Ilie and Deborah were children in Vienna when, 75 years ago this weekend, there was a terrifying night of violence against Jewish people and property. That night is now known as Kristallnacht, and the siblings -- Ilie Wacs and Deborah Strobin -- will be at the Simon Wiesenthal Center to mark the anniversary. And they're asking for your help.
That's because their family was spared in 1938 because of the actions of a man they knew only as Alois. They have never been able to find him, but they hope they might discover someone who knows what happened to him. Despite being a member of the Nazi party, he protected Ilie and Deborah's family and aided their flight from Austria.
"Alois came to our house. His tone was quite grave, and he convinced Papa that something terrible was going to happen. I could tell it was dangerous for him even to be seen in our home," recalls Ilie, who was then 11, in "An Uncommon Journey," the 2011 book the siblings co-authored. "He told Papa, 'Gather your family tonight. Tell them to come here. Keep everyone inside. You will not be touched.'"
"Mutti’s sister was quickly summoned. She arrived with her husband, their daughter, and son-in-law. Her two sons had already fled Vienna. There was no time to pack up their belongings. We stayed away from the windows with all the lights out and the curtains drawn. We kept very still and quiet. Then, we waited.
"It didn’t take long before the silence filled with the shattering explosion of glass. The night wore on, a cacophony of sledgehammers and axes breaking down doors, women screaming, babies crying, men yelling at other men. There was the acrid smell of smoke, fires burning somewhere, not in our building, and the horrifying scuffle of people and furniture being dragged out of their homes and into the streets. We heard the chaos coming closer.
"Our building did not have an elevator, only stone steps. I stood inside the door, and I heard hobnail boots coming up, click, click, click, and click. I heard men’s voices. I heard the boots stop at our door, and then I heard them move on. They never even knocked. We were passed over. We were shielded by Alois. We were saved.
"At that moment, I could not feel grateful for our miraculous blessing. I could not even feel fear. All I could feel in my heart at that exact moment was a hateful, caustic, rage. I hated Vienna. I hated Austria. I hated the Germans. I hated my teacher with his stupid armband. I hated people I used to love. I hated that we were hated.
"We stayed locked in our apartment for two days. We needed food and had to emerge to face the new world order that now existed outside our front door. The pogrom, Kristallnacht, had been particularly brutal. Most of the city’s synagogues were burned to shells. All the Jewish-owned businesses were vandalized and ransacked. Thousands had been deported to Dachau and Buchenwald. There was glass everywhere. The city was devastated."
Ilie, Deborah and their parents escaped to Shanghai for the duration of the war. After it was over, Ilie went to Paris to study fashion, moved to New York and later became a well-known clothing designer. Deborah, who is eight years younger, is a San Francisco philanthropist.
As Deborah explains in the video, she was visiting the Museum of Tolerance when she saw a photograph of herself, taken by Japanese soldiers during the occupation of Shanghai, that prompted the siblings to tell their story.
And to think about the actions of Alois, who told the family they absolutely had to leave Austria by Aug. 31, 1939; Germany invaded Poland the next day, starting World War II. “Since Alois saved our lives he legitimately can be classified as a 'Righteous Gentile,'" Ilie says, "and we would like to know what ultimately happened to him and honor him with that title.”
These are the clues they have: Alois was head tailor at their father Moritz Wachs' business, "Herrenscheider," located at No. 7 Lilienbrungasse, Wein 2. He probably worked there from 1937 to 1939 and was in his 20s.
Ilie and Deborah will talk about their search, book and experiences on Sunday, Nov. 10 at 3 p.m. at the Museum of Tolerance. Advance tickets are recommended.
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