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Culture Couch is WYSO's occasional series exploring the arts and culture scene in our community. It’s stories about creativity – told through creative audio storytelling.

The Violin: Dayton Resident Reflects On Surviving The Holocaust

Dayton resident Robert Kahn saw his childhood home of Mannheim, Germany invaded the Nazis during WWII.
Leo DeLuca
Dayton resident Robert Kahn saw his childhood home of Mannheim, Germany invaded the Nazis during WWII.

In November 1938, the Nazi leadership in Germany organized a series of violent actions against Jewish citizens all across the country.  German soldiers attacked the homes, synagogues and businesses of Jews and more than 30 thousand Jewish men were taken to concentration camps. 

Those attacks are known as Kristall Nacht, the night of broken glass, referring to the shattered glass on streets and sidewalks in the aftermath. It’s often seen as the beginning of The Holocaust, the mass genocide of Jews and other minorities in Europe during World War II.

Dayton resident Robert Kahn grew up in Germany and survived the Holocaust.  Today he is 95 years old.

Robert Kahn says that by 1938, the Nazis had a tightening grip on his hometown of Mannheim, Germany. Jews lost the right to vote. They were banned from swimming pools and playgrounds. Jewish books were burned. One of the only joys left for 15-year-old Robert was practicing his violin at home. And then one afternoon, he saw synagogues burning, Torahs in the street, and Robert Kahn saw his boyhood home being invaded.

"It seemed to me like it was Dante’s Inferno," he says. "It seemed like the end of the world. When I arrived at the home my father was on the ground being beaten up by the Nazi hoodlums, and he was screaming. And I was unable to help him while the Nazis were beating him. My mother was locked up in one of our bedrooms. I heard her cry, but I couldn’t help her."

Robert was a burgeoning violinist at the time. The Nazis exploited his talent.

"They just grabbed me with my violin and took me to the balcony which was surrounded by hundreds of people enjoying themselves while everything was being burned. And the SS man that brought me to the balcony said 'play.'"

Robert was forced to play what the Nazis called “happy German songs.”

"Every time I finished playing one particular song, the SS man prodded me to play more," he says. "So that went on for some time, which may have been 20 minutes or longer, but it seemed like a lifetime to me."

He later hid his violin in the attic of the apartment.

"We were separated, and I had no idea where my father was going or what was happening to him. As a matter of fact, it took several days before I found out that my father was taken to Dachau concentration camp."

Dachau, the first widely-used Nazi concentration camp, was where more than 188,000 prisoners were incarcerated and upwards of 30,000 people killed.

"I found out during the years of persecution and my escape that, in spite of the fact that all of the synagogues were destroyed, I found that you could pray without being in a synagogue. That you could pray anytime. Anywhere. Prayer was probably the only thing that kept me from giving up," says Robert Kahn.

Years later, Robert wrote to the janitor at his family’s old Mannheim apartment, asking him to check the attic for his violin. He was reunited with the instrument, though he never played it again. It is now displayed at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. Robert Kahn thought one day, maybe, people would stop asking about his life. But they never have.   

"The beauty is that from really nothing, I now have a wonderful family, a wonderful wife, children, grandchildren, and several great-grandchildren," he says. "Out of a complete chaos. I have been able to reconstruct a life that has meaning and has sustained me through 95 years, and I thank God almighty for giving me this opportunity to be alive."

This story was created at the Eichelberger Center for Community Voices at WYSO.