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< Echoes of Memory

Onward to America: A New World


by Michel Margosis

The children boarded the train and they all began chattering even as the wheels began to turn. The train made a stop in Madrid to collect several additional children. Some of the young passengers had been with me at the Hospicio (orphanage) in Gerona and in Caldas de Malavella, and it was good to see Georges again. Jacques Rusman, a Southern French Jew from the city of Montauban, came aboard in Madrid along with Daniel Rosenberg. Other children that were placed with the group included Georgette and Pauline Wolman, as well as Israel and Rachel Lucas.

The train ride to Lisbon was uneventful, but as soon as we arrived, Father was waiting by the rail station to greet me. I had not seen him in nearly three years, for he had been in Caldas da Rainha, a small town about 55 miles north of Lisbon. He was there sometime after Vichy became the capital of unoccupied France. Initially, after arrival in Portugal, Father resided in the city of Lisbon, but as the war went on and the volumes of rescued or fleeing refugees swelled, Caldas da Rainha and Ericeira were set up as refugee centers for the duration.

One moment of time, which I recall with my eyes welling with tears and my heart racing, is when I gave my father a small package of cookies that only my mother could bake. Those cookies could likely bruise a toe if one fell on it, yet tasted rather good, particularly with Russian tea. He just opened the package slowly and stared at the contents, then longingly admired and tenderly kissed each cookie before slowly eating them. It wasn’t until November 1944 that mother found a way to hire a passeur to smuggle her, this time into Portugal to rejoin her husband, my father. By then, my sister Anna had just sailed to Palestine pursuing Benyamin Bennoun, a beau she had fallen for in Marseille and met again in Barcelona. My father suggested that my older brother Willy should chaperone his sister, and they left the European continent from Cadiz on the 26th of November 1944 on the SS Guiné. The ship carried 175 young Jewish refugees who had illegally crossed the Pyrénées and were sponsored by Youth Aliyah (Child Rescue) subsidized to a significant extent by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and Jewish Agency. Although they legally moored in the port of Haifa in Palestine on the 5th of November 1944, they were greeted by the British police and dutifully taken to the Atlit detainee camp. This camp was located about 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) south of Haifa on the Mediterranean coast. This former British military camp served as a detention center for illegal Jewish immigrants who had sought refuge in Palestine during the British Mandate in the 1930s and 1940s. At that time too, British authorities rigorously limited Jewish immigration and refused to allow Jews to enter the country. 

Properly documented, Anna eventually moved to Beth Hachaluzot in Tel Aviv, where she was able to enter the world of fashion design and compete in the world of haute-couture which she had learned in Marseille. Willy first moved to Kibbutz Amir in the Upper Galilee, actually established during the war by Polish and Lithuanian immigrants. Subsequently, he relocated to a Frenchspeaking kibbutz, Neve Ilan, 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) from Jerusalem and 50 kilometers (31 miles) from Tel Aviv, where he became a truck driver. The Jewish National Fund purchased the land at Neve Ilan at the urging of David Ben-Gurion in order to establish a “Kibbutz Army Post” that would defend the road to Jerusalem and engage in agriculture. Life in Neve Ilan was difficult: water was brought by truck on a weekly basis, nights were dark, and there was no electricity. Little by little, they discovered that it was not easy to make a living from agriculture. At the end of November 1947, the Arabs cut off the road to Jerusalem and the Jewish Agency responded by organizing caravans to bring food to the besieged city.

Back in Portugal, my father believed I had matured, and as he showed me around Lisbon, he exclaimed, “You are a big boy now!” and offered me a cigarette and a light. He bought me a fedora and we paraded along many of the city’s wide and well-kept, tree-lined avenues. We’d stopped at a café for a pause now and then and just strutted around like two grown men. I stayed with him for five days, and we strolled through town and the park, went to a movie, and talked and talked at length about everything. Our conversations ranged from the war, the history of Portugal, and the earthquake in Lisbon in the 17th century to the study of Hebrew, Yiddish, and the Torah. Yet, he was also very mindful about expanding my intellect in America. My father turned over to me four or five rare old volumes of the Bible in Latin with footnotes and commentaries in Greek and Hebrew. He believed them to be valuable and thought I might be able to sell them in the United States for a very good price to a collector, or possibly to Cardinal Spellman of New York or one of his cohort. We also attended a movie that impressed and stirred both of us, Watch on the Rhine, with Paul Lucas as a new immigrant to the United States who gets highly emotional about defending his new country from enemies within. It was simply marvelous and glorious to be with him and to have him all to myself, just the two of us, for those five days before I embarked for America. Furthermore, as an omen of good fortune, the sun shone even more brilliantly during my stay in Lisbon, especially on the day of departure. 

As an aside, on a leisure trip to Mexico in 1989, Anna and her husband, André, met the Comte Armand de La Rochefoucauld, Duc de Doudeauville, who was pictured in one group photo taken with my father in January of 1943 in Caldas da Rainha, where the duke was also given refuge. Refugees from eastern Europe actually built the synagogue in Caldas da Rainha, and I learned fairly recently that Father served as acting rabbi for the community until 1946, when he left. Trying to find out more about his Portuguese experience, I wrote to the American Sephardi Federation and was able to connect with a member who had actually lived in Caldas da Rainha. When I asked him if he knew a Mr. Margosis, a Mr. Isaac Margosis, he replied that yes, he knew a Rabbi Margosis, and when he briefly described the man, I realized it was my father:

"I think that I saw it mentioned by Captain Barros Basto, the leader of the Marranos, in Oporto, about whom I wrote a biography. If I am not mistaken, it was about a visit that your father made to the synagogue in Oporto and a subsequent visit of the Captain to Caldas. I am writing this only from memory, but what occurs to me is that Barros Basto mentioned Mr. Margosis as being the leader of the Hassidic temporary congregation in Caldas."

