Ringel Refugee Journey

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From the Blog

August 27, 2016 - 09:10

In all our writings so far, it has been said that the Wohlgemuth family relocated to Berlin from Danzig during or more likely after the First World War in order to find better prospects for their marriageable daughters Elly and Hilde. That's a nice story and no doubt partly true, but there were very likely other factors motivating the family's move. 

[By the way, I am spelling Hilde with an 'e' instead of the 'a' she used later because that is how I find her listed in some original records.]

Danzig was a cosmopolitan German city in Isaak Wohlgemuth's day. The city's considerable Jewish community tended toward assimilation with the German state. The leading synagogues and community leaders were liberal. Zionism took hold slowly and was rejected by most Danzig Jews in the early years. Also, eastern... more

August 20, 2016 - 10:29

Betty Katz Wohlgemuth, Helga Ringel, Elly Wohlgemuth Ringel

May 9, 2013 - 10:47

This is my Google Translate-enabled rough translation of the Gissot file. In several places, I made guesses as to the meaning of the text. In other areas, especially regarding the commercial contracts, I could not make a guess as to the meaning and left ambiguous text.

Ministry Of Foreign Affairs
Directorate general of economic and consular affairs

Irregularities of the vice-consul and manager of the Consulate in Toulouse, Mr. Gissot

INFORMATION

The Consul in Marseilles and State Defense and Surveillance Police [PVDE] formulate several serious allegations against Mr. Emile Gissot, vice Consul and manager of the Consulate in Toulouse. These are reproduced below along with the explanations of Mr. Gissot and the conclusions of the Bureau of... more

May 9, 2013 - 10:38

Walter and I began our investigation into our mother's refugee journey with the idea that the Ringel family made it over the many border crossings with liberal use of bribes paid under the table to corrupt officials. "Things could be arranged by greasing the right palms," Helga told Walter in the oral history she gave in 2004.

As we have seen, one key location in their journey was Toulouse in July 1940 when they acquired important documents. Our ongoing investigation about what happened in Toulouse has previously identified four consular officials from three countries who were involved in supplying those those papers.

Perhaps naively, I have written of the four diplomats as minor Holocaust heros, who saved the lives of the Ringel family members and possibly hundreds of others through their... more

April 9, 2013 - 13:24

This next translation tells Stanisław Dygat's side of the story as to why he departed from Toulouse on June 20 and why he didn't return there after receiving instructions to do so. It is addressed to the Polish ambassador to Spain at the embassy in Madrid. It has no date or post location, but it refers to events and locations up to Lisbon on July 18. I also have a six-page handwritten letter from Dygat, not yet translated, that is dated August 1 from Capvern back in France, not very far from Toulouse, where he may be in custody at an internment camp. There is still more to learn.

From Dygat
To Minister Szumlakowskiego in Madrid

In view of the allegations that (1) I unnecessarily left Toulouse, and (2) I delayed the execution of an order to return to base, I have the honor to... more

April 8, 2013 - 18:11

Here is my first translation of a document from the Hoover Institution archive of Polish foreign ministry documents. It is written on August 2, 1940, just after the height of the refugee crisis, by the acting head of the consulate, Vaclav Bitner, who has stepped in to help restore order in the wake of the premature departure of the former vice consul Stanisław Dygat. The extraordinary events of the previous six weeks break through the officialese of the report

Toulouse, August 2, 1940

The Consulate of the Republic of Poland in Toulouse hereby submits a report on of the business of the Consulate in its administrative work and social welfare in the period from mid-June to the present.

I. Issues of citizenship and passports:
Starting in mid-June, the Consulate experienced... more

April 5, 2013 - 12:31

I went to the Hoover Institution Archive on campus at Stanford University yesterday. Quite an experience--just finding it, getting registered, learning the procedures, and then finally being able to open these boxes of incredible original documents. Letters, telegrams, reports, budgets. These were records of the Polish consulate in Toulouse (Tuluzie) from 1940. One batch of mainly budget memos and reports, listing employee names and salaries. Another batch of letters and telegrams relating to the closure of the consulate in September of that year, including accounts of the critical events in June and July. 

