Fred Behrend gets a kick telling school children the happiest day in his life occurred when he saw his Cologne, Germany schoolhouse burning during Kristallnacht; he was thrilled that he could stay home and play.
That gets their attention, so he can begin telling them his story. And what a story.
He explains how his father, who received medals fighting for Germany in World War I, was forced to liquidate his business for virtually nothing and barely managed to get himself and his family out of the country in time; they were forced to resettle for a year in Cuba while waiting for entry to the United States. Once there, young Fritz — his German name — encountered blatant anti-Semitism in school and was ostracized by much of the community as a “ref,” a demeaning term for refugees.
He tells how even much of what is going on in the world today is eerily familiar.
Those are the lessons the 90-year-old Behrend has passed on for nearly a decade since he moved from New York to Voorhees, N.J., to be closer to his children. Stories combed from his memory are recounted in Rebuilt from Broken Glass: A German Life Remade in America, a book he had no intention of writing until co-author Larry Hanover convinced him his stories were worth telling.
The result is a tale that combines the horror of what it was like for a boy to watch his friends’ parents dragged off by the Gestapo, combined with the difficult adjustment settling into a strange country and beginning a new life.
It’s a life that has seen him cross paths with such notables as classmate Henry Kissinger (“as miserable then as he is now”), rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, whom he was assigned to pal around with by the Army while serving in rural Texas, Jackie Onassis, Robert Redford, Leonard Bernstein, Philip Roth and Dr. Ruth Westheimer, who wrote the book’s foreward.
“I am very happy Larry found me,” said Behrend, the day after more than 100 turned out for a book signing at Congregation Beth El in Voorhees, where he and Hanover first met in 2010. “I’m glad what is written in the book is of enough interest to read and learn from, because usually history repeats itself.
“If I can help prevent that, I’m happy. I talk to children all the time in schools, but I don’t talk about the horror of concentration camps, because these are children. If they want to find out about that, all they have to do is pick up a newspaper and read the same thing today. Nothing has changed.”
That’s why Hanover, a former newspaper reporter and now an adjunct journalism professor at Temple University, said Behrend’s story still hits home.
“When I first heard him speak, I thought every Holocaust story deserves to be told, and he’s got such a good story,” Hanover said. “But in the last year, I see it becoming so relevant. You have real-life Nazis. You have real-life people who believe in whites as a master race. You have immigrants and refugees being mistreated. So this story has a lot to say to people today.”
Behrend admitted he pushed the horrors of Kristallnacht and what ensued into the back of his mind for years while raising his family and building a successful air conditioning and electronics repair business. His customers included actors Lauren Bacall and Redford, novelists Roth and Joseph Heller, singers Carly Simon and Yoko Ono, Onassis and Westheimer, another German refugee from Frankfurt, who has been a friend for 60 years.
“I forgot totally,” said Behrend, who lectured about his experiences at least 60 times a year before the book came out and now figures to do so more often. “I was too busy. I had to start working. Start a business. Then I got married in my late 30s and started raising a family. Whoever thought of this?”
Hanover eventually convinced him it was worth doing.
“Before I knew it, I had stacks of paper with interesting things that happened to me and my family,” Behrend said. “Larry listened to some of my stories and asked me, ‘Did you ever consider writing a book? I said, ‘Nothing could be further from my mind.’”
After sifting through those scraps of paper, Hanover crafted a story tying it all together.
While Behrend looks forward to telling his story in as many places possible, he admitted there are some things he finds so disturbing that it makes him question his faith.
“My father, no matter what happened to him, never lost his faith in God,” Behrend said. “Never, ever. But I find it very difficult to believe there is a God, because if there really was a God he would not cause the terrible things happening in the past and happening today.”
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