On the evening of Nov. 9, 1938, 9-year-old Susi Hilsenrath and her brother Joseph went to bed excited about their mother’s birthday the next day.
They woke to the sound of their stained-glass front breaking, a sound that echoed across Germany as Jews were rudely awakened to the extent of Nazi anti-Semitism, as their neighbors humiliated them and burned and vandalized their homes, businesses and synagogues.
Kristallnacht, “the night of broken glass,” was only a harbinger of far worse things to come, as the Nazis settled on, and systematically worked to carry out, the “Final Solution,” extermination of Jews. Six million Jews and about five million others, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, disabled people and Roma, died in Nazi concentration camps before Germany’s defeat in 1945.
Soon after Kristallnacht, Susi’s family spent much of their life’s savings to smuggle her and her brother into France. Despite all her crystal-clear memories of her childhood, she writes that neither she nor her brother have any memory of that family separation at a German train station. Susi, now Susan Warsinger, thinks that the moment that began their two-year separation was too painful to remain a conscious memory.
Warsinger shared her story March 9 with students at Western Dubuque High School, captivating them for an hour and earning an immediate standing ovation. Standing in high heels for most of her presentation, the 86-year-old former teacher and tour guide of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum highlighted small moments along her journey—her brother’s sickness on the way ship that brought them to America, brought on by an overindulgence in pineapple, and being chased by a park’s gatekeeper and his daughter, who was little older than she was in the days leading up to Kristallnacht.
Her visit was part of a tour of Eastern Iowa schools organized through the Museum, and as her time in Epworth drew to an end, teacher Lindsey Digmann called her trip to Western Dubuque “fate.” Those who tour the Museum do so with the companion ID card of someone who lived through the Holocaust. When Digmann toured the museum, she did so “as” Susi Hilsenrath.