Polish uses a lot of weird characters with unfamiliar diacritical marks, but it turns out to be basically a Latin language. I was able to enter unaccented characters into Google Translate on my iPad... more

March 7, 2013 - 15:39

The Schiffres family reached Lisbon about five weeks after the Ringel family. Their experiences were similar. Lines at South American embassies, no help from the U.S. Irwin joined with many refugee children attending a makeshift school where every language was spoken. Though he would stay just six months in Lisbon, departing earlier than the Ringels who stayed nine months, he was able to pick up a fair bit of Portuguese, as did Helga.

The Schiffres family was able to ship out of Lisbon on the basis of an immigration visa from Ecuador, exactly the same as the Ringels. He adds a new bit of information about the Ecuador visa, that it required a $1000 deposit that would be refunded on arrival in Ecuador. Since neither the Schiffres or Ringels planned to go to Ecuador, the deposit would be forfeited.

... more
March 7, 2013 - 13:48

I introduced you to Irwin Schiffres in the last post because his story of escape from southern France in the summer of 1940 courtesy of Dutch consuls closely tracks to my mother's similar story. When I listened to his oral history, collected by the Ellis Island Immigration Museum, I found many other parallels that help to illuminate Helga's experience. I'll summarize.

Schiffres was raised in Cologne of a Polish-born dentist and his German wife from an orthodox Jewish family. They were somewhat insulated from the early anti-Jewish measures and even after the Nuremberg laws the family remained fairly comfortable. In 1938, Poland changed its laws to revoke citizenship to nationals living abroad, and Germany responded by issuing pre-emptive deportations to Polish Jews in Germany, including Schiffres' father... more

March 5, 2013 - 15:40

Yesterday I decided to post a call for other Toulouse visa holders to come forward on the JewishGen.org discussion board. I've used the board a few times before to seek information with some success. Before posting, I ran some queries to make sure the topic or something similar had not be covered previously. I searched a variety of terms including "Toulouse," "Gissot," "van Dobben," etc. When I tried "Dutch consul," I found a highly interesting 2001 posting by Irwin Schiffres.

He was posting the results of his investigation into the circumstances of his family's exit from Marseilles to Lisbon in August 1940, courtesy of visas issued by... more

March 4, 2013 - 17:00

Now we come to the crux of the matter. Is there a connection between the use of Curacao visas in Toulouse and a similar instance two weeks later in Kovno, which is 1500 miles distant? I will tell you up front that we don't know the answer definitively, at least not for now. But a number of signs suggest the possibility of a causal relationship between the two events.

First there is the surprising coincidence that both vice-consuls in question, A.J. van Dobben in Toulouse and Jan Zwartendijk in Kovno, are the local representatives of the Philips company in their regions. It is plausible that the Dutch foreign ministry had a practice of tapping the network of businessmen from one of the country's leading international firms for honorary diplomatic roles, especially in this period of upheaval and... more

February 27, 2013 - 10:24

We pick up Jonathan Goldstein's version of the Jan Zwartendijk story after his visa-writing campaign ends on August 3, 1940. Within days, he returns home to Nazi-occupied Holland with his wife and children.

For the next several years, Zwartendijk lived in fear that his actions in Kovno would be discovered by the Nazis. At one point he was interrogated by the Gestapo about an unrelated matter, but his actions in Lithuania escaped notice. Needless to say, he did not talk of the incident to anyone.

Goldstein writes... more

February 27, 2013 - 08:48

We knew from Helga's interview with Walter that the family was first in Lyon, with the idea of getting through to Switzerland. (This is after leaving Nice sometime around June 20.) In Lyon, they saw Gestapo presence and thought they recognized the very agent that had tracked them in Berlin. They gave up on the Switzerland plan and returned to the Mediterranean.

This document shows that they then stored eight pieces of luggage in the town of Gallargues-le-Montueux before proceeding on their journey. This could be some time in the range of June 23-25. We think they next went to Marseilles but quickly reversed course to Bordeaux, probably on rumors of Sousa Mendes. They were almost certainly in Bordeaux and may also have been in Hendaye, but after Sousa Mendes had already gone. Then they are definitely in... more

February 27, 2013 - 08:38

Among the files sent by Paul Freudman are several with stamps from the Spanish consulate in Toulouse. This surprised me because we know that Elly made a separate round trip from Toulouse to Perpinan to obtain a Spanish transit visa. This she did on July 12, the day after she had secured the prerequisite Dutch and Portuguese visas. But why did she go to Perpinan to do it, when Spain had a consulate in Toulouse? The same question applies to Rosalia Freudmann and her husband, who also went to Perpinan for their Spanish visas. The inevitable conclusion is that the Spanish consulate in Toulouse was not honoring Gissot visas while the Spanish consulate in Perpinan had a different policy.

