Written by Mary Houlihan for The Chicago Sun Times, November 6, 2011:
Chaya Roth and Gitta Fajerstein-Walchirk have a close bond with a 90-year-old Catholic priest living in a nursing home in Cuneo, Italy.
Father Francesco Brondello was just 23 when he risked his life to help Jews escape the Nazis. Roth and Fajerstein-Walchirk, who are sisters, were among them.
Brondello and six other “upstanders” were honored Sunday at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center in Skokie in the first part of the annual commemoration of the anniversary of Kristallnacht.
Kristallnacht or “Night of Broken Glass,” marked a series of attacks against Jewish people throughout Germany and parts of Austria over two days on Nov. 9 and 10, 1938. During the two days, Jewish homes, shops, towns and villages were ransacked. Civilians destroyed buildings with sledgehammers leaving pieces of smashed windows on the street.
Like the last two years, the museum opened its commemoration, the 73rd anniversary of Kristallnacht, with a tribute to the courageous acts of rescuers who refused to stand by in the wake of Nazi atrocities.
Seven new names were added to the Ferro Fountain of the Righteous outside the museum doors.
“There is not a role more hallowed than the rescuers,” said Museum Executive Director Rick Hirschhaut. “They stood and said no to the Nazi juggernaut.”
Roth and Fajerstein-Walchirk were just 9 and 12 when the Nazis forced their family to leave their home in Berlin. After hiding in the Netherlands, the family made its way through the Alps and hid in a mountain town where a “young, red-haired priest on skies” helped save their lives.
“We are honored to know him,” said Fajerstein-Walchirk of Wilmette. “In the winter of 1943-44, he brought us food, clothes, and helped forge our papers, even though it was very dangerous.”
Another Italian honored Sunday was Dr. Giovanni Palatucci, who headed the office for foreigners in Croatia. After providing Jewish refugees with residence permits that his superior declined to issue, Palatucci was arrested and deported to Dachau where he died in 1945.
The roles of Italian citizens in saving Jewish lives is a story that is just beginning to be told, said Alessandro Motta, Consul General of Italy.
“It’s time to celebrate these acts that led to life, not death.”
Also honored Sunday were a Lithuanian family — Benediktas Sindikaitis, Kazimiera Mozurkiene and Stase Sindikaityte-Minelgiene — who hid Jews when the Nazis invaded Lithuania in 1941. Polish honorees were Kazimierz Stanislaw Stawski and Wanda Antonina Stawski who were remembered for aiding Jews despite the danger this presented to themselves and their family.
The ceremony was followed by an eyewitness account of Kristallnacht from Ellen Glass who lived though Nov. 9, 1938 as a child growing up in Saulheim, Germany. Glass spoke of the arrest of her father, and how that infamous night of terror 73 years ago — considered by Holocaust historians as the end of the beginning or the beginning of the end — caused her family to leave Germany.
The museum’s Kristallnacht commemoration has quickly become a meaningful tradition — even in the short time the museum has been open. The annual event has included not only first-hand historical accounts of the devastation that occurred in Germany more than seven decades ago, but a focus on those everyday people who refused to be bystanders when some of the darkest days of inhumanity emerged.
“We want to mark Kristallnacht by looking at those and honoring those precious few who had the courage, the fortitude and the goodness to recognize right from wrong,” said Hirschhaut at the museum’s first Kristallnacht ceremony a few years ago. That mission continues on every November when the anniversary of “The Night of Broken Glass” is remembered.