Seventy years later, Irving Bienstock doesn't know why he was spared when millions weren't.
The terror he's carried all that time began in his native Germany on the infamous Kristallnacht, the night of Nazi violence that signaled the beginning of the Holocaust.
That night, Nov. 9, 1938, Nazi troops torched 200 synagogues, ransacked 7,500 Jewish-owned businesses and murdered scores of German and Austrian Jews. They rounded up 70,000 more Jews – mostly men – for the concentration camps.
Bienstock was 12. He awoke to an eerie light. Pulling back a curtain, he saw a synagogue burning across the street from his family's apartment in Dortmund, Germany.
Soon the Nazis came to his apartment. They broke glass and plates. They carved up feather mattresses.
“I thought we were going to die that night,” Bienstock said.
Time does nothing to blur details. Yet Bienstock doesn't want to forget – he doesn't want anyone to forget.
So on Nov. 9, Charlotte's Temple Israel is hosting a 70th anniversary reflection of Kristallnacht.
“Pretty soon there will be no one left to tell the story. I want to make sure people remember what happened to us,” Bienstock said. “They murdered 6 million of us, for no other reason except that we were Jewish.”
The commemoration will include stories of Holocaust survivors, including Bienstock and Henry Hirschmann of Charlotte, another Kristallnacht survivor.
Organizers also want concentration camp liberators to join the program. As yet, they've only found one, Jesse Oxendine of Charlotte, whose Army unit liberated the German Wobbelin concentration camp.
The event will start with a procession of survivors and liberators. Herbert Stern, a child of survivors, will lead carrying a torah burned in the Holocaust that Temple Israel acquired on the event's 50th anniversary.
A film by Charlotte videographer Steve Kahn will be shown. Kahn interviewed 12 survivors and a recent reunion of Oxendine's unit.
“The stories left me numb,” said Kahn, who volunteered to make the film. “I've seen the movies and the documentaries, but until you meet a living, breathing survivor and you hear their horrible stories, it doesn't seem real. It just slams you in the face.”
Margi Goldstein, co-chair of the event, said the film will be distributed to churches, and every middle and high school in Mecklenburg County and Statesville. Two of the survivors live in that city.
Making it out alive
Their stories are different, but the same – mixing cruelty with kindness. Some survived, many didn't. Some like Hirschmann emerged from the Holocaust the sole member of their families.
Since the Germans were rounding up Jewish men, Bienstock's accountant father, William, fled Germany for Belgium. Irving and sister, Sylvia, remained behind with their mother, Ida.
A Dortmund police officer was with the Nazi troops who stormed into the Bienstock apartment during Kristallnacht.
“My mother said: ‘You are supposed to protect us,' ” Bienstock said. “And the policeman said: ‘You dirty Jew, we want you out of Germany.' ”
Suddenly the borders were closed.
Weeks later, on Jan. 1, 1939, Ida Bienstock dressed her daughter warmly and they boarded a train for Holland. She left Irving at home, not wanting to risk smuggling two children out of the country.
Ida couldn't pass the German border, but she asked passengers bound for Amsterdam to take her daughter there.
“A very kind woman said she would,” Bienstock said.
Sylvia was housed in a Jewish children's home. Two weeks later, it was Irving's turn. No one would take him. At the border, Ida got off the train. She told Irving to stay. The Germans let him pass.
But in Holland, the Dutch police asked him for a visa. He could only show them a passport. An officer took him to a hotel and brought him meals. The next day, a man from the Jewish community in Arnheim, Holland, took him to a children's home on the Dutch coast. There, he found his sister.
Weeks later, Ida Bienstock hired a man to smuggle her out of Germany into Belgium, where she reunited with her husband.
Within months, William Bienstock got word he could immigrate to the United States; Ida's brother, already in New York, would sponsor him. He left in June, 1939.
Once he arrived, he persuaded a stranger to sponsor his wife and two children. And on April 6, 1940, a month before the Germans invaded Holland, Ida, Irving and Sylvia boarded a ship in Rotterdam for New York.
William was at the dock to greet them.
“It was a miracle. I never thought we'd see him again,” said Bienstock, his voice quivering. “We were a few of the lucky ones. My grandmother, my uncles and cousins, they all died in the concentration camps.
“You don't forget these things. When there are some who say the Holocaust never happened, we can't let the world forget.”