Fred Behrend was 12 when the Nazis burned down the synagogue at his school in Cologne, Germany.
He saw the flames and heard the screams as the parents of two classmates with whom he was staying were dragged away by storm troopers.
"The innocence of youth was stolen from me," says Behrend, 90, whose memoir, Rebuilt From Broken Glass: A German Jewish Life Remade in America, was published in July by Purdue University Press. "My life changed."
Or, as he writes: "Little did I realize that the insanity had already arrived at our front door… I would only learn the details years later."
His powerful book is the story of a boy whose sheltered childhood gave way to hell; of a hard-working family finding refuge, first in Cuba and then in the United States; and of growing up to become a businessman and author with a voice as empathetic on the page as in person.
"I had absolutely no intention of writing a book," Behrend tells me. "But I decided for the sake of my children and grandchildren to let them know the history of where they came from."
It's quite a history; A Behrend family chronicle, written in old German, dates back to 1490. The author's father, Herman — who survived his relatively brief internment — also kept a diary.
And Fred Behrend's vivid vignettes of German-Jewish emigre life in Cuba and New York, of being an instructor at an Army camp for German POWs (some of them vicious anti-Semites), and of meeting celebrities through his Manhattan appliance business are affecting glimpses of struggle and success.
He writes: "My parents and other members of my family … saw the need to flee before the noose got so tight it would be too late. All settled in the United States … as far away from Germany as possible."
"This story is not something that happened only to me," Behrend says, his German accent mellifluously intact after more than 70 years in the United States. "I didn't have it as bad" as many others.
I chatted with Behrend last month at the Lions Gate rehab unit in Voorhees, where he was staying after a fall. The father of two and grandfather of three has since returned to his home in the township's Centennial Mill development; more than 100 people attended his book-signing event there Sunday.
"Our big event will be Sept. 14 at Congregation Beth El, because it brings the book full circle to where it began," says co-author Larry Hanover, who explains that he suggested Behrend write a book in 2010 after hearing him speak to Hebrew-school students at the Voorhees synagogue.
"I know a good story," says Hanover, 50, an adjunct journalism professor at Temple University and former newspaper colleague of mine. "This was a good story."
I'll say. But telling it in book form was … complicated.
"The way I wrote it was, if I got up in the middle of the night and thought of something, I would make myself a note, and the next day, type it up," Behrend explains.
"Larry had the arduous task of [arranging] my father's stories," says Evelyn Behrend, 49, a tax consultant who lives in Cherry Hill. "My father is a raconteur. If he's got an audience, he tells stories."
In the book, many of these tales — a black boy sharing a kite with the author in Havana, a reunion in New York with one of the classmates whose parents were dragged away — are poignant. Others, about sharing a single pair of roller skates with his first Jewish friend in Cuba, and running errands for some nice ladies at a Manhattan address that turned out to be a house of ill repute, are priceless.
And those about postwar American anti-Semitism (like the "no Jews allowed" banner he saw at a Maryland beach) startled me; growing up Irish Catholic in 1960s New England, I was insulated from, if not clueless about, that sort of ugliness.
But Rebuilt From Broken Glass is, after all, not simply a memoir about family and faith, but a work of history, written by an eyewitness. A copy of the book has been presented to the library at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Behrend was unable to attend the presentation because of his fall, but Hanover said the occasion underscored the significance of the contribution.
"Books written by survivors or families of survivors are important first-person accounts of the Holocaust, and are valuable for researchers," Lenore Bell, library director, says from the museum in Washington.
Closer to home, Behrend has long volunteered to speak at schools on behalf of the Esther Raab Holocaust Museum and Goodwin Education Center at the Katz Jewish Community Center in Cherry Hill.
"I speak once or twice a month about the Holocaust," Behrend says. "Wind me up and the spring unwinds. But every once in a while something brings tears to my eyes.
"One of the kids came over to me and said, 'Would you mind giving me your blessing?' And I said, 'What brought this on?'
"He said, 'I would like to have a blessing from somebody who survived.'