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‘Night of Broken Glass’ worth remembering — and retelling — 75 years later

Updated: December 11, 2013 6:43AM

Ralph Rehbock was a four-year-old Jewish boy visiting Berlin with his parents on the night of Nov. 9, 1938, when Nazis escalated their persecution of Jews in a spasm of violence known since as Kristallnacht.

Before the orchestrated outburst in Germany and Austria ended the next day, at least 91 Jews were killed, hundreds of synagogues destroyed and 7,500 Jewish-owned businesses trashed and looted.

Sunday marks the 75th anniversary of the world awaking from that portentous “Night of Broken Glass,” so-named for the smashed store windows littering streets and sidewalks, yet the Northbrook resident relates his family’s experience as if seeing it all again.

Rehbock, 79, told me his story a few weeks back — a story of intrigue, drama and death with an ending both happy and unbearably painful.

When he finished, I asked him what came from personal memories and what had been handed down through family lore.

He seemed embarrassed to admit he didn’t remember any of it, and in fact, had grown up completely unaware of that part of his family history until 1986 — when his mother agreed to a videotaped interview for the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center.

There was no need for Rehbock to be embarrassed. That’s why it’s important to tell these stories, as he has now done for many years as part of his long involvement with the Skokie museum, where we began our interview in its Kristallnacht exhibit.

By November of 1938, Rehbock said, his parents Hans and Ruth had already come to the reluctant decision to leave Germany.

They were reluctant because Hans was a wealthy export manager for his father’s housewares manufacturing business — with Marshall Field’s among his accounts — and Germany was their home. But five years of Nazi rule had legislated anti-Semitism into law and created ever-increasing levels of economic barriers for Jews.

In the spring of 1938, Ruth made a trip from their home in Gotha, Germany, to Chicago to visit a cousin who agreed to line up the job and sponsorship commitments the family needed for admission to the U.S.

With their documents in order, they made an appointment at the American Embassy in Berlin for Nov. 10, arriving two days early because Rehbock’s parents did not want to be late.

That’s why they were in their hotel the next night when thousands of rioters took to the streets, instigated by Nazi Party officials. From their room, they watched as the synagogue across the street was destroyed by fire.

The Rehbocks received a telephone call at the hotel from their Jewish maid at home.

“The English lesson has been cancelled,” she said simply.

It was a code, pre-arranged by Rehbock’s father, to indicate it wasn’t safe for him to return. Later, the family would learn Nazis had come to the house to grab him with 30,000 other Jewish men and boys taken into custody during a 48-hour stretch.

Indeed, Hans Rehbock would never go home again, opting to go immediately into hiding, while his wife completed arrangements to get them out of the country.

“Her strength is what got us through those next days and months,” Rehbock told me.

They kept their appointment at the embassy, but the day came and went without getting their turn.

A clerk told them to come back the next day. They did, only to find the embassy closed for Armistice Day, the holiday we now call Veterans Day.

But with 500 Jews outside clamoring for help, a Marine guard tracked down the ambassador, who came in and completed their paperwork.

For the next week, Rehbock’s mom hid her father at various locations, traveling back and forth by train each day to move him and bring food. Finally, they were able to put him on airplane to London.

Then she packed their household belongings and made travel arrangements. They were limited to taking the equivalent of $4 each. Nazis were happy to be rid of the Jews, as long as they left their money behind.

A train ride to the Dutch border provided a final element of suspense. Jews were forced off the train and strip-searched to prove they were carrying no valuables. But Rehbock and his mom made it safely into Holland, joined his father and came to the U.S.

Rehbock grew up on the South Side, got his engineering degree from Northwestern, worked 20 years in manufacturing and 20 more in sales. He and his wife raised two sons of their own.

His Uncle Salo was not as lucky. A crippled veteran of WWI, Salo was not moving fast enough to suit those who came to grab him on Kristallnacht. They kicked him down the stairs. He died.

Salo’s wife and son would also later die at Auschwitz, among 28 members of Rehbock’s family who died in concentration camps.

That’s why Rehbock still tells the story of Kristallnacht- — 75 years later — and why it’s worth listening.

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