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Refugees faced enormous obstacles in finding safe havens during the Great Depression and World War II.
Gerda was an only child of Jewish parents. They lived in Breslau, a large industrial city on the Oder River. Before World War II, Breslau's Jewish community was the third largest in Germany. Her father worked as a salesman for a large hardware and building materials company. Gerda attended public school until age 9 when she was admitted to a Catholic girls' school.
1933-39: Gerda walked through the city to see the aftermath of a pogrom. The windows of Jewish shops had been shattered. A torched synagogue continued to smolder. She begged her parents to leave Germany. Months later, they decided they should flee. Gerda and her parents got visas to Cuba and left from Hamburg aboard the ship St. Louis on May 13, 1939. Arriving in Cuba on the 27th, they were told their visas were invalid. Denied entry, they had to return to Europe.
1940-44: Disguised as farm women, Gerda and her mother drove a hay wagon past the German border patrol to a farm on the French-Swiss border. They walked down a small ravine, crossed a stream and then slipped under a barbed-wire fence that marked the official border. But they were apprehended by Swiss border guards and held overnight. The next day, they were put on a train with other refugees. No one told them where they were going or what was going to happen to them.
Gerda was interned in a refugee camp in Switzerland for two years, and then worked in Bern in a blouse factory until the end of the war. She immigrated to the United States in 1949.
In 1938, Martin's father was imprisoned during Kristallnacht (the "Night of Broken Glass"). Upon the intervention of the family's chauffeur, a gentile, Martin's father was released after three days. The family obtained visas to immigrate to Palestine and left Germany in 1939. Martin aided "illegal" immigrants who defied British restrictions on immigration into Palestine. He was imprisoned by the British in 1947 and forbidden to live in Palestine. He then came to the United States.
Gerda and her parents obtained visas to sail to Cuba on the "St. Louis" in May 1939. When the ship arrived in Havana harbor, most of the refugees were denied entry and the ship had to return to Europe. Gerda and her parents disembarked in Belgium. In May 1940, Germany attacked Belgium. Gerda and her mother escaped to Switzerland. After the war, they were told that Gerda's father had died during deportation.
Norbert was 3 years old when Germany invaded Poland in September 1939. He and his mother were in Warsaw; his father had been drafted into the Polish army and later ended up in Vilna. Norbert and his mother set out to join him and the family was reunited after a few months. After the family had been in Vilna for about a year, Norbert's father was able to obtain visas for Curacao in the Dutch West Indies and visas for transit through Japan. Norbert and his parents left Vilna in January 1941, and arrived in Kobe, Japan, in February. They stayed in Japan for the next eight months, until Japanese authorities required them to leave for Shanghai in Japanese-occupied China. Norbert and his parents spent the rest of the war in Shanghai. In June 1947 the family immigrated to the United States with the aid of Jewish American servicemen stationed in Shanghai after the war.
As prewar antisemitism intensified, Hessy's family fled from Germany to Paris, France. France fell to the German army in June 1940. Hessy's family was smuggled into the "zone libre" (free zone) in southern France. The family received a US visa in 1941, but was unable to leave before the visa expired and could not obtain an extension. In 1942, the family obtained visas to enter Cuba, where they settled before immigrating to the United States in 1949.
Lisa was one of three children born to a religious Jewish family. Following the German occupation of her hometown in 1939, Lisa and her family moved first to Augustow and then to Slonim (in Soviet-occupied eastern Poland). German troops captured Slonim in June 1941, during the invasion of the Soviet Union. In Slonim, the Germans established a ghetto which existed from 1941 to 1942. Lisa eventually escaped from Slonim, and went first to Grodno and then to Vilna, where she joined the resistance movement. She joined a partisan group, fighting the Germans from bases in the Naroch Forest. Soviet forces liberated the area in 1944. As part of the Brihah ("flight," "escape") movement of 250,000 Jewish Holocaust survivors from eastern Europe, Lisa and her husband Aron sought to leave Europe. Unable to enter Palestine, they eventually settled in the United States.
Both of Charlene's parents were local Jewish community leaders, and the family was active in community life. Charlene's father was a professor of philosophy at the State University of Lvov. World War II began with the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939. Charlene's town was in the part of eastern Poland occupied by the Soviet Union under the German-Soviet Pact of August 1939. Under the Soviet occupation, the family remained in its home and Charlene's father continued to teach. The Germans invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, and arrested Charlene's father after they occupied the town. She never saw him again. Charlene, her mother, and sister were forced into a ghetto the Germans established in Horochow. In 1942, Charlene and her mother fled from the ghetto after hearing rumors that the Germans were about to destroy it. Her sister attempted to hide separately, but was never heard from again. Charlene and her mother hid in underbrush at the river's edge, and avoided discovery by submerging themselves in the water for part of the time. They hid for several days. One day, Charlene awoke to find that her mother had disappeared. Charlene survived by herself in the forests near Horochow, and was liberated by Soviet troops. She eventually immigrated to the United States.
Leah grew up in Praga, a suburb of Warsaw, Poland. She was active in the Ha-Shomer ha-Tsa'ir Zionist youth movement. Germany invaded Poland in September 1939. Jews were forced to live in the Warsaw ghetto, which the Germans sealed off in November 1940. In the ghetto, Leah lived with a group of Ha-Shomer ha-Tsa'ir members. In September 1941, she and other members of the youth group escaped from the ghetto to a Ha-Shomer ha-Tsa'ir farm in Zarki, near Czestochowa, Poland. In May 1942, Leah became a courier for the underground, using false Polish papers and traveling between the Krakow ghetto and the nearby Plaszow camp. As conditions worsened, she escaped to Tarnow, but soon decided to return to Krakow. Leah also posed as a non-Jewish Pole in Czestochowa and Warsaw, and was a courier for the Jewish National Committee and the Jewish Fighting Organization (ZOB). She fought with a Jewish unit in the Armia Ludowa (People's Army) during the Warsaw Polish uprising in 1944. Leah was liberated by Soviet forces. After the war she helped people emigrate from Poland, then moved to Israel herself before settling in the United States.
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