February 26, 2013 - 17:31

Pausing here in the Jan Zwartendijk story, we learned something new yesterday about the Dutch personnel in Toulouse. Until now, I have written that A.J. van Dobben is the Dutch consul who issued Toulouse Curaçao visas. But the actual signature on Elly's Dutch visa is not "van Dobben" but a name I couldn't make out. Paul Freudman, a researcher with the Sousa Mendes Foundation and a descendent of an extended family of Mendes and Gissot visa-holders, had seen the Dutch visas before and he wrote that he read the signature as "Pichal."

Olivia from the foundation was on the email thread as well, and she chimed in that Pichal did not sound very Dutch. I did some quick searching and found that there is a present-day Sven Pichal, a radio journalist from the Flemish-speaking (Dutch) region of Belgium. Conceivably... more

February 26, 2013 - 16:09

I mentioned that there are a lot of sources on the Zwatendijk and Sugihara rescue operation in Kaunas. I still have not taken a full inventory, but I have had the chance to closely read the historiographical account of Jonathan Goldstein, "Motivation in Holocaust Rescue: The Case of Jan Zwartendijk in Lithuania, 1940" (published in Lessons and Legacies VI: New Currents in Holocaust Research (Northwestern University Press, 2004)

Goldstein's account and analysis of the case adds significant information about the origin of the Curaçao visa, but is silent on the subject of an earlier similar use of Curaçao visas in Toulouse. Because Goldstein mentions other ensuing cases of Curaçao visas in Sweden and China that he says were inspired by the circumstances in Kaunas, it is clear he does not know that there... more

February 24, 2013 - 16:41

Till now, we have the Portuguese consul Gissot and the Dutch consul van Dobben as the active players in the Toulouse Curaçao case. Elly received visas from those two officials on July 11, 1940. But what about the Polish consulate, where her chain of documents began with the issuance of a passport from the Republic of Poland on July 5?

Elly had been preparing to apply for Polish papers for some time, perhaps since Berlin, since she took care to bring her husband Hermann's 1906 Polish domicile document with her on the journey. It is somewhat of a mystery why she had not already procured Polish papers by the time of their flight from Nice, but it is only in her last week or so there that she takes the trouble to have a notarized French translation made of the domicile document. Then, five weeks later, she... more

February 23, 2013 - 20:00

Any list of heroic diplomats who saved Jews during World War II would be headed by Raoul Wallenberg, the Swede who rescued tens of thousands in Budapest. The next most known example would probably be Aristides de Sousa Mendes, whom we have been considering here in the recent batch of posts. And then the third famous example is the escape of thousands from Kaunas, Lithuania to Shanghai, China with help from compassionate consuls Jan Zwartendijk of the Netherlands and Chiune Sugihara of Japan.

Wallenberg's great deeds came later, in 1944, but the Sousa Mendes events and the Zwartenjijk-Sugihara actions happened one month apart in the summer of 1940. One month and 1500 miles apart. Until now, there has been no reason to link the two events other than as independent examples of humanitarian action. Now I... more

February 22, 2013 - 09:29

In 1940, Emile Gissot was 58 years old, probably retired from government foreign service and living again in his home city of Toulouse. To supplement his income and keep his hand in the game, he takes a position as honorary vice-consul in Toulouse for the government of Portugal. It is not unusual for foreign governments to staff consulate offices with non-national local citizens. That is why his title was "honorary." The reason it was "vice-consul" was because he did not have full consular responsibilities but reported to a regional chief consul stationed 130 miles away in Bordeaux.

That consul was Aristides de Sousa Mendes, a distinguished Portuguese diplomat who was charged with representing Portugal in Bordeaux and southwest France and who would soon change history. By late May of 1940, following... more

February 21, 2013 - 18:02

Usually, when you google a historical name of someone who was not particularly famous, you don't expect to find much. With Emile Gissot, we hit a veritable gold mine of information. First, there is this biographical sketch of him on a city web site for the Toulouse region. There he is a portrait in full French military regalia. We learn from the article that he was born in 1882 in the village of Fleurance. He was a brilliant student and was well educated in Parisian schools. After graduation, he accepted a foreign service position in Chile, and distinguished himself during the 1906 Valparaiso earthquake. The following year, he authored an report on the economy of Chile, which is still available on the... more

February 21, 2013 - 17:14
,

Before returning to Mssr. Gissot, we'll skip ahead a month or so to when our intrepid travelers have reached the promised city of Lisbon. Several years ago, Walter's friend Valery Bazarov, who was the house historian for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, searched the HIAS files for information about our family members. He discovered two important bits of information, as is described in the blog at the time. One piece was a scrap of notepaper with the names of Elly and Helga Ringel and an address in Lisbon.

