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Children of War
by Renate G. Justin
A summer camp in the Bronx next to the elevated? Hardly. It is a camp; a camp for orphaned European refugee children brought to the United States in 1946.
At the end of World War II, after the allies liberated the inmates of the concentration camps in Germany, the survivors in the compounds had to stay inside the barbed wire fences. The camps were used for displaced persons by the coalition forces. The displaced persons were inadequately housed, nourished, and clothed; they were not permitted by the army administrators to communicate with the world outside the camps.
In June of 1945 President Truman asked Earl G. Harrison, the commissioner of immigration, to report to him about the condition of the displaced persons incarcerated in Europe. It was the Harrison report that painted the inhuman and unacceptable conditions in the camps which moved President Truman, in December of 1945, to issue his 'Directive on Displaced Persons'. In this document Truman states, "To the extent that our present immigration laws permit, everything possible should be done at once to facilitate the entrance of some of these displaced persons and refugees into the United States."
Truman's effort was directed at reestablishing consulates in Germany to issue visas, filling all the immigration quotas, preferably with orphans, and closing the camps for orphaned children in the American zone of Germany. Written into the directive was that the children did not have to have individual sponsors in the United States, but could be sponsored by charitable organizations, who would have to pay for their visas, their tickets, and guarantee that they would not become public charges (be on welfare) once they came to America.
It took the patience and know how of the United States Committee for the Care of European Children to surmount the red-tape and to obtain visas for children who were supposed to bring their birth certificate to the consulate and who did not even remember their name or place of birth. The first group of 67 young war victims left Europe in May of 1946 for the United States. Eventually under the 1945 Truman directive, which was in force for 2 ½ years, 1387 children came to America.
I was part of the staff that welcomed the international contingent of children to a large abandoned YMCA building in the hot summer of 1946. Our receiving center in the Bronx was a dark multistoried structure, an absolute fire trap, with many small rooms and few bathrooms. Not a tree nor bush was in sight from the front stoop, we were surrounded by asphalt.
Imagine waking up in the Tower of Babel every morning. Our children came from Finland, Lithuania, Poland, Germany and many other countries. They did not understand each other, nor did we, the staff, understand them. Their religious background was as varied as their national origin, but a few spoke Yiddish. Even that language was of little help, since each region of the world where it is spoken, has developed a distinct dialect. We used hands, feet and facial grimaces, to get our message across the language barrier. We played Jacob's ladder, a string game played by children all over the world, to establish a common ground with the young people.
The campers spanned the ages of one to officially 18, although we knew that some of the boys were older, but were able to disguise their chronological age to qualify for a United States' visa. Our youngest child, found naked in a field by a US soldier, we estimated to be between one and two years old. She came to us nameless and we had a little naming party for her, a few days after she arrived; we gave her the name Ruth, our director's name.
The children arrived in waves, groups of twenty to forty at a time. We were not forewarned that we would have a baby in our midst. We had no crib, no diapers, we were not prepared. It was unbelievably hot that summer and even at night the steamy heat did not rise from among the tall buildings that surrounded us. All our neighbors hung out their open windows at night calling to each other from floor to floor. I went out on the street and asked one neighbor,
"Do you know anyone who has a baby crib which they are not using?"
The message was passed from apartment to apartment via the open window internet and before long I owned a well used, fancy, metal crib with mattress and blanket. My next stop was the corner store, which stayed open, since no one could sleep and customers shopped late at night. I was able to buy a bottle and binky, some diaper pins and powder, all at a discount. Proudly I returned to bathe, feed and sing to Ruth. It was hard for her to fall asleep in her new surroundings, amongst strangers, and she did not like her crib. I spent many hours cleaning and scrubbing the metal crib and its flowery decorations with a toothbrush, wishing that Ruth could sleep in a plain wooden crib. Ruth and I bonded a few days after her arrival, she started to snuggle with me, to smile when I picked her up after a nap, but she could not stay with me; she had to travel on.
