When the director of the OSE’s Chateau des Morelles children’s home in France called me to her office to tell me that our parents had found us and that my brother and I would be going to the United States, I was overjoyed and my entire being shook with anticipation of seeing my mother and father again. I had no idea when or how my parents had gotten to the United States from Germany.
My brother and I had been separated from them for two years, and our dreams of being reunited were finally coming true. It was August 1941. I have lived almost my entire life since then not knowing the details of how my parents were able to get my brother and me out of France during this time when the Germans had occupied most of the country. Even though we lived in the unoccupied zone of France, it was still dangerous because the puppet government of France, headed by Pétain, obeyed the orders of the Nazis. The quotas for new refugees to the United States had also not been lifted. It was most difficult to travel to America.
A few weeks ago, I received an e-mail from Rachel at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, who informed me that Ron Coleman in the Collections department had found some papers that I probably had never known about and asked if it was alright if he got in touch with me. Of course, I immediately replied, and this is what I learned from him. The files are called AFSC with a number next to them and are the original working files of the American Friends Service Committee. (My brother and I had always known that committee as the Quakers.) The AFSC created 22,000 files about the people who requested assistance from their Refugee Division. Twenty thousand still remain concerning people they thought they could help. The AFSC held on to these files until 1970, when they were turned over to a research institute in Philadelphia called the Balch Institute. The files were held there, under heavy restrictions, until the Institute closed in 2000. Our Museum negotiated to have these files transferred here to Washington in 2002 and they were made available to researchers. Ron told me that it was difficult to use these files because there was no master list of the cases. He is now working with these files to create a case list and see what can be learned about the AFSC on behalf of individuals during the Holocaust.
Last month Ron came across a file called “Joseph and Susie Hilsenrath” of the Chateau des Morelles in Brout Vernet, France (AFSC case 7219). The reference to the Chateau caught his eye because the Museum has photographs and collections from some of the children’s homes, and he is always looking for connections between the AFSC files and other Museum holdings. He searched on Google for “Joseph and Susie Hilsenrath Chateau des Morelles” and the first result was for a page on the Museum website. I can imagine how excited he must have been when he realized that Susie Hilsenrath was me, a regular and long-time volunteer at our Museum. Before contacting me, he wanted to make sure that the file existed and that there was something in it. He requested that file to be delivered to the Reference Desk from the Museum’s offsite storage facility. He later found another file (AFSC case 7321). He emailed them both to me.
Each file consists of almost 50 pages, mostly of correspondence between Mrs. Michael Shapiro (Betty), the secretary of the Washington office of the Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society known as HIAS and Margaret Jones of the American Friends Service Committee, AFSC in Philadelphia. Both of these ladies wrote letters to the State Department and the Consul in Marseille begging them to expedite our departure from Brout Vernet, in early September of 1941. There are also earlier letters. My father must have hired a lawyer as early as July 1940 to write to the AFSC begging them to help find his children in France. My father had said that the last communication he had was that we were in Orsay, which is southwest of Paris. In the formal reply to this letter, the AFSC stated, “Unfortunately we have not heard anything definite. . . we hesitate to send names of persons into France. We are afraid to call the attention of the German authorities to individuals who otherwise may have remained unmolested.” There is not much more correspondence until August 1941. My parents must have been devastated.
The first letter, dated August 5, 1941, is from the HIAS by Betty Shapiro, writing to AFSC, Margaret Jones. Evidently someone had contacted HIAS to find out if they had any information about my brother and me. HIAS had a lot of information about us. They knew that we were in Brout Vernet. My parents must have been overjoyed to know that we were safe. I found out that my father arrived in New York, September 21, 1939, and that my mother and little brother, Ernest, arrived on February 21, 1940. The letter says, “They applied for and obtained their first papers.”
It also describes how industrious and hard working my father was and how he paid for a passage for his children on the Pan American Clipper just in case they were found and received their visas. “However, for some reason, the children have been unable to secure their visas. This last advice from HICEM, Marseille, was to the effect that visas would not be granted to the children because of an uncle residing in Paris.”
This I still do not understand. Yes, we did have a relative in Paris who housed and took care of us when we first arrived in Paris. He was the uncle Herman of my second cousins Sabina, Friedel, and Semi Feur, who were also born and lived in Bad Krauznach, Germany. We were reunited with these children in the Chateau des Morelles. It seems inexplicable that we could not get our visas because of uncle Herman. I recently learned from my cousin Sabina that he was murdered in Riga. My parents and the Feuers were told that they needed to apply for new affidavits and submit them to the State Department.
After many letters from my father, Mr. Feuer, the State Department, the wonderful Betty Shapiro, and the magnificent Margaret Jones, we were finally granted our visas. Our trip started by train to Marseille, then through the Pyrenees to Spain, and finally to Lisbon where on September 9, 1941, Sabina, Friedel, Semi, my brother Joe and I boarded a ship called the Serpa Pinto with 50 other USCOM children. It is all there in the letters. The file also includes some letters from after we arrived in the United States. There is a beautiful letter from my father thanking the AFSC. He wrote, “There are absolutely no words that we can think of that could possibly express our appreciation for your kind work.”
Sometime soon I want to write to HIAS and the AFSC and tell them about the superb effort of the two women who worked for them in 1941. I would like to know if they have children or grandchildren. If so, I would like to get in touch with them and tell them how good their mothers and grandmothers were to us.
Ron printed three copies of both files for me. I also have a copy in my documents and saved online. The letters brought back many memories, and I learned a lot that I did not know. I made a special trip to the Reference section in our Museum so that I could view and touch the original letters in the files. They united me with my father, and I felt so close to him.
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