On the edge of the abyss

To mark the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht or Reichspogromnacht, I’m publishing here my translation of a passage from Sonja Gaze’s autobiography, Die barfüßige Tänzerin [The bare-foot dancer].

Die schöne Russin [The beautiful Russian], photo of Senta (Sonja) Kogan in Uhu, no. 3, December 1928/29
Sonja Gaze was the married name of the Expressionist dancer and fashion model, Senta (Sonja) Kogan, Moissey Kogan’s niece, to whom he was very close. Moissey Kogan had left Germany for Paris the day Hitler came to power, but she fell into the category of half-Jew, according to the criteria laid out in the Nazis’ Nuremberg Laws, and thus was able to stay in Berlin. Her mother had been born into the Lithuanian landed gentry, whilst her father, Kogan’s elder brother, returned to the land of his birth in the Pale of Settlement, Bessarabia, Russia on the failure of their marriage. Despite a number of close calls with the Gestapo and periods of detention, she remained in the city during the Third Reich and was thus a first-hand witness to life inside the regime. 

In this graphic account, Gaze describes what she and her mother witnessed on the Kurfürstendamm in Berlin on the evening of 9 November 1938. It was her mother’s first visit to Berlin, and, as Gaze recounts, “of course she wanted to see the Kurfürstendamm.” The phone rang as they were putting on their coats to set out, and her lover, the journalist and publisher, Peter Suhrkamp, on the other end of the line, asked her under no circumstances to leave the house. He hung up without further explanation, and the women were left thinking that there could be no harm in their brief trip into the city centre.

They took the bus from Grunewald, seating themselves at the front of the bus next to the driver, to ensure they had the best view of the prestigious boulevard with its “shops, cafés and flaneurs.”

We were met with a harrowing sight. From Halensee right down to the Gedächtniskirche [the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church], the pavements were covered left and right in broken glass and debris. The windows of every second shop had been smashed in, the shops ruthlessly looted, and their shelves and tables splintered into a thousand pieces. SA men stood on the pavements, with grimacing faces, whooping and bawling at their accomplices, busy trampling underfoot elegant clothes, hats, shoes, and chairs from the cafés. White-faced shop owners were standing amidst the debris. Three SA men were beating one of them with chair legs. They were festooning another man with ripped-up shreds of women’s underwear—to the amusement of by-standers. Groups of people were gathering around these abhorrent scenes. Some looked on impassively, others were enthralled and were joining in.

My mother and I could not believe what we were seeing and sat frozen in terror. The bus filled up. No-one spoke. There was a hushed silence. Only the bawling of the SA men could be heard. Just before the Gedächtniskirche, my mother could bear it no longer. She stood up and shouted, “This is outrageous! Shame on Germany!“*



Fearful that her mother would be arrested on the spot, Senta Kogan bundled her off the bus and onto another one travelling straight back down the Kurfürstendamm in the direction of home, meaning that they had to witness the disturbing scenes for a second time. Utterly horrified, her mother left Berlin by train the same night, little knowing that such atrocities were being committed across Germany as a whole on that night of infamy.

*Sonja Gaze, Die barfüßige Tänzerin. Autobiographie, Berlin: Ullstein, 2000, pp. 116-117. Translation (c) Helen Shiner

For a report on these events in the British press of 1938, see this article from The Telegraph, re-published in 2008 to mark the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht.