Jewish Immigration, Part 2: Sponsorship & Family Rifts

Jewish Immigration, Part 2: Sponsorship & Family Rifts

This is Day 9 of the Family History Writing Challenge, 2018.

In yesterday’s post, I described the restrictions against immigrants, especially Jews, coming to the U.S. from Nazi Austria (an accurate term, I decided, for a country that welcomed Hitler and that was instrumental to putting his Final Solution into place–claims of being occupied notwithstanding). 

Adolph and Bertha Schweizer, the focus of this family history search, didn’t survive their attempt to escape the Nazis, but other members of my family did.

Monument to the Jewish refugees, Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum

A Solo Journey

My mother’s departure from her parents was wrenching, but I got the sense that there was a part of this 25-year-old who regarded her journey to America as an adventure–not believing at the time that the separation would be permanent of course. My parents met in America, at English classes in Brighton Beach, but my mother liked to tease my father — the easygoing one of the two, comparatively speaking–that she was fine during the entire passage overseas while he’d been seasick and had spent the entire voyage below deck.

But it’s the question of who sponsored my mother that’s been on my mind. My mother rarely talked about those early years in America.  I know that she initially lived with a distant relative in New Jersey; that he had a maid who terrified her; and that he tried to “take advantage” of her. She moved out as soon as she possibly could.  My mother worked as a seamstress and lived on pea-and-mayonnaise sandwiches — a detail that has always stuck in my mind — to save money. By the time she scraped together enough to get her parents to the U.S., the borders had closed.

The Relatives Who Wouldn’t

In contrast to my mother’s sponsorship story, which remains mysterious, that of her uncle Rudolf Kornmehl and his wife Molly was detailed in a book by my late cousin Gigi Michaels, No Place Called Home

The family fled from Vienna to Shanghai, because they didn’t need a visa to go there, but they were anxious to get to America. Molly wrote to one of her cousins to ask for sponsorship and received the following reply: 

Dear Molly and Rudolph,

We were so happy to receive word from you. Your letter was such a relief to us… We could hardly sustain our excitement about your survival in Shanghai, China, of all places! What an interesting story you must have. We want to hear all about it and hope that you will write to us again soon.

Life in America has been difficult too. The war affected us as well. Food was rationed, and few could afford even basic necessities. We are very lucky because my practice continued to do well even during those hard times. People get sick and need a doctor in good times and in bad. We really didn’t miss out on anything but what we really do miss is not having family around us. We would love to see you here in New York. I often recall sharing holidays with you and your family. Those were wonderful times.

As for your request to sponsor you and your family, we really can’t do very much for you although you must know that we would love to.We understand your predicament with the new immigration laws and we would help you if we could. To sponsor you would mean to guarantee your housing and pro­vide you with your needs. H. and I discussed the matter at length and we agreed that we really can’t do that for you at this time. My practice is right in the building where we live and if anything should go wrong with the sponsor­ship I could be jeopardizing my whole career.

The other thing is that not all my patients are Jews. The war left many people angry. Many wives lost their husbands and many parents their sons. Some came home from the war with injuries that left them disabled. Many blame the hard times and the war on the Jews. There will always be people who think that wayI don’t discuss my religion with anybodyIf I were to have you to live with me in my apartment it might cause gossip throughout my building. People talk, and in my profession that could become a problem. We just have to accept that. As you know, a doctor’s reputation is his whole practice. We hope that you can understand our position on this.

 We wish you luck in finding a quick resolution to your situation and please write and let us know where you decide to live once you leave Shanghai .

With our best wishes, Love,

German Jewish refugees disembark in the port of Shanghai, one of the few places without visa requirements. Shanghai, China, 1940.
— Leo Baeck Institute

I can’t even imagine how let down and infuriated Rudolph and Molly must have felt when they received this tactless, tone deaf letter; they were living in squalid conditions in a ghetto of less than one square mile in Shanghai.  They eventually went to Palestine and, after several years there, were able to emigrate to Queens, New York. I wonder if they ever spoke to the relatives who refused to sponsor them.

Here’s the odd thing about this story. Although I never met Rudolph and Molly, I did know the cousins that turned them down. My family didn’t socialize with them — we didn’t socialize with anyone — but my mother visited them on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with me a few times.  Now they seem like the villains of this story, but my mother must not have viewed them that way. And neither did I, until I read my cousin’s book.

5 Responses to Jewish Immigration, Part 2: Sponsorship & Family Rifts

  1. That is the saddest letter I have ever read. I wonder, though, if Molly (and your mother) had sympathy for the doctor’s family precisely BECAUSE of what they had gone through themselves. The refugees would have empathy for anyone who might have to take extraordinary steps to survive.

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      I can’t imagine that anyone would have had much sympathy for the doctor’s family, and least of all Molly. Her granddaughter’s publication of the letter — with the doctor’s identity revealed — would suggest the family never forgave them, and I can’t blame them. As for my mother…well, she was a woman who could hold a grudge so my theory is she was a) closer to the doctor’s family in Vienna; b) she was not personally turned down for sponsorship by the doctor and his wife.

      • Edie Jarolim says:

        Ooh, I just thought of a third reason: If my mother was not friendly with her uncle, she might not have known about the family’s having been turned down by this other relative.

  2. Elaine Schmerling says:

    So sad to see those like Rudolph & Molly who could have done more and turned down this request (and maybe more)…Also sad for what those like your mother went through (alhtough sadder what happened to her parents) – but to get out, and initially live with a distant relative hwo “tried to ‘take advantage” of her'”! I’m sure it happened all the time! How many refugees were, and still are, taken advantage of. Like the case of the Mexican immigrant teen who was pregnant and initially turned down to get an abortion here very recently because of the current crazy politics – she very likely was raped, and couldn’t report the rapist, because of her illegal situation.

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      I know! Today has so many terrible parallels to the past — including the fact that really awful things are being normalized.

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