A Child Survivor In America


I was 10 years old when I came to the United States in the fall of 1941, one of more than a hundred OSE children who sailed across the Atlantic from France that summer on a special U.S. State Department visa. The OSE [the initials stand for Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants or Organization for Helping Children] ran group homes for Jewish children, mostly German and Austrian, separated from their families by Nazism and the war. My sister Ruth and I entered the OSE home called Villa Helvetia on the outskirts of Paris in November 1939, some six months after it was opened. Just before Paris fell to the Nazis in June 1940, the OSE evacuated the children of Villa Helvetia and its other homes around Paris to Chateau Montintin, where we went, and to several other properties it had purchased in the countryside of Haute Vienne and near Vichy in central France.

The State Department visa on which we traveled was originally issued for Jewish children held in internment camps in France, but it proved difficult to get children released from the camps. To avoid the visa’s going to waste, slots on the visa were given to others caring for Jewish children, including the OSE.

All the children chosen to go to America were either orphans, or the whereabouts of their parents were then unknown, or their parents were trapped in Nazi controlled lands. Since my mother had become the cook at our OSE home and my father was a handyman there, my sisters and I were not eligible. The day before the second transport was to leave, two children from another OSE home fell ill and lost their health clearance. Ruth and I were the only children who could fill the precious, vacated slots. Our parents alone were on site, able to give instant approval and sign all necessary documents. Suddenly, instead of congratulating the fortunate children who were off to a safe but exciting new life in America, Ruth and I were being congratulated. Six weeks later we stood on American soil.

From the time the Portuguese ship Mouzinho docked in New York and I disembarked until I was reunited with my parents five years later, I lived in three different foster homes. My sister Ruth lived in four. We were together in only two of these homes. They were difficult and lonely years for me. Being thrust into the midst of strangers was only part of the problem. Unlike children who remembered and carried with them the love and security of their homes and families in Europe, I brought with me no such memories. I dealt with the trauma of Kristallnacht and the confused, insecure and at times dangerous existence of the ensuing years by obliterating what happened. Unfortunately, amnesia is not precise. In excising terrors I could not grasp, I also obliterated my German-Jewish home life and surroundings and the love and support of friends, both adults and children, who made survival possible.

Emotionally damaged and traumatized by the Holocaust, I came to America with a hidden disability. With the best will in the world, the members of my foster families had no way of grasping the reasons for my deep unhappiness. How could they comprehend my feelings of isolation, my realization that I was different from other children. How could I explain to them my awful, never-ending feelings of guilt at having been saved at the expense of others, those unknown children who, the day before departure, became too ill to travel? And what of the many OSE children who had to remain in France who were equally worthy? It was enough that I had been saved; I believed I had no right to feel deprived or to want anything. I hid my unhappiness from everyone and cried into my pillow at night.

In 1989 five boys who had come to America with me tracked down 70 OSE children who had escaped to the United States or who survived the Holocaust in Europe. The 1989 reunion of OSE children in Los Angeles was an overpowering emotional experience for every one of us. I felt enveloped in friendship and love, perfectly at ease with people I did not remember or had never met. It was sufficient that we had been together during a crucial and hazardous time. Our life together and our shared experiences in the OSE homes created an unbreakable bond that held firm despite the passage of half a century during which we had had no contact with each other. That our reactions to being together again would be so alike did not surprise me.

What I did not expect was to discover that we had very similar reactions to our placements during our first years in America. For almost 50 years I believed that my unhappiness in my foster homes was unique. I was stunned to find that the American foster home life of so many OSE children mirrored my own. Moreover, although the reasons for our unhappiness varied, many were convinced that they alone had had a difficult time in their foster homes. Like me, they repressed their feelings about those first years in the United States and rarely spoke about them, if at all, until the gathering.

What follows are my recollections of my adjustment to America, how I coped with my five years in the foster homes, and a report of how some other OSE children fared in the United States.

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