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We Are 1

A Family of the ...

 A Blog on the Parallels Between Refugees Now

and During World War II

We Are 1: A Family of Asylum-seekers

In May, 1939, my mother and her mother went to the dressmaker. Usually my grandmother's clothing was the reason for such an errand, but that spring my 14-year-old mother was to be fitted with new dresses. At the seamstress, my mother noticed that the seams and hems were generous and could be let out, if necessary. Nevertheless, that night she dreamt that she had nothing to wear, just a thin blouse and a skirt.

After the German invasion of western Poland the following September, my mother and her parents fled Kraków for southeastern Poland. They arrived in Tarnopol, the last stop on the railroad line, where a Jewish family took them in and gave them a room.


Then the Soviets invaded and in May 1940. They gave the hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees from the west the option to return to German-occupied Poland, or to become Russian citizens. But they were not allowed to live in large cities or anywhere within 100 km of the frontier. My grandfather was an officer of the Polish Army reserve, so returning to the west was not an option. Instead, the family went to Zloczów where they lived with another Jewish family on the outskirts of town. And my mother had nothing to wear but a ragged shirt and a skirt.

Jewish refugees who opted to return to western Poland were eventually sent to Siberia, where they had a better chance of surviving than those who remained in Soviet-occupied eastern Poland because the Germans invaded in June 1941.


We Are 1: A Family of Asylum-seekers

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WeAre1: A Family of the Unwanted

My father's 1939 Polish Passport photo.
My father's 1939 Polish Passport photo.

WeAre1: A Family of the Unwanted

Eighty years ago this month, the St. Louis languished in the port of Havana with 937 German-Jewish refugees aboard. After Cuban officials refused them entry, American Jewish organizations negotiated in vain for asylum. Ultimately, the ship returned to Europe. Its human "cargo" dispersed to England, the Netherlands, and Belgium. The Jews' lives were again endangered a year later when Nazi Germany occupied the countries on the Continent.

In the 1980s, historians at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum researched the fates of the St. Louis passengers. Half survived; they either hid, or secretly and illegally fled to the United States or then Palestine. The others were murdered.

The St. Louis was yesteryear's Caravan. The ship and the forsaken Jewish refugees became a symbol of callous indifference to the plights of the displaced just as are today's Latin American asylum-seekers and the world's 68 million refugees.

It is especially horrifying that on the eve of this remembrance, President Trump is reinstating his inhumane and illegal policy of denying asylum and tearing apart migrant families. "Our country is full, our area's full, the sector is full. We can't take you anymore, I'm sorry, can't happen. So turn around," he said on April 5. Full? What does that mean? Turn around–again?

I have a personal connection to the St. Louis crisis through a little-known, small French ship that also steamed into Havana harbor that late May 1939, having spirited 104 Jewish refugees from Central and Eastern Europe trying to escape Hitler and 327 Spaniards fleeing Franco. I know of that French liner because my father, David A. Frenkel, MD, was on it.

My father left Poland on March 18, a day after his 26th birthday. He was newlywed, having married an American tourist named Rose, who already had departed for New York City. My father traversed Germany and Belgium by rail to France and lingered there until he bought a "landing visa" from a Cuban official and booked a berth. Le Flandre sailed from St. Nazaire on May 16 andstopped in Havana on May 28 en routeto Veracruz, Mexico.

I imagine my father leaning over the deck rails, elated to be so close to the United States mainland and to freedom. Further in the harbor, he would have been puzzled by the St. Louis at anchor and encircled by a flotilla of rowboats. I can only surmise this because my father refused to discuss how he got here. What he had to do to save himself was so humiliating and dangerous that he chose to spare my sisters and me. Until he died, we knew nothing of his marriage of convenience and harrowing voyage to freedom. Then we learned the barest outline from our mother and our father's brother. I ferreted out some details from his 1939 passport and several archives.

When Flandre docked, the Jewish refugees were not permitted to disembark. By then, my father would have heard that the rowboats bobbing around the St. Louis were filled with relatives clamoring for their loved ones to be freed.
On the dock, among 2,000 relatives and press, stood Rose, according to a June 9 story in the Austin American-Statesman. She asked an immigration official, "Why? Why can't he land? His papers are all in order." The immigration official shook his head and replied, "He's a Jew." "Yes, he committed a crime the minute he was born," Rose responded. Then she changed her approach and pleaded with the bureaucrat. "Won't you let me speak to him for just a minute? We haven't seen each other for such a long time." The official gruffly motioned her up the gangplank where she and my dad met halfway. There was time for a hurried kiss.

The reporter wrote that this was one of many scenes of people split apart. Sounds a bit like our DACA "Dreamers" and Caravan parents and their kids, doesn't it?

I suppose my ever-optimistic father said he would see what happened in Mexico, for which he had no visa. But that is how I like to think of my father. In truth, I cannot bear to contemplate how he really felt, displaced and abandoned.

