Holocaust Survivor Ralph Rehbock Reflects on
Kristallnacht, November 9 – 10, 1938
Each year on the anniversary of Kristallnacht—the first wide-scale, violent assault against Jews in Nazi Germany—I feel a need to highlight acts of strength and courage that took place amongst the hatred and violence of 79 years ago. And as I view our world today, I am more aware than ever of the need to celebrate Upstanders whose choices to fight injustice offer evidence that compassion and bravery exist, even during dark times.
Without the assistance of these five extraordinary Upstanders, my story would have had a different ending.
1. Cousin Max
By the spring of 1938, the intensifying pace of policies against the Jews prompted my mother and father to make arrangements to leave our home in Gotha, Germany—not an easy task. We, and so many others like us, made contact with family members in the United States. Some of my parents’ contacts were not willing to help. But my mother’s cousin Max wrote the affidavit accepting legal responsibility for our financial support, allowing our family to be admitted to the United States.
Once we had all our documents in order, the American Consulate in Berlin scheduled us for an appointment on November 10, 1938, to receive our visas. Not wanting to be late we arrived in Berlin two days early, never expecting the wave of destruction that would be unleashed against the Jewish community.
2. The House-Sitter
During the evening of November 9, we watched from our hotel window as the synagogue across the street was destroyed by fire, one of 267 synagogues that would be burned down that night. With cooperation from the local population, Nazis smashed windows, vandalized storefronts, and murdered 91 men – my uncle being 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 pre-arranged plan between my father and her to call him if anything should go wrong. The next evening we received a telephone call at the hotel, “The English lesson has been cancelled,” she said simply. It was a code to not come home, and he never did again.
3. The Marine
On November 10 we went to our American Consulate appointment but delays required us to wait and return on the 11th. 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 the calls for help, 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 and the visas of many other Jews waiting outside the gates that day. His signature meant our 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, and on December 15, 1938, we left for the United States, arriving on December 22.
We have a shared responsibility to each other. We have the moral capacity to take a stand for humanity. We have the power, through actions both big and small, to become Upstanders – to defend against those who attack others on the basis of race or religion; to unite against antisemitism and all forms of bigotry; and to reaffirm our commitment to the fundamental rights and dignity of every human being.
Sometimes, the simplest of actions—a phone call or even the tip of a hat—can make the biggest difference in lives of others.
When Ralph Rehbock was born on July 11, 1934, in Gotha, Germany, the Nazis already had been ruling the country for more than a year. Antisemitism was growing and daily life was becoming harder and harder for Jewish people.
In December 1938, after synagogues were burned and Jewish businesses destroyed the previous month during “Kristallnacht,” Ralph and his family fled to America. Thanks to this decision, the family escaped death in Germany.
Ralph is an active member of the community, serving as Vice President and Executive Committee member at Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center. Ralph continues to speak extensively at the local and state level about his experiences and lessons of the Holocaust. www.ilholocaustmuseum.org