Rita Kuhn was born November 29, 1927 in Berlin, Germany, where she remained until after the Second World War. Her father was a Jewish banker, and her mother was a Gentile housewife, who converted to the Jewish religion before Rita was born. On her birth certificate, both parents are listed as Jewish, but under the Nuremburg Laws, her mother was considered an Aryan.
As a child, Kuhn was active in the Jewish Community and attended a neighborhood school until the rise of Hitler and restrictions on Jewish involvement. Afterwards, she attended a Jewish school and maintained attendance at a liberal Synagogue. She retained some memories of the years prior to 1939, including the growing resentment towards Jewish individuals, her father losing his banking job and going four years without another, and his subsequent employment with the Jewish Community Center and German emigration department. Her father had an active role in assisting Jews leave Germany but was unable to move his family abroad.
On the morning after Kristallnacht, Kuhn is able to recount the destruction in the streets as she walked the fourteen blocks to her school at the Synagogue. “And I noticed the minute I turned into the (constrazer) that stores—the windows were smashed. The glass was lying on the street… what I remember almost visually was that the writing on the glass that was not broken yet or on the walls next to the store was “Jew” and then the star…What struck me then and really impressed me was that they were written in red letters, and it was like dripping still, the red was being like blood…”
Her family was forced to move into a “Jewish House for Jews” (Newdenhizer), but seemed fortunate in its location in (Jufiskezer), few doors down from her mother’s family. Since her family was stuck in Berlin, she recalls her parents worrying about their safety. As a precautionary measure, Rita’s parents urged a twelve-year-old Rita and her younger brother to be baptized in the Christian faith. Feeling a link between Christianity and Nazism, Rita was adamant against the move, but was convinced “lovingly” by her father.
Kuhn did finish primary school in Berlin but was made to wear the Yellow Star of David before school completion. She remembered the shift to sewing stars on all her clothing garments and adding “Zara” to her name. In 1941, her father was drafted for forced labor in a railroad station in the city of Berlin. She finished school at the age of 14 and in 1942 she was drafted into forced labor in an ammunition factory.
The whole family remained in Berlin throughout the war, her mother and younger brother staying home while she and her father worked. She was working eleven hours a day for seven months when the Factory Action (fabrique accion) Pogrom began on February 27, 1943. She recalls working at the factory at 7:00 AM that morning, when the room she was in filled with SS officers. They shouted, “Jews out” (Udenaut), and she was forced outside with the other workers and loaded onto a truck.
Unloaded in front of a building, she remembers walking through a line of SS officers and reaching a table where Jews were forced to present their identification cards and be separated by gender. After waiting all day in a room with thousands of other women, Kuhn’s name was called, and she was sent home.
After a period of about a week in which she was not summoned to work again, and the rations kept the family barely fed, the family was summoned to a school in the city, where her father, brother, and herself were separated from her mother. Similar to the time before, she waited (this time with her family) in a locked room that slowly filled with other members of their Jewish Community. From there, she, her brother, and her father were loaded onto another truck and taken to a holding center at Rosenstrasse (Rosenstrazen).
Again, she was separated from her father and brother, and sent in a room with women and sparse mattresses. There, she learned of the Rosenstrasse protests that had been occurring just outside the building. Rita and her family stayed at Rosenstrasse for one night and were released together the next afternoon.
Within a short period of time, Kuhn was called back into work at a railway station in East Berlin, where she mainly cleaned the outsides of train windows. There, she worked for the remainder of the war. At the close of the war, she recalls the incoming Soviet army and the door-to-door notice by the German soldiers of Germany’s capitulation.
To greet the Soviets, she, her brother, and her father all wore their Yellow Stars; they were met with suspicion by the Soviet men who questioned whether they were truly Jews, noting that German citizens/SS Officers were known to steal Stars and identification papers from Jewish victims in order to remain “safe”. To prove themselves, Rita spoke to the Soviet in Hebrew. She recalls a period of about 24 hours, when the Soviet forces were given free-reign of Berlin and she was hidden from the men for her safety.
Afterwards, a Russian headquarters was formed next to their building and later occupied by the British; her family home was in the “British zone”. Eventually, her father became a police officer in Berlin and she attended a school in Munich. She was the only individual in her family ready and able to immigrate to the United States when the opportunity became available.
A school friend of hers who lost her family in Auschwitz and survived the camp herself, assisted Rita in immigrating to New York in 1948. She married in 1951, had four children, and continued her education. In 1963, Kuhn completed a master’s degree in Classics at Cornell University, and in 1984, she completed a Doctorate in Comparative Literature at University of California, Berkley. Between 1985 and 2015 she remained in the San Francisco Bay area and shared her story with high school students; in 2013, she released her memoir, Broken Glass, Broken Lives: A Jewish Girl’s Survival Story in Berlin, 1933-1945.