One morning on Nov. 9, 1938, 10-year-old Otto Salomon arrived at his Jewish school in Cologne, Germany. It was ablaze.
“The fire department was there,” said Salomon, 90, in German-accented English. “They weren’t there to put out the fire; they didn’t want the buildings next to my school to get on fire. Same thing with my shul. They just didn’t want the fire to spread.”
What Otto witnessed was the start of Kristallnacht — Night of Broken Glass — a massive pogrom that raged across Germany and Austria from Nov. 9 to 10. It’s estimated that at least 91 Jews were murdered and over 1,000 synagogues and 7,000 Jewish businesses were demolished. Additionally, 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and sent to concentration camps.
Otto’s father, Arthur, was one of them.
“They came and got dear old dad and schlepped him off to Dachau,” Salomon said.
Germans who happened to be Jewish
Otto’s ancestors lived in Germany for 500 years. His family lived in the same home in Cologne for 200 years. They were bakers and operated a number of bakeries in the area. Otto decided early on to follow in his family’s footsteps and become a baker.
Like many German Jews, the Salomons were assimilated. Otto said his family felt completely German. His great-grandfather and grandfather both served in the German military.
“It wasn’t unusual for Jews to intermarry. I had two Christian aunts and two Christian uncles. But one of the first [anti-Semitic] things Uncle Adolph did was to outlaw intermarriage between Jews and Germans,” said Otto, who has a cynical, biting sense of humor.
To illustrate his point, Otto said he feels that German Jews and Eastern European Jews self-identify differently.
“When you would ask German Jews about their nationality, they say German. That’s how I still feel. But when you ask a Polish, Hungarian or Russian Jew about their nationality, they say Jewish.”
Added Otto: “In my shul, nobody spoke Yiddish. All the Yiddish I know, I learned in America. It’s a great language with a lot of humor in it, which I love.”
Strong swimmers save lives
Before the rise of the Nazi party, when life was good for Jews in Germany, Otto’s father noticed a capsized boat floating in the Rhine River. Arthur, who many thought was a good enough swimmer to compete in the Olympics — but the Nazis destroyed that dream — dove into the water and rescued the man whose boat had capsized.
Arthur took the man home and Arthur’s mother gave the grateful man dry clothes and hot tea. Arthur could not have known it at the time, but his selfless act of heroism would later save himself.
Fast forward to Dachau
Although Arthur had papers that permitted him and his family to escape to the United States, he wanted to stay in Germany, even though the family bakery was “Aryanized” by the Nazis and “given to some goy from a different city,” said Otto.
“He never wanted to leave Germany because he thought things might change. He thought something would happen to Uncle Adolph, but nothing happened to him.”
Being sent to Dachau was a rude awaking for Arthur. He told his wife, Paula, to take Otto and flee to the United States. Instead, Paula went to the Cologne offices of the Nazi Party and asked to speak with the officer in charge. Shockingly, her request was granted.
She was marched into an office and found herself standing face-to-face with the man Arthur had saved from the Rhine River years earlier. Following the meeting, the officer ordered that Arthur be released from Dachau. After that, the Salomon family left Germany and came to the United States in 1939.
Tears of good bye
Although madness had swept Germany, it didn’t infect every German.
“Until Uncle Adolph, Jews in Germany had much more freedom than Jews in Eastern Europe,” said Salomon. “When [Eastern European] Jews were put on trains and sent to the death camps, [their non-Jewish neighbors] loved it. When we left after living in the same place for 200 years, for blocks our German neighbors were hanging out of their windows and crying because we were going. They were sad to see us go.”
Otto has a nuanced view of his fellow Germans during the Nazi years.
“If you want to join some companies in the U.S., yeah, you have to join a union,” he said. “Same back then. If you wanted to work, you had to join the Nazi Party. But it wasn’t like going to no party. And that party ain’t going to have no party.”
The American dream
The Salomons had only $20 to their name when they came to America. Otto didn’t speak a word of English. Although the Nazis had stolen their bakery, they couldn’t take away the Salomons’ baking skills. Shortly after settling in New York City, the Salomons opened a bakery.
Otto served in the Navy. Later, he attended the Culinary School of New York in New York City. He moved to Chicago and continued his studies at the Culinary School of Chicago. There, Otto befriended a Milwaukeean and began visiting the city often, which is how he met his wife, Eleanor Laserstein, who died in 2001. They had married in Milwaukee in 1952. In 1958 Eleanor gave birth to their son, Michael.
Naturally, he opened a bakery in Milwaukee called Regina’s. He sold the bakery in 1999 and retired. The bakery, now called Regina’s Bay Bakery, is still in operation. He now lives in Glendale.
A complicated identity
Whatever his religious convictions may be, there is something undeniably Jewish about Otto. Maybe it’s his sense of humor, or how he peppers his speech with Yiddish words, or perhaps it’s the fact that he wears a Star of David around his neck. But it’s not an ordinary Star of David. When he flips it over, there is a crucifix on the other side.
“Well, you know you can never be too careful,” he quipped.