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Organization Tries to Reunite Resettled Holocaust-Era Jewish Children - 2002-07-11

During the 1930s and 40s, about 1,000 Jewish children facing possible Nazi persecution were quietly brought to the United States and placed with foster families. Many of these children were not even aware they were part of an organized operation to save them. Some of the children - now adults - met recently in Chicago for a first-ever reunion.

During the Holocaust, about 1.5 million children were killed in Nazi concentration camps. A few thousand of the lucky ones were able to leave Europe. Private citizens and organizations brought about 1,200 to the United States. Decades after the Holocaust, some of these children gathered in Chicago to meet each other, and to honor those who brought them to the United States.

The woman partly responsible for bringing these former refugees together is Iris Posner. She began looking for them a couple of years ago after seeing the documentary, Into the Arms of Strangers. That film focused on the 10,000 children who were resettled in Great Britain during the Holocaust. On that experience, she said, "As I was coming out of the theater, I wondered what America had done to rescue unaccompanied children?"

Ms. Posner and her friend Lenore Moskowitz live just outside Washington, D.C., and began looking for information on the children. Only one book has been published on the resettlement operation. It is titled, Unfulfilled Promise, by Judith Baumel of Bar Ilan University in Israel. Using the book as a starting point, Ms. Posner and Ms. Moskowitz have spent the last two years digging through records of various museums and Jewish organizations. They estimate that 1,200 Jewish children were resettled in the United States. Through their organization, called, "One-Thousand Children," the women have found about 400 of the former refugees, including Paul Beller. "I still remember the day when my mother said to me, 'Paul, how would you like to go to America to visit your relatives in New York?' I had relatives living in New York that I didn't know anything about. I had no idea she was actually asking me to take a trip by myself that might mean I would never see her again," Mr. Beller said.

Mr. Beller did see his parents again. His mother came to the United States in 1940; his father in 1946.

The children arrived in small groups, and were settled throughout the United States. Thea Lindauer was brought to Chicago in 1934. She says the resettlement project was kept quiet on purpose, in part because the United States was still in the midst of an economic depression.

"There was nothing made of the children coming here to American families," she said, "because there were still so many people who felt, 'Let's do for America first. We have starving children in the Appalachians,' and so forth."

The operation was also kept quiet for fears that the anti-Semitic climate and isolationist sentiment in the United States at the time might shut it down. In 1939, the U.S. Congress considered legislation to allow up to 20,000 children from Germany to enter the country. That proposal never made it out of committee.

Ms. Posner estimates that about 800 of the resettled children are still alive today. The reunion in Chicago brought about 75 of them together. She is still working on finding the others, a job that she says gets a little easier as her work gets more publicity in the media.

"And because of that," she explained, "people started coming to us. That was wonderful because people we could never have found unless they came to us, like women who were married and had changed their names, we never would have found them if they had not come forward."

Several of these Holocaust survivors were asked to discuss what their legacy should be. Most agreed they had been very lucky in life, and said their legacy should include speaking out against discrimination, and working to help unaccompanied children who continue to find their way to the United States.

Michele Margosis, who came to the United States in 1943, says he tells his own children to make the most of their lives. "Do what you can," he urged, "Get a job where you can be happy. Enjoy freedom. Be a good citizen. Vote. Vote. Tell your story, it is most important."

Ms. Posner hopes to publish a book and produce a documentary on the resettled children.