I believe my father served as a rabbi when I visited in 1943, though he never mentioned it. I am not at all surprised that he did serve as a rabbi because (1) he was educated by the maven Bialik and (2) because my father went often out of his way to help friends and his people. Case in point, he had written editorials to alert his readers to the Bolshevik and Nazi perils. Evidently refugees were not allowed to work in Portugal and were presumably subsidized by the JDC while pursuing intellectual activities. It was during that time that he studied and acquired a greater knowledge of French, Portuguese, and English. 

After visiting my father, I boarded the Serpa Pinto, a fairly small Portuguese steamship that looked like it had been retrofitted to take on some passengers as well as freight. I presume it took on no more than 40 to 50 passengers and a big load of cork, a major commodity exported from Portugal. It seemed to me that better than half of the passengers, actually 21, belonged to our group and most of these were Jewish children. The ship put out to sea on the 29th of May 1943 with a stop of several hours in Oporto to load a cargo of the reputed local wine. Then, we moved on again to the open seas. Our group kept us fairly busy with morning and evening exercises and games of every type, including shuffleboard, chess, and checkers. They even had ballroom dancing on occasion, although I do not recall any live bands or any of the children dancing. We made another stop and anchored offshore in the Azores, where native lads swarmed about and would dive competitively alongside the ship to catch coins that some passengers tossed overboard one at a time, in order to enjoy the sport. Some young lads hawked pineapples for sale from small boats loaded with fruits, and as my mouth began to water from the thought of feasting, I bought two large pineapples.

I waited patiently for two days for the appropriate degree of ripening at which time I peeled and cut into one of the fruits, broke it into pieces and with juice dripping all over, I devoured it. It was the most succulent and delicious fruit I recall ever consuming, and as I wiped my mouth, I began carving the second one and ate up that one too. When I had completed the job, I got up slowly and wobbled off. The pineapples had ripened so well that the fermented juices had actually made me tipsy, but I had no trouble at all sleeping it off.

Some days the sea was so absolutely calm we called it a sea of oil, and we could not discern the faintest ripple in the water, especially in the early mornings. After supper, we would often gaze into the waters, looking mainly for flying fish, as they would soar alongside the boat. At one point, perhaps at the halfway point in the Atlantic, a young lad from our group noticed a distant pinpoint metallic reflection in the water and informed an officer of the ship, who quickly disappeared below. He reappeared on the bridge shortly afterwards with the captain. The reflection soon became more distinct, actually a periscope that slowly surfaced atop a submarine marked with large black iron crosses alongside. The steamer slowed down to an eventual stop, and uniformed men from the U-boat boarded us. The officers accompanied by the protective crew of armed sailors disappeared for an interminable hour or so. Everyone else remained standing on the deck until we suddenly heard a splash, then quiet again. The ship’s officers reappeared as the captain observed the German navy leave just as efficiently as they had appeared. Apparently, the only disturbance was that soft splash and as we found out later, the mysterious disappearance of one cook. 

The ship resumed its voyage and completed it uneventfully. Meanwhile, Jacques Rusman and I enjoyed the cream puffs, éclairs, and other pastries served at teatimes so much that we plotted to minimize their consumption by others. Just before teatime, the two of us would amble around in a frenzied seasickness dance toward the rail and await reactions. The display was contagious because we could return to our table with less competition and the enhanced teatime compensation. We experienced a very rewarding gastronomic treat on that ship, and that somehow, for me, became a partial beginning of a reward for the hunger I had experienced in France for such a long time. 

Jacques, my partner in crime, was nicknamed Marius because he enjoyed telling long tales and jokes based on the two legendary Marseille characters Marius and Olive. One of the activities we participated in was an attempt at learning English, but it was futile within the span of time we were on ship. Richard, a senior member of the youths, was reputed to know the language well, and together we evaluated the Americanization of first names of individuals in the group. I participated, but finally decided that Michael, Mike, or Mitchell seemed too strange to me, thus I retained my name as Michel, pronounced mee-SHELL. I must admit that my first name still causes minor snags once in a while, but I emphasize that missing a terminal “e” alters its gender. Any unsolicited mail addressed to Miss Michel is unceremoniously tossed as trash.

Some 3,450 miles later and 24 days after leaving Lisbon, we docked on American shores on June 22, 1943. The waters and the air were swarming with seafaring vessels below and a cluster of airships, blimps, and balloons. These were for use against enemy submarines because they could hover and detect enemy vessels within 90 miles. An American coast guard officer came aboard to pilot the ship into the port of Philadelphia, known as the city of brotherly love. Perhaps it would be an omen of things to come. 

The ship finally docked, and within two hours we debarked and were immediately subjected to a meticulous customs inspection, at which time my stamp collection and antique bibles were impounded presumably for more rigorous scrutiny. The group of children then boarded a train for a two-hour trip to Penn Station in New York City, followed by a bus ride to a big formal house in the Bronx.

©2018, Michel Margosis. The text, images, and audio and video clips on this website are available for limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only, or for fair use as defined in the United States copyright laws.

Tags:   echoes of memory, volume 11michel margosis

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