Starting a New Life

After arriving in the United States, German Jewish refugee children faced the daunting task of having to adapt to an unfamilar country that spoke an alien tongue and possessed a strange culture. As transcontinental travel was unusual during the 1930s, few if any of the children had ever been to the United States. Most of what the children knew about American culture was gleamed from Hollywood movies, magazines, and books, which tended to provide an inaccurate picture of life in the United States. Although some of the children had relatives who had immigrated in the nineteenth century, the vast distance between the continents meant that contact had ceased by the 1930s.

Dutch language edition of a Western written by Karl May, one of the most popular German writer of the 1930s. Books such as these were the primary source of information about America for young refugees.

Dutch language edition of a Western written by Karl May, one of the most popular German writer of the 1930s. Books such as these were the primary source of information about America for young refugees.

Upon reaching a foster home, local welfare agencies and the foster parents were responsible for the welfare of the refugee child. A case worker monitored the youngster's progress until he or she reacheded twenty one years of age. A small sum of money was given to the foster parents to pay for food and clothing for their charge. In keeping with United States child welfare laws, the foster families were of the same religion as the child (Jewish). Each child had to have his or her own toothbrush, washcloth, and bed. Only two children could be housed in a room at the same time. Although these laws were meant to ensure that foster children were not housed in sub-standard accomodations, it meant that most Orthodox Jewish families, who tended to have larger families and a smaller income than the average Jewish household, were ineligible to take in a refugee. This was problematic in cases where the biological parents were religiously observent and wanted the child to live in a similar household.

Alex (far right) and Jack (third from left) Zomper being introduced to American students at Hoke Smith Junior High School in Atlanta.

Alex (far right) and Jack (third from left) Zomper being introduced to American students at Hoke Smith Junior High School in Atlanta.

The speed in which the refugees were able to assimilate into American society varied from individual to individual. One important factor was the date on which the child left Europe. The children who arrived prior to 1939 were described by contemporary accounts as being generally enthusiastic and optimistic about the future. Around 1939, when World War II began, the new arrivals began to show signs of psychological trauma, due to the deteriorating situation in Germany; hyperactivity, aggression, anxiety, and bedwetting were among the problems reported. By 1941, the refugee children appeared solemn and haggard, as many had experienced a significant level of hardship to get to America. However, most of the children eventually adapted to their new surroundings. Children who exhibited extreme mental disturbances were placed in the care of Dorothy Canfield Fisher, a pioneer in Montessori education.

The first task for the young refugees was to become proficient in English, so they could resume their education as soon as possible. Initially, many of the children had to be held back a grade or two, until their English improved, or they were placed in classrooms for foreign-born students. However, most learned English quickly enough to be placed in age appropriate grades. Because the German educational system was more rigorous than its American counterpart, many of the children, particularly those who had been to Gymnasien (roughly equivilent to a college preporatory school), were able to thrive in school.

Some refugee children took on the daunting task of trying to bring their parents and other siblings to America. Upon entering the United States, a refugee could sign an affidavit to bring other relatives from their native country. This process was extremely difficult, particularly if the immigration numbers for the relatives in question were very high. The numbers for many parents were often quite high, because they purposely applied for their children first to ensure that they would be able to escape. In those instances, where a child was not able to save their parents, persistent feelings of guilt developed. However, when a child was later reunited with parents and/or siblings, it was difficult to re-establish the relationship that previously existed. This was particularly true if a significant amount of time had elapsed since the family last met.

Works Cited

Baumel, Judith Tydor. Introduction to Don't Wave Goodbye: The Children's Flight from Nazi Persecution to American Freedom, edited by Philip K. Jason and Iris Posner, 1-18. Westport: Prager Press, 2004.

Laqueur, Walter. Generation Exodus: The Fate of Young Jewish Refugees from Nazi Germany. New York: I.B. Taurus, 2001.

Sonnert, Gerhard and Holton, Gerald. What Happened to the Children Who Fled Nazi Persecution? New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.