Broken Glass, Broken Lives: A Jewish Girls’ Survival Story in Berlin

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Broken Glass, Broken Lives: A Jewish Girls’ Survival Story in Berlin, 1933 - 1945  Rita KluhnBroken Glass Broken Lives is Rita Kuhn’s first hand account of growing up in Berlin in the 1930s and 40s during Hitler’s Nazi regime. Rita is Jewish, brought up as a practicing Jew, going to a Jewish school, wearing her yellow star along with all the others marked out for attention by the regime. The difference was that in the eyes of that same regime, Rita was somehow not quite Jewish enough.

In Rita’s case, her mother was a Jewish convert who gave up the religion she’d been born with in order to marry Rita’s father. As such, Rita’s mother was exempt from much of the abuse that was perpetrated on ‘born and bred’ Jews and Rita and her brother were classified as a Geltungsjuedin – or ‘Jews by law’.

Her mother was classified by the Nazis as a ‘polluter’ of the Aryan race because she chose to convert to Judaism and marry Rita’s father. As such, Rita’s mother was disapproved of by the Nazis but not subject to the same censure and punishment as Rita who was in turn was subject to less abuse than her father. It’s all relative – nobody was having much fun. She was caught between the non-Jewish Germans and her full Jewish friends and family. To Rita this status was a cause of great upset because she wants more than anything to belong.

At the beginning of the book she attends a standard school in Berlin, but after the Kristalnacht the school was forced to turn away Jewish children and Rita went to a faith school. There are all the stories you’d expect – the yellow stars, the disappearances of friends and family, elderly couples committing suicide rather than face the camps. What’s different about Rita’s story is that she and her family are subjected to some but not all of the atrocities. When her school is forced to close, she’s sent to work as forced labour in a factory working with metal presses, and later sent to clean trains at a depot, running between the trains, trying not to get hit or run over in between cleaning the windows.

Time and again, Rita is rounded up with other Jews and then spared the punishment and the deportations. Again and again she is caught in the middle, cursing the very exclusion that’s keeping her alive against all odds. Even when she evades the deportations, it’s not safe in Berlin. Whilst the allies are attempting to end the war and bring peace, the Berliners are subjected to horrendous bombings, many made homeless, most close to starvation.

The end of the war should have come as a relief but the arrival of Russian ‘liberators’ brought more danger and abuse. Rita’s status as a Jew meant some of the more respectful Russian soldiers left her alone. There’s a lovely passage where she tells a Russian that she’s Jewish and he replies “Me too”. In their apartment block, the older women – including Rita’s mother – do their best to distract the Russian soldiers and protect the younger girls. “Make yourselves look ugly” advised one of the women.

It’s the little things that stay with you after reading a book like this. The childhood friendships, the school stories, the details about food and clothing and attempting to stay ‘normal’ when the world around you is going crazy. There are kindnesses – even from German soldiers and Russian liberators – and these help to offset the horrible behaviour of some of the civilian Germans who support their leadership’s ambitions to rid their country of people like Rita.

When you read Rita’s recollections of the bombings, the abuse, the forced labour and deportations, it’s not hard to understand that when the war was finally over, Rita and her family wanted to get away from Germany and start new lives.

Rita’s writing is excellent. It’s never self-pitying, never sensationalist, and considering that she was working as forced labour during the years when she should have been getting an education, her writing is mature and sophisticated. This is not a “my crap childhood” misery memoir, nor is it a falsely cheerful and upbeat attempt to say “Hey look at what I went through and how great my life is now”. Rita has survivor guilt, a sense of ‘Why me, Why us?’ or perhaps more candidly ‘Why not me?’.

She tells us “There is still the anguish of the Rita Kuhn seventeen-year old who wanted to know why she escaped the Nazi conflagration”. This is very natural amongst people who narrowly miss death – and in her case, repeatedly narrowly miss it – or other disasters. Hers is a remarkable ability to balance her experience of a life of great hardship with a clear knowledge that it could have been much worse.

Rita kept quiet about her past for many years, finally breaking her silence in 1985 when she started to speak to school children. Telling them about the lives and deaths of the 6 million Jews who weren’t as lucky as her and her family became an obligation that she couldn’t shake off. As she tells us “We must speak for the dead or they will die a second death”.

Buy book online
Buy book online
Broken Glass, Broken Lives: A Jewish Girls’ Survival Story in Berlin
by Rita Kluhn

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