When Flandre arrived in Veracruz, the Spaniards disembarked, but Jewish refugees were unwelcome. An unexpected commotion irrupted on the quay––a medical emergency. True to the Hippocratic Oath he had sworn at the Medical School of Vienna one year earlier, my father treated whoever was ailing. Then he must have convinced officials that he would not be a burden on the state because his American wife was arranging for his visa. He offered to work for free in a hospital until his visa came through. That's when they probably stamped his passport "Turista" and had his valises transferred to the dock.

Flandre returned to Havana where, again, no Jews were permitted on land. The passengers cabled President Roosevelt requesting that he intervene. He did not. Even though the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee raised $500 per Jew, the Cubans still refused the money. Six or seven Jews were allowed to disembark. Flandre sailed back to France where the government interned her 96 passengers. Their fates remain unknown.

You would not know by my complexion and last name that I am the daughter of a man who married to save himself and that by a fluke he was not forced to return to Europe. Could you have guessed that my father's first wife had a lover who was a gangster and that she expected her greenhorn husband to be her cover? Talk about criminal elements invading our turf. While adjusting to his new country, my dad extricated himself without arousing the suspicions of Immigration Services from a union that could have entangled him with New York's gangland. Then he enlisted in the Army and treated American soldiers in the European Theatre.

What happened to my parents did not occur long ago. In the human psyche, traumatic events are timeless and impact entire families. Certainly my parents' worldviews were permanently affected by their wartime experiences. They would not have recognized their haven today. They would have been appalled at the cruel actions of the Trump Administration and felt that it demeans us. Because they suffered from the world's unresponsiveness to their persecution, they raised my sisters and me to be empathic. We champion solidarity with the displaced and all victims of war because we understand their suffering.

We have a history here of immigrants from all walks of life and places who have contributed vastly to our society. The assumption that Central Americans will not is bigoted and all about satisfying Trump's base­­––those "fine people" whose chant at Charlottesville, "Jews will not replace us," threatened the rest of us.

The consequences of war and indifference last for generations, whether due to Anti-Semitism in 1939, or now from both the Left and the Right, or systemic racism affecting people of color. We must recognize and prevent the suffering of asylum seekers. The trauma inflicted by wrenching apart Caravan families, of a young Somali girl surviving in a Kenyan refugee camp, of slavery and Jim Crow, of the losses European Jews suffered during World War II, must not be diminished. We are one—a family of the displaced. There is no hierarchy of suffering, just timeless trauma. It is universal and immeasurable. The amygdala may or may not recover from the imprint of violence and prejudice singed into that part of the brain. And we all have amygdalae, just as our blood bleeds red.

On the 60th anniversary of the St. Louis crisis, the situation of the Jewish passengers was likened to the victims of the conflict in Kosovo in then Yugoslavia. If we cannot resuscitate tolerance and empathy, yet another group of refugees will be referenced upon the centennial of the St. Louis and Le Flandre, and on and on through the ages. 

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Yom HaShoah 2019 WeAre1: A Family of the Bereaved

Monument of Abraham Finkelstein, my great-great-grandfather, in the New Jewish Cemetary, Krakow.

WeAre1: A Family of the Bereaved


Last weekend, my husband and I attended a concert at Lincoln Center. The program included the American premiere of a symphony by Austrian composer Thomas Larcher called Kenotaph. The title is the German word for cenotaph, he explained, an "empty grave" commemorating "people who disappeared." In his work he honored the tens of thousands of refugees who have drowned in the Mediterranean since the early 2000s, "while Europe did nothing." Other Austrians debated immigration, but Larcher felt terrible about the refugee crisis and also powerless. Kenotaphis is his response.
On this Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day 2019, it is heartening to contemplate an Austrian's empathy and desire to do something on behalf of refugees.


I think of my great-great grandfather Abraham Finkelstein (1824 – 1899) and his wife Laja, who were buried in the New Jewish Cemetery in Kazimierz, the old Jewish section of Kraków. I visited the New Jewish Cemetery during my 2016 trip to Vienna, Kraków, and Lwów to do research for HOW FAR With the help of the cemetary attendant, we found Abraham's monument in the third row from the front, but Laja's monument was missing. My husband and I placed stones on Abraham's monument. I cannot say I visited his grave, though, because when the Nazis occupied Kraków, they vandalized the cemetery. They collected flat gravestones to pave streets and threw larger monuments, including Abraham's, into a pile. Then they used the cemetery as a shooting range where they held regular target practice.
It is now the task of the attendant to try to match these monuments to the burial plots according to a registry and map of the cemetery. My ancestor's remains continue to lie separate from his monument, lost as they turn to dust.
And yet, Abraham Finkelstein was lucky. The location of the remains of his granddaughter, my maternal grandmother, Teofila Finkelstein Goldberger, were never known. All we know is that despite having bought false papers and posing as a Catholic, in July 1943 while walking on a street in Lwów she was denounced to be a Jew. Murdered. A person who disappeared. Nor do we know much of the fate of her husband, my maternal grandfather Isidor Goldberger. A friend told my mother that Isidor jumped from a train bound for concentration camp, also in July 1943. My paternal grandmother, Mechla Frankel, swallowed cyanide when the Gestapo came for her. I don't know the year.
There are not even cenotaphs for my three grandparents.
But my paternal grandfather rests here in New York. I'll tell you about his escape to freedom another time.
WeAre1: A Family of the Bereaved

