of Broken Glass,’ but the destruction took place during the day as well,” Ganz said. “That night, they burned the town synagogue, where my brother had been the last bar mitzvah.”
That night, two Gestapo officers came into the house in order to take away Ganz’ father, who had by then left. As women and children were still largely spared by Germany’s genocidal regime at the time, the Gestapo did not detain Ganz or his mother.
“After that, I was afraid to go outside because of the Hitlerjugend,” Ganz recounted. “There was a tavern near our house and at night we could hear them singing songs about murdering Jews. We all had nightmares.”
Soon, all Jews in town had to turn over their money and gold as the Nuremberg Laws effectively took away their citizenship and all the privileges that came with it. Although the family’s gentile housekeeper was no longer allowed to work for them, she secretly supplied them with food – an action that in Holocaust remembrance marks her as a “righteous gentile.”
“All mail was censored by the Gestapo, but my parents had set up a unique system where my mother would snip a lock of my hair and send it to my father in America to let him know that things were okay,” Ganz said. “If there was no lock of hair in the letter, the message was ‘get us out.’”
That is precisely what Ganz’ father did, and in April of 1939, Ganz, along with his mother and brother, managed to leave the country. His grandmother followed shortly after, on one of the last boats out. Most relatives remaining in the country died in the ensuing extermination campaign against the Jews.
Today, Ganz – who has four children and eight grandchildren – is retired following a long career as Executive Vice President for Ronson Corporation. He has stayed anything but idle, having spoken of his experiences in over 100 locations, including Fairleigh Dickinson University. At a presentation in his temple in Warren, Alice Osur heard Ganz’ story and recommended him to Temple Beth Tikvah for its 2019 Yom HaShoah program.
“Erwin is extremely articulate and passionate,” Osur said. “I saw him at the Warren synagogue and knew he was the one to lead this program.”
For Ganz, who has since gone back to Germany several times, the reminders of the past are everywhere. During a visit to the family home on the Moselle River, he could still see the hatchet marks struck into the wood by the Hitler Youth, visible despite layers of paint. The town synagogue had been turned into a machine shop, but the Star of David that once decorated it was still visible on the structure.
The school in Wittlich is long gone, but the town’s temple has been turned into a “Jewish museum.” Its owner told Ganz that there were no longer any Jewish families in Wittlich. In many ways, the absences, both of people and places, are more startling than the physical reminders of that terrible time.
Perhaps incredibly, during a more recent visit, Ganz, struck by a “burning desire” to find someone who would remember his family, spoke to a number of elderly people in Bernkastel-Kues. After a series of false starts, he met a woman who said that when she was a little girl, she remembered a Jewish man – Ganz’s father – selling her family a dress.
In his continued efforts to bring his story to others – whether school children in Germany or temple members in the United States – Ganz emphasizes the need to bear witness and learn from mistakes of the past.
“Too many people don’t know what happened,” he said. “When I was invited to speak to children in a school in Germany, I told them they are the future. There is still too much anti-Semitism in the world today, and we need to do better.”