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Survivors warn of 'perils of ignorance and hate' on 83rd anniversary of Kristallnacht

Jolene Almendarez
Albert Miller's family survived the Holocaust and he speaks about why sharing their story is essential to keeping hate at bay.

Steve Coppel's dad Werner escaped from Nazi soldiers during a World War II death march. Werner's mother, brother and father were killed by Nazis. Albert Miller saw his friends wearing Hitler Youth uniforms at school and endured hearing "Heil Hitler" in class every day before he eventually fled to Switzerland. Both spoke at a Q&A Wednesday to recognize the 83rd anniversary of Kristallnacht, also known as the Night of Broken Glass.

Miller says everything changed after that.

"All the Jews that were still living in Germany felt in their bones that they had to get out as quickly as they possibly could," he said. "It was also about that time that most of the world had closed its doors and I'm embarrassed to say that included the United States of America."

Kristallnacht happened Nov. 9-10 in 1938 Germany and Austria. During organized riots, Jewish buildings and homes were destroyed, people were killed, and tens of thousands of people were sent to concentration camps.

Miller already fled to Switzerland by then, but his parents were still in Berlin, where his family lived for generations. Through sheer luck, a family friend instructed the family to try going to a secretly sympathetic person at the Belgian consulate. They received need documents there and traveled to Brussels, but not not before being searched by SS soldiers.

"They were free," he said. "Freedom is like health. If you're healthy, you have 100 wishes. If you're sick, you have only one. It's exactly the same thing with freedom. If you live free, like we do here, we have 100 wishes. If your freedom has been taken away from you … you have only one wish, you want to be free again."

Coppel's father was not lucky enough to get out of the country before his family was rounded up. He was sent with other young men to Auschwitz 3 where a Jewish doctor managed to get many young men jobs working indoors, where they at least stood a chance at survival.

"Concentration camps, they're everything you read. There's no food. Nazis weren't interested in keeping you alive," Coppel said. "There was no cleaning facilities, no bathing facilities. And like any other concentrated person, he saw just unimaginable death, cruelty, pain, suffering. The fact that he was able to survive all this is beyond words."

His dad managed to escape in January of 1945 during a death march. At a bend in the road, he made a dash toward a forest while Nazi soldiers fired at him. He hid in a ditch meant for animals and survived for days on hay, melting snow for water and keeping warm with straw.

Coppel's father eventually found refuge at a nearby town after the Germans fled, where he met his wife.

Jolene Almendarez
Steve Coppel speaks at a Q&A with Albert Miller about his family's experience during the holocaust.

Steve Coppel and Albert Miller share their families' stories often. It's necessary, they say, to ensure people remember the consequences of hate and otherism.

Miller often speaks to groups of people about his experiences and asks, "Why are you here? What do you expect me to say? All of this was already over with 75, 80 years ago. The Holocaust was already finished at that time. Well, you think it's finished? The aftermath is not finished at all. It's right with us all the time."

They're both concerned with the rise of antisemitism in this country. The Anti-Defamation League recorded more than 2,100 cases of assault, vandalism and harassment against Jewish people in 2019, the most in about 40 years.

"Whereas there might have been a time I would think this could never have happened in America, now I'm not so sure," Coppel said.

He says keeping future generations safe means knowing the perils of ignorance and hate, and fighting it whenever it happens.

"To continue that awful silence of indifference just opens the door to it happening again," he said.

The Q&A was hosted by the Holocaust & Humanity Center at the Cincinnati Museum Center.

Jolene Almendarez is the granddaughter of Mexican immigrants who came to San Antonio in the 1960s. She was raised in a military family and has always called the city home. She studied journalism at San Antonio College and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism and Public Communications from the University of Alaska Anchorage. She's been a reporter in San Antonio and Castroville, Texas, and in Syracuse and Ithaca, New York.