Ilie Wacs and Deborah Strobin will never forget the terror they felt as they hid inside their apartment in Austria while the sound of Nazi boots drew closer on November 9th and 10th in 1938. They didn’t make a sound on the fateful night of Kristallnacht, known to many Jews as “The Night of Broken Glass,” but their silence wasn’t the only reason that they and their family were spared from the violence.
Their deliverance came in an unexpected form — that of a young Nazi SS officer named Alois, who worked for their father, Mortiz Wachs, at his tailoring business in Vienna. Alois alerted the Wachs of the upcoming pogrom, and urged them to leave Austria before August 31, 1939, which was the day before Germany invaded Poland and World War II broke out.
Wacs, who was eleven at the time, recalls how Alois’ protection helped them remain safe on Kristallnacht in the book, “An Uncommon Journey,” that he co-authored with his sister, Deborah Strobin:
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. He told Papa, “Gather your family tonight. Tell them to come here. Keep everyone inside. You will not be touched.”
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.
The family managed to escape into Italy, then to Shanghai, and the siblings now reside in New York City. They’ve recounted their family history in their book, “An Uncommon Journey,” but one question remains unanswered– what happened to Alois? Wacs and Strobin are on a mission to find him with the little information that they have, so they can honor him with the title of “Righteous Gentile.”
Wacs told The Huffington Post that if he found Alois or his descendants, “I would thank him for saving our lives.” He continued, “To me, it is somewhat of a mystery why a person would be willing to sacrifice his family– because that was what was at stake! But some people did it. If we do find him, he would deservedly be one of the Righteous Gentiles.”
He shared more thoughts about his experience, remarking that many people ask him questions about what he thinks is the moral of the story.
In response, Wacs said, “There is no moral. Life is random. Survival is primarily a matter of luck. We survived because of that man, but if that man hadn’t been around, we wouldn’t have survived. It’s difficult to draw moral conclusions.”
Recalling how he and his family stayed alive, Wacs commented, “The only thing I keep saying, is that the only thing you can do in situations like that, is to be optimistic.”
The siblings will share their story on November 10th at the Simon Wiesenthal Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, marking the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. This follows an art opening on Thursday, November 7th, at the Museum of Tolerance New York, which will host a month-long showing of Wac’s artwork. The exhibit, “A Gathering Storm: The Vienna Papers, 1938” is a collection that draws inspiration from the official documents associated with their lives and identities.
See family photos as well as selected art from Wacs here: