In these days of robocalls and other forms of telephone spam, I usually do not answer calls from numbers I don’t recognize. About a year ago, though, I did answer and heard a woman’s voice: “You don’t know me, but I believe we’re cousins.”
Yeah, right. Who is this woman, and what does she want? As the daughter of Holocaust survivors from Poland, I know the very few relatives I have. Attempting to be polite, I only said, “That’s probably not true.”
“Was Harry G. your uncle?” That got my attention! Harry G. was my father’s uncle—the person who sponsored my parents and me when we immigrated to the US in 1947.
My newly found cousin, Eileen, went on to tell me that her son Erick had discovered my family’s existence via genealogical research and investigation of records at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.
Prior to this, her family had believed that any relative who had not emigrated from my father’s hometown of Kielce, Poland before the 1940s had perished in the Holocaust. In fact, my father was a survivor—indeed, the only one from the family still in Poland at the outset of the war.
Eileen then went on to say that I was related not just to her and Erick, but also to many people based in the Chicago area. Hearing of these connections provoked deep emotions of curiosity and confusion. But especially feelings of anger—if my parents and I had connected to our relatives when we first arrived in the US, maybe our lives would not have been so traumatic!
In 1945, my parents, Gucia and Mulek, met and married in a displaced persons’ (DP) camp in the British sector of defeated Germany. Like many survivors, my parents wanted to leave Germany—in their case, to go to America. The chaplain in the DP camp helped my father place a personal ad in the New York Jewish newspaper, the Forverts, asking for sponsorship.
Uncle Harry, living in New York and, like everyone else those days, checking for survivors, saw the ad, recognized my father as his brother Herschel’s son, and started the necessary paperwork. By the time approval of the sponsorship arrived in Germany, my mother was too far along in her pregnancy with me to get on a ship. My parents had to wait until I was born and could lift my head. Because I did not achieve this skill until three months after my October birth, we had to cross the North Atlantic in the stormy late winter season.
My parents were each the sole survivor of their families. In addition to losing their families and homes, each had survived ghettoization, slave labor, and Auschwitz. My mother also survived the death march to Bergen-Belsen. To say they were both already traumatized is an understatement. However, mustering great resilience and strength, they were able to marry and have a child. But there was more trauma yet to come.
Our small family departed via Bremen, Germany in early March 1947, on a transport ship, the Ernie Pyle. The seas were so rough that, according to my mother, I, as an infant, was the only person onboard who wasn’t constantly seasick. Then, halfway across the ocean, the boat foundered. My mother was sure they’d survived the war only now to die at sea.
The Ernie Pyle was eventually towed back to Plymouth, England. The passengers were not permitted to set foot on English soil during the seven days it took for another ship, the Marine Marlin, to arrive. Once onboard this second ship, we again departed for America, arriving at New York Harbor on April 1st.
Uncle Harry was a miserly bachelor, so his sponsoring our family seemed an especial act of generosity and caring. However, he subsequently did little to help us create our new lives. Did he not know better or was his inaction rooted in his character? Even harder to understand is why Uncle Harry, as I now discovered from Eileen, did not tell our extended family in Chicago that someone from Kielce had survived, nor did he tell us about the Chicago relatives.
The apartment building which we moved into on Manhattan’s Lower East Side was a rat-infested, filthy firetrap that had been condemned and slated for demolition but was pressed into service because of the dire housing shortage. My mortified mother, who was crazy-clean, constantly but futilely mopped the splintery wooden steps and wept because she couldn’t wash the windows daily as she had been able to even in Germany. My father found two jobs in the garment industry to support us. Thus, I saw him so rarely, I didn’t know him, and I cried in fright when he did come home.
We had arrived early in the exodus of survivors to the US. Good as it was to leave Europe, my parents had few fellow Holocaust refugees who understood what they’d been through. When my mother tried to tell an American Jew about her experience, the woman responded: “We suffered also. Sugar was rationed.” It was no surprise that my mother then shut down.
Already overwhelmed with grief, not speaking the language, living in a filthy place, and saddled with a baby she didn’t know how to deal with—it was no wonder that my mother, even though remaining high-functioning, suffered from the depression that colored all her subsequent years and inexorably led to her death. I cannot help wondering—what if she’d had any caring support when she first came to the US?
These questions came up for me when I read Esther Safran Foer’s Holocaust memoir, I Want You to Know We’re Still Here. Upon her family’s arrival in the US, relatives provided food, clothing, and welcome. Until reading this book, it had never occurred to me that many other immigrant families did not go through the neglect that mine did. Hearing from Cousin Eileen of the lost opportunity for help from the Chicago relatives only increased my passionate belief that people can and should do better when dealing with survivors.
Now, as I witness in horror what is happening in Ukraine, I derive some comfort by seeing how much better the trauma of the refugees is being handled than it was immediately after World War II. I take heart from the work of individuals and groups who step up—as, for example, Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, together with its sister organizations, Hadassah International and the Hadassah Medical Organization, bringing physicians from Israel to help deal with the refugees—ironically, now going to Poland.
I wish Hadassah had been in New York for my parents and the other refugees right after the Holocaust. I wish there weren’t the need for individuals and organizations to step up in this way now—but I’m so grateful and thankful they, and we, are doing so at this critical time, when, more than ever, our world is crying for tikkun olam. The provision of such humanitarian—human—work is a slim beacon of hope at this, once again, time of darkness.
Learn more about Hadassah’s life-saving work with Ukrainian refugees here.