AUGUSTA — When the hammer struck the pane of glass, the crowd gathered Friday at the Michael Klahr Center at the Holocaust and Human Rights Center recoiled in their seats.

The glass breaking was part of a remembrance organized for the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night in 1938 when the widespread and unchecked persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany — which included Austria and the Sudetenland — turned violent.

“So shocking. Visceral,” said Barbara Leopold, of Wilton, “even though you knew it was going to happen. There’s probably layers of meaning in that. It’s still so shocking.”

The broken glass, she said, is a metaphor of the Jewish community that was destroyed during World War II, and the survivors are like the shards of glass that sprayed out across the world to start again.

The breaking of the glass came at the end of a brief remembrance at the University of Maine at Augusta, during which Edith Lucas Pagelson and Charles Rotmil, both survivors of the Holocaust, spoke to about 80 people about their recollections of that night when in a wave of orchestrated violence, synagogues and Jewish-owned stores and buildings were ransacked and burned on Nov. 9-10, 1938.

“At that time, I was 12 years old,” Pagelson said.

Jewish children already had been banned from the public school, and they attended their own school in the synagogue.

On the morning of Nov. 10, she was getting ready to go to school in her family’s home in the city of Worms when her father returned home from the synagogue, where he had gone to say prayers for his late parents. He said told her there would be no school that day because the synagogue had been burned.

She said she knew then her world had changed.

After the war, during which her father died in a concentration camp, and throughout which she and her mother were separated from her younger sister, they came to the United States, where friends and relatives urged them to forget their experiences.

“That you cannot do,” she said. “I’m not talking about that every day, but it never goes out of my memory at all.”

For Rotmil, who, like Pagelson, has spent time sharing his memories with students in Maine, the effect of the Nazi Party’s rise to power left lasting marks. Fear kept him away from Europe for 30 years after the war, and even then, he feared the Nazis still were looking for him.

“It was called Kristallnacht by the Germans to try to make you believe that the Jews not only had all the gold in the world, but they even made their windows out of crystal,” Rotmil said.

His family had moved from Brussels to Paris and then to Vienna, where they lived in November 1938.

“We were living in a one-room apartment, and five men, young men, came in, dressed in black shirts,” Rotmil said. “They assaulted my father to the point that he was bleeding and they took him away. He was in prison, and we didn’t see him for at least a month.”

When Rotmil’s father was released, his family returned to Brussels, but the war tore his family apart. For many years, he said, he kept a low profile, but he started to tell his story three decades ago, as he did Friday. And as he did while a boy in the years during the war, at the end of his comments, he slipped a harmonica from his pocket and played “Ode to Joy,” by Beethoven.

“Here at the Holocaust and Human Rights Center, established in 1985, we have a very important mission,” director Shenna Bellows said. “And that is to use the lessons of the Holocaust to inspire people to act and reflect upon their moral responsibility to confront prejudice, intolerance and discrimination.

“Because we believe that the pyramid of hate is real — that prejudiced attitudes lead to acts of prejudice, that acts of prejudice lead to legal discrimination, that discrimination leads to as it did on Kristallnacht to violence, and that violence leads to genocide,” she added. “And each one of us has a responsibility to confront prejudice and discrimination each and every time we see it.”

Bellows said the shooting two weeks ago at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, where 11 people were killed and six more were injured, shows that pyramid of hate is real, and that people have work to do. At the close of the ceremony, the glass was broken as part of a ritual act of creation.

“We will break a pane of glass, reminding us not only of the glass that was shattered on that horrible night 80 years ago, but of the lives and communities that were devastated in the years to come,” Rabbi Erica Asch, of Temple Beth El in Augusta.

Those shards were to be placed on a mosaic depicting the Tree of Life.

“It has special resonance for us after Pittsburgh,” Asch said. “As we remember the lives of those that were shattered, we also find hope in the promise of a brighter tomorrow.”

For Leopold, whose mother-in-law was 12 and living in Vienna on Kristallnacht, memories like Pagelson’s, Rotmil’s and those of her own family are important because they are a verification of what happened.

“These were real people. These were our friends and our loved ones and our neighbors,” she said. “We gain the humanity of it. It’s not just something that happened in a history book or a movie. It affected them, and their children, and their children’s children.”

Leopold said her mother-in-law, Phila, rarely spoke about the Holocaust; but one occasion, she did.

“She said the Holocaust had shattered her whole life and it had been this ongoing trauma,” she said. “But standing in the synagogue for her grandson’s bar mitzvah, she could stand up and say, ‘Hitler didn’t win.'”

Jessica Lowell — 621-5632

[email protected]

Twitter: @JLowellKJ

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