97-year-old Holocaust survivor tells family’s harrowing brush with Kristallnacht

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Baltimore Jewish Council and The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore commemorated the 84th anniversary of Kristallnacht (“Night of Broken Glass”), the wide-scale Nazi-led pogrom against Jewish citizens and their businesses over the night of Nov. 9-10, 1938. It was on that night that Nazis in Germany and Austria torched synagogues, vandalized Jewish homes, schools and businesses, and murdered nearly 100 Jews. In the aftermath of Kristallnacht, some 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and sent to Nazi concentration camps.

Holocaust survivor Ralph Brunn speaks at a Nov. 9 event in Baltimore recalling the events of Kristallnacht, the pogroms that rocked Germany and Austria in November 1938. (Photo by Jillian Diamond)

Ralph Brunn was only 14 at the time; the massacre changed the course of his life forever.

Now 97, Brunn recounted the events of that night as well as his family’s story of escape from Germany at the Nov. 9 memorial event, which was held in-person at Moses Montefiore Anshe Emunah Hebrew Congregation (MMAE) in Baltimore and also livestreamed online.

Congregants and non-congregants alike packed into the synagogue’s seats to hear Brunn’s story of survival and of the newfound success his family enjoyed when they escaped Germany and immigrated to the United States.

“We try the best we can to understand and to experience what [Kristallnacht victims] went through on that night, and on all the nights and days afterwards,” said Rabbi Yerachmiel Shapiro, MMAE’s rabbi in his opening remarks. “We are here to try and create something. We’re not just here to honor it, forget it, and go home and say we did it.”

Brunn’s father, Gustav, would later go on to be one of the founders of the Baltimore Spice Company, creator of the iconic Old Bay seasoning, but he was originally a modest spice merchant who worked with local butchers. Though Brunn was young at the time, he remembers when his father started losing business due to the spread of antisemitism and anti-Jewish oppression throughout Germany.

In 1935, his family moved from to the town of Wertheim in southwestern Germany to the central city of Frankfurt, which had a much larger Jewish population. But the area’s largest Jewish community was still subject to restrictive laws.

“By the time we got there, Jewish children were no longer permitted to go to regular schools,” recalled Brunn, who attended a large Jewish day school instead.

Some German Jews were starting to leave the country, aided by organizations dedicated to helping Jewish people emigrate. Brunn’s family was planning to leave for the United States with the help of Gustav’s uncle, who lived there. But others wavered, thinking that this period of oppression would eventually blow over.

‘Learn from survivors of the Shoah’

Brunn’s family, in a stroke of luck, was spared from the pogrom. “I like to think God interceded on behalf of my family at this point,” he said. “Instead of coming to our home to smash things, the SA [the abbreviation of Sturmabteilung, German for “Assault Division], accidentally came next door to where a gentile family lived and smashed their things up.”

Nevertheless, Gustav was arrested along with 30,000 other Jewish men and sent to Buchenwald. Fate happened upon Brunn’s family again, recounted Brunn, when they heard rumors of a man who was able to free people from concentration camps for a price: half upfront and half upon return. If they could not pay, the prisoner would be sent back; fortunately, Gustav was released 10 days before the family was set to take a steamship to America.

After a stop at Ellis Island, the family was reunited with Brunn’s great-uncle and moved to Baltimore. While there was a recession at the time and Gustav could not find work, he would soon go on to found the Baltimore Spice Company and create some of Maryland’s favorite seasonings.

Concluding his presentation, Brunn stated that in response to recent incidents of antisemitism, “the important thing is to call [antisemitism] what it is. And I want to see people outside of the Jewish community object to it as well.”

The event ended with Baltimore Jewish Council’s Holocaust Remembrance Commission co-chair Bob Lowy announcing that the organization was making a donation to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Brunn’s honor so that future generations can continue to learn about the atrocities Jewish people were faced with in Europe.

Said Lowy: “It is more important than ever to learn from survivors of the Shoah.”

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