November 10, 1938. Germany. Kristallnacht. Night of Broken Glass. Eleven year old Alex Lebenstein comes face to face with the Nazi regime that is determined to exterminate all Jews from the face of Europe. After witnessing the beating of his family, they escape to be hidden for a few days before being forced into the newly created Jewish Ghetto where he will spend the next three years. A six day cattle car ride during one of the coldest winters on record to the larger Jewish Ghetto in Riga, Latvia is merely the first destination of what will become a three year battle of survival. From the concentration camps Kaiserwald and Stutthof, and slave labor camps Hasenpot and Burggraben to liberation and escape, teenaged Alex Lebenstein lived the sights, sounds, and smells of death. Despite facing execution, and living under the shadows of the crematoria chimneys that darkened the skies with black smoke, this is a tale of hope and wonder.
“It has been some sixty plus years since I have thought about a number of the events that I witnessed or survived during the time that I was a teenager. I must refer to myself as a teenager, and can’t say child, because I largely did not have a childhood after the evening of Kristallnacht. This dark period of my life was so traumatic that it is only recently that I have been able to confront the shadows and noises that still cause me to start whenever I see or hear them.”
“Of all the sights and sounds that left a lasting impression on me during the years that I fought to survive, there is no doubt that the sounds I experienced while we huddled on the gazebo are the ones that will forever haunt me. Even now, I cannot hear the sound of leaves scraping on the sidewalk or the bricks of my apartment without flashing back to the time that we huddled on that old gazebo and that eerie sound of dead leaves and vines added to the sheer terror that I was feeling.”
More than a story of survival, this is a tale of good triumphing over evil, and one man’s battle to make a difference in the lives of children. With a new lease on life, he now promotes tolerance through education on two continents, and tells his remarkable story so that the children will know.
Like most German families of the 1920s and 1930s, mine had a very large garden where we would grow vegetables and fruits which my mother would then can and preserve for us to eat in the winter months. There were no supermarkets back then, and these gardening and canning activities were something that a family did in order to survive the winter. While the entire family was responsible for planting, weeding, and tending the garden, my contributions usually consisted of sitting there and eating the fruits of our labors.
Because of the amount of time spent down in the garden, it was also customary to have a gazebo in which we could find shelter from the sun and the elements. I have wonderful memories of our gazebo. It was a place dominated by love and devotion to our family. I would play with my sisters and my dogs. There was almost a special goodness that was present under the roof. Many a time my mother would bring us a thermos filled with coffee milk and fresh baked goods which we would all share lovingly. I remember my father playing cards with his friends – sometimes screaming at one another in excitement, their feet shifting the sand beneath the table and in front of the benches in either their excitement or frustration. Some of these friends were like blood brothers to my father, with their relationships forged and tempered on the battlefields of France during the First World War. It was a wonderful place to pass an afternoon as the air would be filled with the smell of cigars, freshly ground and brewed coffee, or of course steins full of beer. The sun would be a source of warmth, and a gentle breeze would blow through the open sides of the gazebo keeping us comfortable, and I would often curl up on a bench and take a nap.
I remember planting seeds in the rich soil in the early spring, and watching them soon poke their heads up from the ground. In the eyes of a child, it seemed almost overnight that these sprouts would soon flower and the vines would soon begin to creep up the trellis that surrounded the gazebo, and a rich lush green forest wall would soon form. It was creation and re-creation, all to be nurtured under the hands of my family and then harvested to give us continued life. During the growing seasons, the sides and trellis of the gazebo would be covered with the beans that grew up towards the sun before we would pick them. I associate this cycle of growth with the spirit of Love, Family, and Friendship that I remember most about my early childhood. I never would have suspected before the events of Kristallnacht that these wonderful idyllic memories would be forever shattered and replaced by others of sheer terror that left me feeling hostile, bitter, and in extreme pain. Unfortunately it is these latter memories that continue to haunt me some seventy years later.
By November, there were no beans left, just the empty dry vines and leaves that eerily swirled and danced in the wind. They scraped themselves against the wooden beams every time the wind would blow; creating an empty sound that still sends chills up and down my spine to this very day. Of all the sights and sounds that left a lasting impression on me during the years that I fought to survive, there is no doubt that the sounds I experienced while we huddled on the gazebo after our escape from the destructive mobs that destroyed our home and took our possessions during Kristallnacht are the ones that will forever haunt me.
Alexander Lebenstein, is the sole surviving member of the Jewish community of the town of Haltern-am-See, Germany. At the time of Kristallnacht, Alex was only eleven years old. Alex endured life in two ghettos, two concentration camps, and four slave labor camps before liberation in 1945.
For the past 12 years, Alex has spoken on the Holocaust and Tolerance to schools both in the United States and Germany.
In 2008 Alex had the honor of Ehrenburger, or honored person, bestowed upon him by the city of Halternam See as well as having the city’s middle school renamed the Alexander Lebenstein Realschule. He is the first living person to have a school named for him.
Alex is the father of two sons, has two grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.
Alex resides in Richmond, VA.
Don Levin, is a former Attorney at Law with over 13 years of general practice experience. He is also a retired U.S. Army officer, with over 23 years of commissioned service. He is also a past senior sales leader for two Fortune 200 companies, and is currently President of a leadership coaching company.
Don earned his JD from The John Marshall Law School, his MPA from the University of Oklahoma, and a BA from the University of Illinois-Chicago. He is also a graduate of the U.S. Army Command & General Staff College and the Defense Strategy Course, U.S. Army War College.
Previous works include the military legal thriller The Code, the legal story Broken Code, as well as the historical fiction novel Knight’s Code. He is also the co-author of The Leader Coach: Exposing Your Soul.
Don is very active with his church, and resides with his wife Susie, in Richmond, VA. They have five children and eight grandchildren, and two dogs named Barnes and Noble.
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