When Joanne was in Lisbon last summer, she and Bill located Rua de Gloria 41-28 on the map not very far from their hotel on the Rossio. Here are Joanne's photos of the building exterior and front door closeup. It is not hard to imagine the same scene in the summer and fall of 1940.

February 21, 2013 - 09:45

Yesterday, as a result of our contact with Olivia Mattis at the Aristides de Sousa Mendes Foundation, we learned the identity of the Portuguese consular official in Toulouse who issued a Portugal transit visa to Elly and Helga Ruby on July 11, 1940. Here is that visa. Notice the signature in two places of one Emile Gissot.

Gissot was known to the people at the Mendes Foundation as one of several vice-consuls in cities near to Bordeaux who cooperated with the actions of Sousa Mendes during his campaign of mercy. The foundation has several records in its files of families with Gissot visas from Toulouse. They had been working from the assumption that the vice-consuls in Bayonne and Toulouse had acted under instructions from Sousa Mendes, the senior consular official in the region. But in at least one of... more

April 6, 2012 - 14:23

Joanne and Walter have been talking for some time about the possibility of Helga's descendants having the option of obtaining dual German citizenship based on Helga's status as a displaced former citizen. I have regarded that possibility with skepticism, but prompted by my latest health insurance woes my two siblings have gone to the trouble of learning the German law.

Walter spoke with an official at the German consulate in New York and found that all the relevant information is here. The applicable law reads: "Former German citizens who between January 30, 1933 and May 8, 1945 were deprived of their citizenship on political, racial, or religious grounds, and their... more

September 17, 2010 - 12:15

Here are a couple of fascinating new documents also discovered via Ancestry's hinting feature. First is the passenger manifest of U.S. aliens arriving on the SS Guine in New York April 15, 1941, showing Elly and Helga Ringel and Herbert and Hilda Peiser among the passengers. The second is a record of those aliens held for special inquiry, showing those same four names.

Both documents include lots of annotations and data that I have not yet taken the time to fully interepret, but presumably tells the story of the group's initial stop in New York, where they were denied admission to the U.S., but where they gained the documentation that allowed them to enter later through Miami from Cuba. More analysis to come.

... more

July 31, 2009 - 19:48

More on Stan and Helga's wedding. I did more NY Times searches today and found more Rabinowitz material. Here are two items relevant to the previous post: first a June 8, 1947 announcement of the wedding happening that same day, and then an April 7, 1946 announcement of Stan's previous engagement to Lorraine (who gets a last name—Sweedler—for the first time in our family narrative). Stan broke off his engagement with Lorraine before renewing his acquaintance with Helga.

Those who have read Walter's "Early Lives of Stan and Helga Ruby" manuscript will recall that after the breakup practical Stan sought a new girlfriend who lived within a 20 block radius of Selma's apartment on W. 73rd St. Helga was slightly outside that range but got the nod... more

July 31, 2009 - 19:05

Harriet has been asking me to return the favor by sending her pictures of Stan and his family members. Today I emailed her a precious set of three photos we have from the June 8, 1947 wedding of Stan and Helga at the Beacon Hotel in New York City. Unfortunately, the attachments did not come through in her email, so I told her I would post them here.

Of course, they should have been here already, but were never previously posted—an example of the spottiness of this blog as a complete historical record. Anyway here they are now (click to enlarge).

... more

August 8, 2007 - 12:50

One more quickie and then I have to get back to work. While we're waiting for Walter's trip report, I'll pass on this tidbit he shared with me by phone from Vilnius. While researching Rabbi Spektor in Kaunus, he learned of yet another person who claimed to be a descendant. That in itself is not surprising, but the kicker is that this gentleman's last name is Wolgemuth, which is also the maiden surname of our grandmother Elly on Helga's side of the family.

