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Bobby Sox and Broken Glass

Braha Bender

During World War II, one thousand Jewish children were plucked from the Nazi inferno and delivered to American shores as a part of a little-known rescue operation. Who were the heroes and heroines responsible for this “American underground railroad” that brought these children to safety? Why were so few children rescued? And what was it like to become an American Jew as Jewish Europe went up in flames?

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

In the early 1940s the Great Depression was slowly melting away and the American Dream was coming back to life, thanks to the roaring war effort that was creating thousands of new jobs and restoring to Americans their traditional confidence and high spirits. But even as American “bobby-soxers” — a nickname given to teenagers because of the white “bobby socks” that were an essential part of a fashionable American girl’s wardrobe — sang along to the latest hit by popular singer Frank Sinatra, a very different “song” was unfolding in Europe. There, six million Jewish men, women, and children were being gassed. There, most people had only one thing on their mind: escape. If not for themselves, then at least they hoped to find a way out for their children.

While most people have heard of the famous Kindertransport that brought some 10,000 Jewish children into the safety of England’s beckoning arms, few are familiar with the story of how 1,000 children were saved by a small group of Americans who successfully bucked a system that was tragically rigged against a Jewish rescue operation.

Today, we set the record straight.

 

“Put Every Obstacle in Their Way”

Henry Frankel is today the president of One Thousand Children, an organization founded in 2000 to commemorate and publicize the little-known “American underground railroad” rescue operation that spanned three continents, two oceans, and eleven years. But on February 29, 1940, the day he arrived in New York City, he was a six-and-a-half-year-old Jewish refugee from Europe.

“I saw huge skyscrapers,” he says, recalling his first impressions of his new adopted country. “I had never seen buildings that big before. Once we identified my trunk and got out of the hustle and bustle, I was handed an American flag. I was so proud that I stuck it straight up between the seats on the train to Baltimore.”

At the same time, little Henry wondered whether he would ever see his parents again. It was no idle worry. The number of immigration quota promises honored by the United States government was so low that Henry had been forced to leave his mother and father behind in Germany.

The reason for the low number of refugees allowed into the United States was simple, at least to some people. Although the war effort was providing much-needed jobs to the millions of Americans whom the Great Depression had left unemployed, wartime rationing continued to tighten belts even on such staples as meat, cheese, coffee, butter, margarine, dried fruits, jam, canned foods, and sugar. Even transportation was a limited commodity due to rationed gasoline. Americans pulled together in a spirit of patriotism, pinning their hopes on the belief that this way of living would last only “for the duration.” Nonetheless, burdening the country with more mouths to feed and more competition in the job market wasn’t on anyone’s agenda.

But resistance to the arrival of new United States citizens went much further than the feelings of the average US citizen. Breckinridge Long, who served as the assistant secretary of state with jurisdiction over immigration and refugee issues arising from World War II, made it official US government policy when he circulated an internal department memo in June 1940 that stated, “We can delay and effectively stop for a temporary period of indefinite length the number of immigrants into the United States. We could do this by simply advising our consuls to put every obstacle in the way and to require additional evidence and to resort to various administrative devices which would postpone and postpone and postpone the granting of the visas.”

The December 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor forced the United States into a world war that had already raged for more than two years and had taken millions of innocent lives. But the US government’s attitude toward immigration didn’t change. Long’s suspicion of German, Italian, and Russian nationals meant that ninety percent of those nation’s immigration quota allotments went unfilled and some 190,000 Jewish lives were lost as a result.

One Thousand Children cofounder Iris Posner has called this organized, officially sanctioned opposition to absorbing Jews fleeing Nazi Europe “the most vehement anti-Semitism this country has ever known.” She explains that Jewish parents, who were already torn apart by the decision to send away their children, had to fill out in triplicate government forms that were six feet long in order to even broach the possibility of obtaining visas.

Even after a child’s papers were properly completed and filed, American families interested in hosting a European immigrant child had to jump through numerous administrative hoops, which prevented all but the wealthiest families from legally participating in the rescue efforts. For example, one rule stated that no more than two children could sleep in a bedroom — a demand that excluded most frum families from consideration as hosts for these refugee children.

The experience of one frum family in New York told the story of many. They were rejected because of what were considered to be their cramped living quarters: four boys slept in one bedroom, and a girl slept on a folding cot in the living room. Despite acknowledgement of their warm family atmosphere, the child welfare bureau in charge of processing their request claimed that their living conditions could not meet their requirements. Apparently having the children remain in Nazi Europe was a preferable alternative.

 

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