Our mandate was that we were to find homes for the children. In order of preference the home was to be with relatives, in a foster home, or in a place in which the young person could live if not legally adopted. This was not an easy assignment. Various agencies helped us to accomplish this directive, but even with that help many children were hard to place. They were the ones that would stay three months with us instead of the more usual six weeks. Life for those left behind was very difficult. That their friends found homes, but they did not was further confirmation of their nightmare,
"No one wants me."
The youngsters built up hope for a new family and a new home, only to suffer repeated rejection, which might as well have been repeated beatings. Little Ruth was placed in a Catholic convent - I was not at the home when the nuns came to pick her up; Ruth and I did not kiss good bye.
Included in my varied daily routine was to teach English to the recent arrivals. I will never again have students so eager to learn, to master the language of their newly adopted country. The day we visited a bookstore in Manhattan and bought dictionaries in every available language was a fiesta. At least some of us could communicate now. It was also the beginning of story telling. The youngsters started to share their past experiences with me. A ten-year-old boy, who had problems eating our food, told me how he ate garbage, raw potatoes left in a field, paper, to still his hunger pains. He lived like a rat during the last months of the war. He could not digest our simple, but rich diet of vegetables, fruit, eggs and milk.
Sarah and Lotte were sisters, the daughters of a well-known German Rabbi. The Rabbi and his wife perished in concentration camps, but before they were transported to the gas chamber, they found a non-Jewish German couple who offered to hide the girls. That refuge vanished when the man who owned the home where the girls were hiding, died. His widow did not have enough food for the girls and they had to leave. They hid and ran from place to place for months, subsisting on meager handouts and miraculously were not apprehended until the end of the war when they were put in a camp for Displaced Persons by the Americans and eventually arrived in the Bronx.
Sarah and Lotte were exceptionally well-mannered, bright, lovable girls. How they survived without becoming angry and bitter was hard to fathom. Was it because they had each other for comfort and a continuing source of love? It was difficult to find a home for Sarah and Lotte. Families did not want to take in two new members at one time, but the staff felt strongly that separating the sisters might well result in their death.
Besides teaching English, getting kids to wash, come to meals and go to bed at night I also organized field trips. We visited the public library, the Bronx zoo, and the neighborhood baseball game. Taking eighteen youngsters, none of whom spoke English, on the New York subway was a harrowing experience. On one of our outings I pushed everyone into the subway car only to notice, with horror, that one of my charges was standing on the platform after the doors closed and the train moved on. What should I do? All eighteen of us got out at the next station and took another train back to where we came from. When we arrived we saw a large crowd surrounding a small, tearful boy on the platform. As soon as he saw us he ran to me and spoke volubly in Polish, pointing to a middle aged man in the crowd. This gentleman came toward me, told me in heavily accented English that he too was a Polish immigrant, came from the same city as my lost youngster, and would like to talk to us about having this young fellow-countryman come to live with him and his family. Miracles happened every day in this huge city, and happened between subway stops.
There were two older girls in the group who survived the war by hanging around whatever soldiers were in town and exchanging sex for food. These girls quickly took to the streets of New York and earned money to buy clothes, perfume and movie tickets. They were too young to get regular jobs in this country, too experienced in the ways of the world to easily find a home.
Some of the refugee children had the attitude, that because of their suffering, the world owed them a living. This was, on the one hand, hard to tolerate and, on the other, hard to change. Public opinion had advocated that people should be compensated for material losses they endured due to confiscation, but what about those who suffered but had nothing concrete to lose? The war deprived the children of love, of home, of parents, could we compensate for that? The anger some of my young friends felt was expressed in and ameliorated by our endless ping-pong games. Slamming a ping-pong ball was a physical and acceptable release of tension. We cracked and crinkled an infinite number of ping-pong balls at our home in the Bronx.
When I think back to the group of children that came through the doors of that old building and the unbelievable memories and suffering they brought with them, I am astounded that they survived at all. What courage, ingenuity, adaptability they represented, what deep injury we had inflicted upon them during their young lives, makes me stand in awe and anguish yet today.
from the August 2004 Edition of the Jewish Magazine