Now, Wolgemuth (with its various alternate spellings) is a fairly common name in those parts, but it does present an intriguing possibility. Our Wolgemuths came from Konigsberg in East Prussia, which is now Kaliningrad, a disconnected enclave of Russia. As I have pointed out to Walter in the past, Konigsberg and Rzeszow, where Elly's husband Herman... more

May 15, 2007 - 10:48

I am just completing a wonderful three days here with Dan, Jo, Bill, Lani, Twyla and Maxine and a large cast of League of Wmen's Voters members (I was about to write 'ladies', but the League has gone thoroughloy co-ed, so the president of the Southwest Santa Clara League is now a man). Jo and I spent Saturday with the Southwest Santa Clara League members at a retreat in which one member, Dale Hill, was awarded the Helga Ruby Outstanding Member award. This was the first year the award has been given, but it will be an annual affair. It was a moving occasion for Jo and I to see and hear from so many League members about what a critical role Helga played for them as a League activist, and in many cases, as mentor and friend. Sadly, I was all... more

October 20, 2006 - 12:29

Gopal's letter and Dan's posting have moved me to add my thoughts. Just read pieces that I hadn’t seen before, and learned there’s yet another family member to add to the important October dates: Walter Ruby (my grandfather’s) birthday, Oct. 15. So that sits right between mine, the 11th and Helga’s, the 20th. And right in there we also have Stan’s death day, the 18th. And most years we get Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur thrown in there too (as we did this year).

... more

August 6, 2006 - 13:15

I had trouble with the display of this photo in the post below and decided it deserved a post of its own: Hermann and Helga on the Kurfürstendamm in about 1934.

August 2, 2006 - 13:03

From Walter: here are the two scanned documents from HIAS. The first is the file filled out by the HIAS worker in NY and the lower is their address in Lisbon.

August 2, 2006 - 01:04

A couple of days ago, Walter posted about HIAS and Helga and Elly's arrival in New York. He mentioned a scrap of paper with a birth date and birth place, and he surmised these would have been taken from Elly's false Polish passport.

We have that passport among our artifacts, and Walter is precisely correct about Katowice and the July 3, 1900 date--the place is fictitious but the date is accurate. Actually, there is a discrepancy regarding Elly's birth year in the two official death records that are accessible through Ancestry.com. The Social Security Death Record has her date of birth as July 3, 1900, but the State of California death record has it as July 3, 1901. We agree that 1900 is correct, right?

Here's an image from the passpost, followed by a closeup of the passport photos... more

July 30, 2006 - 20:37

Dan gave me the password to Ancestry.com and showed me around a little bit, and I managed to make a few findings from the census. The 1900 census lists the arrival date of Abraham and Rose Ratner in America as 1890 (whereas the 1930 census says 1891). Assuming that one or the other is correct it solves the Ellis Island mystery--they arrived shortly before the opening of the Island on January 1, 1892 and were probably processed in the barge office that served as the site between the closing of Castle Garden on April 18, 1890 and the opening of Ellis Island. We see from that census that their oldest child was Peyzer born 1891 followed by Hyman (George?) 1892 and Lillie (probably Til ) 1896 and Sadie (clearly Selma) 1899 and Dora born 1900, who probably died soon thereafter. At that time they lived at 42 Broad... more

July 28, 2006 - 20:26

Nice work, Walter. Too bad the full file is missing, but it is great that you found those records. The visa information and Ecuador story are consistent with the stamps in Elly's passport, which we have. Here is a page with a stamp for the transit visa in New York and a visa issued in Lisbon for Ecuador.

I don't see anything that shows they actually went to either Ecuador or Costa Rica. The next stamp (on the next page) is from the Cuban consulate in Nueva York, dated May 7, following a notation about a payment of $500... more

July 28, 2006 - 19:07

Valery Bazarov, the present-day historian at HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), the international refugee agency that helped Elli, Hilda, and Helga at several points in their three year long oddessey across France and Portugal to the safety of America, offered to look in the organization's archives in New York to see what they have on their case. Valery informed me that HIAS was very active in southern France from the time of the fall of Paris to the Nazis in June 1940 until the German occupation of southern France in November 1942--helping thousands of Jews escape the Nazis including prominent people like Marc Chagall --and therefore might be able to determine whether the organization helped them there as well as in Portugal and New York.

Today. when I visited him at HIAS' office on 7th Ave in... more

Context: 
Lisbon World War II