Saved by entry to U.S. as refugee, suburban man speaks out against ban
For decades, it was a secret tucked away and never talked about by Ralph Rehbock or his parents.
Then, Rehbock's children began digging into family history.
"Nothing, and I underscore that word, nothing, was said about our German life until my children were in high school and had to write papers about whatever may have been and chose to ask questions of their grandparents," Rehbock, of Northbrook, said. "And then everything started flowing out."
The Rehbocks, who fled Nazi persecution as German Jews, were among a small number of refugees granted entry by the United States. They resettled in Chicago in December 1938 and later moved to the suburbs.
Others weren't so lucky. A half year later, most of the 937 passengers of the M.S. St. Louis, most of them German Jews, were refused entry to Cuba and the U.S. and forced to return to Europe, where hundreds died in the Holocaust.
"We were lucky enough by the virtue that the American government was letting a few of us in," Rehbock said. "But so many more thousands could have been let out of Germany, if the (U.S.) government had not done what it had done."
Rehbock, 82, reflected on his own journey this week, in light of President Donald Trump's executive order banning refugees from entering the U.S. and restricting travel for people from seven Muslim-majority countries.
He will speak at a news conference at 11 a.m. Thursday at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center in Skokie as one of a number of Holocaust survivors who are telling their stories in response to Trump's executive order.
After the German government banned Jewish children from attending school, Rehbock's parents began planning to leave their home in Gotha, in the center of Germany. Rehbock was 4.
Rehbock's mother, Ruth, traveled to Chicago in April 1938 to obtain documents to show the United States government that American cousins were planning to sponsor them.
"We physically hand-carried the documents to the U.S. Consulate in Berlin and then had to wait to get visas through a lottery system because there were so few spaces."
Records show that the United States, fearful Nazis could smuggle spies in along with refugees, tightened visa policies for a number of years as World War II unfolded. In 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, under pressure from the American Jewish community as well as government officials, signed an executive order that established a War Refugee Board for the "immediate rescue and relief of the Jews of Europe and other victims of enemy persecution."
Rehbock said his family was given a date of Nov. 10, 1938, to return to the consulate to get their visas. They arrived in Berlin the night before, which became known as Kristallnacht, a series of violent attacks on Jews throughout Germany and Austria.
"We could see the attacks on the synagogue across the street from our hotel," Rehbock remembers. "We got a phone call that they had come for my father back in Gotha. He would have been arrested if he had been home."
The family soon boarded the S.S. Manhattan, arrived in New York on Dec. 10, 1938, and made their way to Chicago, where they would live in the Hyde Park neighborhood near cousins Max and Mildred Schrayer, who had secured an apartment and jobs for his parents.
Rehbock started kindergarten the next fall.
"By then," he said, "my German language had gone away, and I started kindergarten like a regular American kid at Kenwood Elementary School." The family moved forward as Americans and tried to forget the past. Visiting Germany years later, Rehbock had several flashback moments, recalling jumping to get off the sidewalk as Nazi soldiers and their German shepherds passed through.
Rehbock went on to study engineering at Northwestern University, moving from Chicago to Highland Park to Northbrook.
It was after the Nationalist Socialist Party of America announced a neo-Nazi march in Skokie in 1977 that he became involved in the Illinois Holocaust Museum, where he is vice president.
"There is an absolute parallel with what we're going through right now, and we're learning to relive what happened in the past," Rehbock said.
"Those of us that are still alive that went through that are now feeling it again on behalf of others. They may not happen to be Jewish, but it's a very real feeling."
Holocaust survivors Aaron Elster, Fritzie Fritzshall and Ralph Rehbock, along with Susan Abrams, CEO of the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center in Skokie, are speaking about the refugee ban in a news conference at 11 a.m. Thursday at the museum.