A Holocaust survivor recalls his escape from Nazi Germany

Benno Black
Benno Black fled his native Breslau shortly after Kristallnacht in 1938. Nazis burned the city's synagogue, where he'd celebrated his bar mitzvah just weeks before.
Tim Nelson / MPR News

Benno Black saw his mother last out a train window in the city of Breslau one day in July, 1939. She'd put him on a train to escape the Nazis, as World War II and the Holocaust loomed.

"My father and his brother, my uncle, took me to the station," Black recalled recently, from his home in St. Louis Park. "My mother told me it would be too hard for me to say goodbye at the station. She, is going to, together with my grandmother and my aunt ... stand below on the street, just below the first viaduct, and as the train would pass over just having left the station at a slow speed, they would wave to me."

They waved.

Within months, two of the women died in Theriesenstadt a concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. Black doesn't know for sure about his mother but thinks she died on another German train, on the way to a Majdanek, a death camp in Poland, probably in 1942.

This Sunday starts Yom HaShoah, the Jewish memorial day for the estimated six million Jews killed in the Holocaust. Black and thousands of others are also marking the 75th anniversary of their escape from that tragedy. Their rescue, dubbed "Kindertransport," sent thousands of children out of the Nazi's grasp, some with only hours to spare.

"There were some people in England, including the Quakers, and various Jewish organizations, that said, something needs to be done," said Margaret Goldberger, a spokeswoman for the Kindertransport Association, survivors of the effort.

Goldberger, who was a child refugee herself, lives on Long Island. She said the exodus began in December of 1938 as war loomed closer. "In a period of close to nine months, about 10,000 Jewish children from arrived from Germany, Austria and also some from Czechoslovakia ... About 75 percent of them became orphans," she said.

•Related: More stories and photos of Minnesota Holocaust survivors

Black has been marking the anniversary by talking about his deliverance, and what he left behind.

The trouble in Europe started years before Black was put on that train. He thinks his father and mother, Martin and Helene, saw something coming. "In 1936, my parents realized that we should leave Germany. We had relatives -- my mother's brother lived in Minneapolis," Black said. "We also had more distant relatives both in Minneapolis and Fargo, North Dakota. And they provided affidavits which guaranteed they would support us until my father could provide for us."

But in those days, seeking refuge in other countries was difficult, particularly for Jews like Black's parents -- or the Blochs, as they were known then. His storekeeper father was Polish. His mother was German. Immigration quotas based on nationality threatened to split them up, so they waited.

But the night of Nov. 9, 1938 disaster struck. A Jewish teenager in Paris had shot and killed a German diplomat and the Nazis responded with a wave of anti-Semitic violence and arrests, now known as Kristallnacht. The synagogue where Benno had celebrated his Bar Mitzvah just weeks before had been set on fire. The Jewish department store in downtown Breslau was ransacked. Violence erupted across Germany and Austria.

Black remembers being sent home early from school the next day.

"There was my father sitting there, and I knew right away something had happened," Black said. "He told me that [our] store had been broken into during the night and ransacked. A lot of merchandise was thrown out in the street."

And worse was to come. Some historians mark the night as the start of the Holocaust, as it was a turning point when anti-Jewish rhetoric and policies escalated into violence.

Benno's parents sent him to his grandmother's house: "That afternoon, my mother came over, and she told us the Gestapo came and arrested my father. And she didn't know where was taken to. So, six weeks later, I came home from school, and there was my father sitting there. He looked like he'd aged 10 years in those six weeks."

Black's father was one of 30,000 Jews arrested in the wake of Kristallnaght. Like many, he was temporarily held in Buchenwald, the camp that later gained infamy for the deaths of tens of thousands of Jews, Soviet prisoners of war and opponents of the Nazi regime.

Fearing more oppression and violence, Martin and Helene made an anguished choice in 1939: they decided to take the British government's offer to take in their only child.

They consoled their son and told him the separation was only temporary. As soon as they received visas and could leave the country, they would follow. "I really think they were planning to come to the United States. To Minneapolis, for that matter," Black said.

His parents put him on a train to Berlin. Another took him train took him and dozens of other children to Holland. "We all cheered when we crossed the border out of Germany," Black recalled. In Holland, he boarded a ship for the English port of Harwich and was eventually taken in by a family in Northampton.

Though he was just a boy, he went to work in a boot factory. He'd attended his last day of school and faced an uncertain future. He wrote back and forth to his family, via Switzerland, as World War II raged across the English Channel.

"After about six months, maybe a year, that stopped," Black said. "And I only received a Red Cross postcard once a month with 25 words on it. And eventually the postcards stopped." They were censored, and gave no inkling of the horrors his family faced in Germany.

One letter told him his father died. Black thinks it was a disease he'd picked up in Buchenwald. All that remains of his childhood are a couple of suitcases sent full of school books, a gesture from his mother that she still hoped he'd finish his education. Everything else was swept away in the Holocaust.

Benno Black and his wife, Annette
Benno Black was one of 10,000 children evacuated to Britain during the "Kindertransport," an effort to save Jewish children from what became the Holocaust.
Tim Nelson/MPR News, file

Black eventually joined the British Army, fought the Germans himself in Holland and in 1947 finally made that journey to Minnesota his parents had hoped for. In 1956, he married Annette, a St. Paul girl, and for years worked at a department store, becoming a shopkeeper like his father. He and his wife have two children and six grandchildren.

They also have a lasting gratitude for many, long lost to history, who helped a boy escape the tragedy that the world remembers this weekend.

"Otherwise, I'd be dead," Black said. "I don't think I would have survived a concentration camp. I'd be dead."

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