Palo Alto Man Holds Unique Place In World History - NBC Bay Area
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Palo Alto Man Holds Unique Place In World History

From mankind's darkest hour to its crowning achievement, Al Kuhn was there.



    From mankind's darkest hour to its crowning achievement, Al Kuhn was there. (Published Wednesday, July 17, 2013)

    If Adolph Hitler had succeeded in killing Al Kuhn, Neil Armstrong might not have made it to the moon and back.

    The previous statement might be a bit of an exaggeration, but Kuhn, now 78 and living at the Moldaw Family Residences in Palo Alto, finally realizes his special place in history: survivor of mankind's darkest hour as well as participant in its pinnacle achievement.

    Kuhn was born in the 1930's in Germany. Hitler was in power. And his family was Jewish.


    Living in the countryside, Kuhn says his parents were slow to recognize the growing danger around them. Even though they had already applied for permission to leave the country it wasn't until November 9, 1938, or Kristallnacht, did Kuhn's family realize just how series their situation was. On that night, also known as The Night of Broken Glass, Jewish homes, shops, and temples were ransacked across Germany and Austria.


    "The memory is as clear as it happened now," he said. "And it happened in 1938."


    Kuhn's father spent the next six months in the Buchenwald concentration camp before being allowed back home. 


    Finally, in 1940, as World War II raged around them,  Kuhn's family managed to flee Germany for South America.


    "My family were literally the last Jews to get out of (our) town. Everyone who stayed, never made it. They were all sent to concentration camps."


    A decade later, Al Kuhn's family immigrated to the United States. Kuhn then followed a passion for engineering to New York University and eventually a job with Grumman Aircraft.

    Not long after that, Grumman was tapped to create the lunar lander for NASA. It was the vehicle that would one day deposit a human on the moon for the very first time.

    Kuhn was assigned to the propulsion team. Making sure the lander could land safely on the moon, and more importantly, lift off from it was the team's responsibility.


    It wasn't until July 21, 1969, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took off safely from the moon's surface, did Kuhn allow himself to enjoy the moment.


    "I was blue holding my breath," Kuhn said.


    Kuhn says he has never dwelt on the fact that he was not only a witness to, but a participant in, the 20th century's highest and lowest moments.


    Upon reflection now, he simply says we must remember both.


    "The darkest days must be preserved," he said, "as well as the greatest day."