Curacao exception

Irwin Schiffres oral history

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.

Learning of his imminent deportation order, the father had a physician friend order him hospitalized. As a result, he was able to obtain an extension of six months, allowing time to prepare his family to flee. They left Cologne on December 10, 1938, a week after burying the patriarch of his mother's family, Irwin's grandfather. (There are several echoes of Helga's story here. She buried her father and left Berlin in August 1938. Irwin buried his grandfather and left Cologne about three months later.)

Irwin's father was able to travel to Belgium, where he had a brother. Similarly Irwin's mother was able to travel to Holland, where she had a brother. Thus the family split up for the next five weeks. Irwin remembers being strip-searched (looking for hidden money) as they crossed the border at Kaldenkirchen. Then they stayed for a month in Rotterdam before making the more difficult crossing from Holland to Belgium.

There they had paid to be met by a smuggler who vouched for the Schiffres as family members. In Belgium, they reunited with Irwin's father in the resort town of Spa, surprisingly close to German border and just 60 miles from their departure point of Cologne. They lived in Spa for nine months, perhaps with hopes that they might be able to return home. By September, when war commenced on the Eastern front, they concluded it was time to move on.

They next went to live with the uncle in Antwerp until May 10, 1940, when the war swept into Holland and Belgium and they joined the legions of refugees on the run.

They were delayed crossing the French border at De Panne, because at first the father's Polish passport was not accepted. Then they were in Dunkirk, Calais and Paris, before proceeding with thousands of refugees to Bordeaux. They stayed there in a furnished room for a month, leaving on what Schiffres says was the last train out of Bordeaux to Hendaye before the Germans arrived on June 21.

Schiffres doesn't mention Sousa Mendes in his account, and even though his family was in the right place to possibly obtain help from the Portuguese consul they evidently did not, either in Bordeaux or Hendaye. Unable to exit France, they were bused to a possible temporary shelter among French peasants but Schiffres' mother did not trust the offer and they continued on to Toulouse. Here they spent the night in a refugee center in a converted movie theater but decamped early the next morning, again on the distrust of the mother.

In retrospect, we know that if they had hung around Toulouse for a few more days, they might have secured visas there. Instead, they departed by train for Marseilles, where the family would spend the follow two months, long enough for Irwin to be enrolled in a school there for eight days.

It was there in the latter part of August where the family was able to secure a destination visa from the consulate of the Netherlands to travel to the Dutch East Indies. Not Curacao but Indonesia, but similar in many respects to the Dutch visas in Toulouse. With the Dutch stamp, the Schiffres family was now able to get transit visas from Portugal and Spain, though not a French exit visa. They ended hiking across the Spanish border to circumvent that final requirement.

I'll pick up with more of the Schiffres story, and its parallels to the Ringel story, in the next post.

Schiffres family in Lisbon and after

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.

Their voyage, normally a six-day trip, took 15 days, says Schiffres. They stopped several days in Bermuda waiting for the all-clear to proceed to New York. The Schiffres' accommodations were in the ship's hold about the S.S. Serpa Pinto. The Ringel trip aboard the S.S. Guine also took 15 days, so we can reasonably conclude that they also were held in Bermuda.

Schiffres quoted form a autobiographical essay he wrote in junior high school a few years later: "Finally after 15 days at sea, we saw the statue that all free loving people like to see, the Statue of Liberty."

At Ellis Island, just as with the Ringels, members of the Schiffres family were held at Ellis Island while awaiting for a relative affidavit to be produced. Schiffres does not have detailed memories of Ellis Island.

Unlike with the Ringels, after acquiring a family affidavit, the Schiffres were able to stay in the U.S. on six-month visitor visas, which they renewed several times before one day taking to train to Detroit and crossing the border to Canada to receive legal immigration visas. This trip is analogous to the Ringel family's detour to Cuba before re-entering the U.S.

The Schiffres family settled on the Upper West Side, as did the Ringels. Irwin attended Joan of Arc high school and excelled there, as Helga did at Julia Richmond. He went on to City College, where he became active in student government. Then he went to Harvard Law and moved into a legal career that culminated in his position at the time of the interview as the chief editor of the legal journal Jurisprudence.

He and his wife Mimi had two children and five grandchildren. Since regrettably I have only met Irwin Schiffres posthumously, I hope to make contact with one of his children to see if he has left more useful information.


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