On Nov. 9, 1938, the Germans orchestrated the destruction of synagogues and the looting of Jewish-owned businesses throughout Germany. They destroyed Jewish cemeteries, hospitals, schools and homes. Police arrested 30,000 Jewish men and sent them to concentration camps. Those who were previously hesitant to leave realized that night that Jewish life in Nazi Germany was no longer possible.
Each year on the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, I pause to reflect. This year has me particularly concerned about the rise of hatred in our society. With the Anti-Defamation League reporting that the total number of anti-Semitic attacks in the United States in 2018 was the third-highest total since it began tracking data in the 1970s, I am more aware than ever of the need to recognize upstanders.
These people who are willing to take a stand offer tangible evidence that freedom of choice and opportunities to fight injustice exist even in the darkest of times. Without the assistance of five extraordinary upstanders, my story would have had a very different ending.
1. Cousin Max. By spring 1938, the intensifying pace of laws against the Jews prompted my mother and father to plan to leave our home in Gotha, Germany, which was not an easy task. We, and so many others like us, contacted family members in the United States. Some of my parents’ friends and relatives were not willing to help. Thankfully, my mother’s cousin Max wrote the affidavit that would sponsor our family for admission to the United States.
2. The House Sitter. During the evening of Nov. 9, we watched from our hotel window as fire destroyed the synagogue across the street, one of 267 synagogues torched that night. With cooperation from the local population, Nazis smashed windows, vandalized storefronts and murdered 91 men. My uncle was one of them. The Nazis also arrested 30,000 Jewish men between the ages of 16 and 60 and sent them to concentration camps. Back at our home in Gotha, the Gestapo came to arrest my father, but a young Jewish woman who was housesitting told them she did not know where he was and they left in disgust. The denial was part of a prearranged plan to call him if anything went wrong. The next evening, we received a telephone call at the hotel. “The English lesson is canceled,” she said. It was code meaning, “Do not come home,” and he never did again.
3. The Marine. On Nov. 10, we went to our appointment at the U.S. Consulate to secure our visas, but delays required us to wait and return the following day. We did, only to find the consulate closed for Armistice Day, the holiday we now call Veterans Day. A Marine guard standing at the gates, compassionate to our plight, tracked down the consul general in town.
4. The Consul General. Despite the holiday, the consul general ran to his office to complete our visas, as well as those of many other Jews waiting outside the gates that day. His signature meant freedom.
5. The Stranger. My mother and I traveled to the Dutch-Holland border where all Jews were forced off the train. For reasons still unknown, and with all the suspense of an old noir film, a Dutch man tapped my mother on the shoulder and quietly separated us from the other Jews. His signal to us, a slight tip of his hat, told us to run, jump the track and board another train to safety in Holland. From Holland we went to England where we were joined by my father, who traveled separately, and on Dec. 15, 1938, we left for the United States.
As we mark the 81st anniversary of Kristallnacht, we are reminded of our responsibility to each other. We have the moral obligation to take a stand for humanity. We have the power, through actions both big and small, to become upstanders.
Our community must defend against those who attack others based on race or religion and unite against anti-Semitism and all forms of bigotry. Sometimes, the simplest of actions — writing a letter to a congressman, making a phone call to support a cause, showing up to a rally or event, or tipping a hat to a stranger — can make all the difference in the lives of others.
Ralph Rehbock is a Holocaust survivor and vice president and executive committee member at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center.