As Jews around the world gather together to remember that fateful November night 75 years ago that Nazis called "Kristallnacht," which roughly translates to "The Night of Broken Glass" or "Crystal Night," and has come to signify the start of the Holocaust, one Hassag concentration camp survivor says he will never forget the years that followed.
Sitting in his Buckeye Court home, staring out large picture windows at the sweeping city views below, Petaluma resident and Polish-Jewish immigrant Henry Libicki recalled his experiences in Nazi-occupied Poland during the 1930s and '40s.
"I remember it like it was yesterday," said 86-year-old Libicki, his once-thick accent softened by years spent living in the United States. "Germans came into Poland on Sept. 3 (1939). The next day, they started shooting people in the town square."
In the small village of Klobuck, Poland where he grew up with his baker parents and a brother and two sisters, a 12-year-old Libicki watched in horror that day as soldiers gunned down the two sons of his local rabbi — children he had known and played with for years.
"I ran home as fast as I could, crying and frightened," he said softly, his hands folded in his lap, his eyes glazed over in a blank stare. "After that, everything changed. There were new rules for us Jews. If you followed the rules, you lived. If not, you died. But the rules changed daily and it was a struggle to keep up."
For the Libicki family, fear became a state of normalcy during the next three years. In Nazi-occupied Poland curfews were issued, Jewish storefronts were shut down and freedoms were snatched away.
Libicki's father was a wholesaler of grain and flour. Unlike many Jewish businesses that were forced to close, the Germans stationed in his town allowed the Libicki family to continue running their business. All around, his young eyes watched as local temples were burned to the ground and soldiers filled the streets.
"I don't even know where to start trying to explain how difficult those years were," said Libicki, "because they don't compare to the years that followed — the two years my family and I spent in Hassag."
When Libicki turned 15, the entire Jewish population was removed from his village. "There had been people taken away before that, but this was everyone who was left," he said.
Libicki and his family rode together to the Polish labor camp known as Hassag, where they would spend the next two years fighting to survive.
"I was lucky that I got sent to a camp with my entire family," Libicki said. "If I hadn't had them there with me, I may not have made it."
He spent the next two years working as the camp blacksmith. "The first day I was there, I poured water over metal to cool it," he said. "It seemed like a silly job, but I did whatever I could."
Libicki said he was always hungry, with barely enough to eat most days. "But 'enough to eat' is a relative term because at least I wasn't starving to death like so many others," he said as he smiled.
The teenage Libicki survived constant beatings, torture, mental intimidation and harassment, relying on his family for strength.