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HOW FAR: A Love Story Against All the Odds

WeAre1: A Family of the Displaced


In September 1942, my mother volunteered to go to Germany as a slave laborer. She had false papers, which enabled her to impersonate a Catholic Pole. About 12 million Eastern Europeans worked as forced laborers for the Third Reich, which was desperately short of workers with so many men at the Russian Front. Most workers were captured and forced to work. Many were POWs. Conditions were so bad in the occupied lands that civilians (1.3 - 2.6 million) volunteered in order not to starve. According to one paper I read, "It was a policy of extermination through hard labor of people deemed fit only to work. The Nazis envisioned a slaveholder society after their expected victory." The Reich assigned workers to corporations (some even were German subsidiaries of American companies), small businesses, and farms. Very few Jews masquerading as Catholics in Germany survived this way. My guess is about a 250.


Seventy-four years ago this month, GIs liberated my mother. She had toiled first on a farm, then in a produce nursery, and later in a Siemens small appliances factory. The last two were in the stunning resort village of Bad Neustadt-an-der-Saale, Bavaria, known for its therapeutic baths. Here is an excerpt, based on my mother's testimonry, describing her liberation the day after Passover ended.


HOW FAR - Excerpt


Chapter 44: Bad Neustadt, April 7, 1945 – Liberation

On April 6, 1945, as American troops approached Bad Neustadt, Radio London issued instructions for German civilians to avoid railroad stations because they would be bombed. But the Siemens factory was next to the railroad and bomb shelters were reserved only for Germans. Irena and her friend the French POW ran to the nearest one, banged on the door, and beseeched those inside to let them in. No one heeded their cries for help. Not knowing where else to go, they returned to the factory. Shells screamed and exploded outside. A devastating hit smashed off a corner of the building, leaving an open hole. Clearly it had become too dangerous to stay.

They ran along Redestraße toward the village, thought better of that and turned toward Bad Neuhaus. They had the peculiar idea that the castle, built with thick, medieval walls, might protect them. Getting there, however, meant crossing the railroad tracks. They picked their way over the rails, forded the tiny Franconia Saale River, and climbed the hill to the ruins. It was a steep hike, if you were running from the northwest to save yourself.

 Just above, they heard the roar of two warplanes waging a mighty dogfight. The aircraft swooped and dove murderously, shot and ducked as they fired at one another. Irena pressed herself against the cool gray sandstone of the castle wall. While the planes seemed to glower at one another and the pilots readied themselves for another joust, Irena and her friend ran to the arched main gate for cover. The din of the two swarming fighters, a long series of shots––and then one plane pitched and yawed violently. Something was wrong with its wing. Was it the American plane? Or had the Yankee pilot outwitted the Nazi? As the plane tumbled to Earth, they saw the unmistakable iron cross insignia on its wings.

Irena and the French POW cheered and applauded. Then they turned toward the village to see American tanks rolling into the Market Plaz. Fleeing German soldiers crossed the river and bombed the bridges as they retreated. Irena and the French POW watched in stunned silence. There they stood on the precipice of freedom, the moment of liberation imminent, yet they could not quite believe it.

The battle for Bad Neustadt lasted the rest of the day and into the next morning. When Irena and her friend returned to the village, they again tried unsuccessfully to get into a shelter. Irena saw many wounded American and German soldiers strewn about the streets of the luxury resort. For the first time, she beheld a dead man lying in a pool of blood.
Late in the afternoon, Irena was walking back to Siemens along Redestraße with her friend Stasza when they came upon American troops of the Ninth Air Defense command camping along the roadside. Two soldiers approached and tried to engage them in conversation in broken German. One tall, blond G.I. seemed to be extending an invitation, but he so garbled it that his companion lost patience.

"If you can't do any better than that, Floyd, "Nogi z dupy powyrywam (I'll pull your legs out of your ass)," he said partly in Polish.

Floyd said, "Aw, gówno, Stanley,przestań (Aw, shit, Stanley, stop it)."

Irena and Stasza broke into peals of laughter. The soldiers did double takes.

Said Stanley in Polish, "Rozumiesz po polsku (You understand Polish)!"

The G.I.s were astonished when Irena and Stasza explained that they were Polish slave laborers working for the German state. Stanley and Floyd invited the girls to join them for a delicious meal. Then they apologized for it.

"Look at the sloppiness," said Stanley, as they sat outside the mess tent. "Can you believe it? Serving pot roast with peaches."

Irena did not think this was a quip. As she ate and savored the bountiful meal, it was her turn to be surprised. This was the third invasion she had experienced. First, the swift, brutal one of the Germans. Then the Soviets, who were quiet, well-informed and who spoke the languages of the people they conquered. These liberators, long-legged Pennsylvania troops of Polish descent, were completely unaware of the hardship and starvation throughout Europe.

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