Interview Commentary

Jaques Matzner's parents were among the 70,000 Polish Jews who had come to Germany before World War I in search of economic opportunities and refuge from Polish anti-Semitism. Germany, like most European countries at that time, naturalized foreigners only in exceptional cases. Hence Matzner bore his parents' Polish citizenship even though he had been born in Wiesbaden in 1914.

In 1938 the Polish Jews in Germany were the first large group forcibly deported from the Third Reich, and Matzner was among them. But family ties could not be so easily broken, and he did not stay in Poland. Determined to save his parents and get his family to a safe haven, he undertook the risky business of smuggling himself back to Wiesbaden where he witnessed the Kristallnacht (literally, “Crystal Night,” also known as the “Night of Broken Glass”) pogrom of November 9-10, 1938. This was the Nazi response to the act of another son of Polish Jews expelled from Germany. Hershel Grynszpan, who had been sent to Paris by his parents, heard of their harsh treatment by German and Polish officials at the border, and murdered a German diplomat in Paris as an act of revenge.

Although Matzner’s family succeeded in escaping to Belgium, Hitler's westward invasions overtook them in 1940. His aged mother died in Antwerp and hence was spared deportation and gassing, the usual fate of old people in the Holocaust. Matzner was trapped in France, and in 1941 he was included in the thousands of Jewish refugees handed over by the Vichy regime to the Germans. Then began a four-year trek through forced labor camps in Lower and Upper Silesia, beginning with several of the Organization Schmelt camps, continuing with the construction of satellite installations for the Gross-Rosen concentration camp empire, and ending in the Heinkel Aircraft factory near Wismar in northern Germany. Matzner reminds us once again of the important distinction between Jewish camp trusties and non-Jewish job foremen that marked life in several of the camps. Probably crucial to his survival was selection as a camp clerk, made possible by his business experience and his fluency in German. His father, a brother, and two sisters did not survive, however.

Matzner was liberated by the Russians in May 1945 and, following his recovery from intestinal typhus in a Russian hospital, returned to Wiesbaden. Far from rejecting the thought of a future for Jews in Germany, he appeared committed to staying. At the time he gave his interview on Rosh Hashana 1946 in the rehabilitated Wiesbaden synagogue, he was actively working to restore the local Jewish community with the support of the UNRRA. And yet, four years later he and his wife emigrated to the United States. Later he penned a memoir of the Holocaust that was published after his death in 1986. From it we learn several things about its author that he did not share with Boder, including the fact that he studied in Jerusalem in the 1930s, was ordained a rabbi in 1938, and then returned to Wiesbaden to be with his parents.

From FRESH WOUNDS: EARLY NARRATIVES OF HOLOCAUST SURVIVAL by Donald L. Niewyk. Copyright (c) 1998 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher.