“That is one day and night I remember very well,” Santa Barbara resident and Holocaust survivor Ken Hartoch said of Nov. 9, 1938.
As the News-Press sat down with Mr. Hartoch on Wednesday at his apartment, he recalled the famous “Night of Broken Glass,” Kristallnacht, as he read an account of the event he wrote for his then 6-year-old grandson Samuel.
Recounting his walk to school on that day and the commotion when he arrived, Mr. Hartoch read, “When I arrived there the teachers were all excited and told the children to go home to their parents immediately. … Why? Because the big, beautiful synagogue had been set on fire.”
Though Mr. Hartoch was not extremely religious, he had frequently attended the synagogue for Saturday services, so to see the beautiful building ablaze felt “terrible.” It also turned out to be a pivotal event in his life.
An only child, Mr. Hartoch was born near Cologne, Germany in 1927 and was just a young boy when Adolf Hitler came to power. Though he doesn’t have many vivid memories from life before Nazi rule, he recalled it was “comfortable.” His father ran a textile business near their home and he attended a public school that included both Jewish and non-Jewish children. But his time at the school didn’t last long.
“About one year after I started, I was expelled because I was Jewish,” he said.
Mr. Hartoch then attended a Jewish school, but from time to time faced anti-Semitic threats from boys a few years older than him. Sometimes, the boys waited on his block until he left to go to school and would chase after him and try to beat him up, which they once managed to do. After that, Mr. Hartoch always took a way to school opposite of where the boys were.
When he made the walk to school that day in 1938 to find out that his family’s synagogue had been burned along with many other synagogues and Jewish establishments, Mr. Hartoch didn’t go home to his parents as he was told.
Instead, he walked to the burning building. As black smoke billowed from the house of worship, four fire engines were parked across the street, their crews standing idle. Mr. Hartoch asked one of the firemen why they were doing nothing as the synagogue burned.
“He answered, ‘We’re here to make sure that none of the other houses around here catch fire,’” he recalled.
Luckily, his family’s home was not ransacked like those of many other Jewish families.
Nevertheless, after Kristallnacht Mr. Hartoch’s father decided that life in Germany was no longer safe for Jewish people and started making plans to go to the United States. This proved to be a challenge however, as many countries were reluctant to accept Jewish refugees from Europe out of fear it would add to their already high levels of unemployment.
In the United States, it was determined that Jewish refugees from Europe would only be accepted if they had an affidavit, a guarantee that a sponsor would pay for the refugees’ living expenses if they were unable to find employment in America.
Mr. Hartoch’s family didn’t know anybody in the U.S., so getting a sponsor was out of the question, but one day in 1939, his father had one of his many “good, sensible ideas.” Knowing that America was in the middle of an economic depression, Mr. Hartoch determined that he would employ out-of-work Americans when he arrived in the new country by starting a mineral water business.
To prove to the American embassy that his proposition was viable, he bought machinery for making mineral water and stored it in a warehouse in Hamburg, where it would wait until it got shipped to the States once permission was granted.
After Mr. Hartoch’s father showed receipts proving that he did indeed have the equipment necessary for his prospective business, the man at the American consulate was impressed, but had to cable Washington for permission. After three or four days, Mr. Hartoch’s father returned to the consulate and was informed that he and his parents were granted visas to travel to the United States. They sailed across the Atlantic on the S.S. New Amsterdam and arrived in America in May 1939.
Unfortunately for Mr. Hartoch’s father, he hadn’t heard of Coca Cola or Pepsi before arriving in America. While a bottle of Coke and Pepsi could be bought for nickel back then, Mr. Hartoch would have had to sell his mineral water for a quarter to stay in business. Unable to compete with the soda giants, his father’s mineral water business never happened, but that wasn’t what was most important.
“When we came to America, the machinery that went on the same boat was just scrapped, a total loss, but it saved our lives. It got us to America,” Mr. Hartoch said.