Holocaust refugees recall exodus, arrival on Pacific Coast

As many as 600 Jewish refugees sailed into San Francisco Bay from 1939 to 1941, fleeing Nazi persecution in Germany, Austria, Lithuania, Czechoslovakia and Poland.

By MATT O'BRIEN
November 13, 2010 21:49
HARRY GLUCKMAN sits in his home in Alameda, Califo

Gluckman 311. (photo credit: Contra Costa Times/MCT))

 
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ALAMEDA, Calif. – His father roused Harry Gluckman from a deep sleep, urging the 11-yearold to get out of his cabin bed and climb to the deck of the steamship Heiyo Maru.

The boy rushed outside to see the Golden Gate Bridge soaring above him. In the pre-dawn darkness of Oct. 21, 1940, he gaped at its beams and towers as the Japanese liner sailed beneath the famous gateway that had opened just three years earlier.

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“My father always referred to it after that as ‘My Golden Gate of Freedom’ whenever we crossed the bridge or came near it,” Gluckman said.


The family was among as many as 600 Jewish refugees who sailed into San Francisco Bay from 1939 to 1941, fleeing Nazi persecution in Germany, Austria, Lithuania, Czechoslovakia and Poland.

They were part of a largely forgotten Pacific exodus that was much smaller than the stream of thousands of refugees who reached the East Coast.

Gluckman, 82, is one of a handful of surviving refugees in the Bay Area who vividly remembers the transoceanic voyage to San Francisco. The Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation has spent months trying to track down others, hoping to share the little-known stories while there are still people who can tell them.

After the outbreak of war in Europe made escape across the Atlantic Ocean difficult, hundreds of European Jews took advantage of a small window of time when the Pacific Ocean was open to passenger travel.



“In 1940 and 1941, right up to Pearl Harbor, the Pacific was still open,” said Eddie Wong, director of the Angel Island foundation.

The Gluckmans crossed most of the world to get to California, fleeing Nazi Germany by way of the Trans-Siberian railroad, then boarding ships in Korea and Japan.

Speaking at his Alameda home Oct. 21, the 70th anniversary of his arrival, Gluckman called the day his “re-birthday.”

He clutched a newspaper clipping that shows him wearing knee-high socks, smiling as he stood in a crowd that posed after walking onto a San Francisco pier.

The immigration station opened in 1910. It was a processing point for most of the Jewish refugees who arrived in San Francisco before the station burned down and was closed in early October 1940, just weeks before the Gluckmans arrived.

Many of the Jewish families did not have the American sponsors they needed in order to get a US visa, but they found them by calling or sending letters to American Jews who shared their surname.

The Gluckmans’ sponsor was a man in New York they had never met, but who shared their last name and agreed to vouch for them if they promised never to contact him for financial help, or even to express gratitude, once they reached America.

"In those early days of the concentration camps, the Germans would let them go if they had a place to go, on the condition they leave all their assets behind,” Wong said. “Everything they owned was handed over to the regime.” One family, before leaving Europe, spent their savings on two expensive fur coats, Wong said.

The mother and daughter wore the coats on the trip to the United States so they could sell them upon arrival.

The Gluckmans arrived with just $3.36 and a few suitcases with clothes and paperwork. The boy arrived as Heinz Glucksmann, but immigration officials recommended the family change the name to something easier for Americans to pronounce.

Growing up in the southern German city of Stuttgart, Gluckman was expelled from German public schools by the anti- Semitic Nuremberg laws of 1935.

His family enrolled him in a Jewish school attached to the Stuttgart synagogue, but on Nov. 9, 1938, the boy watched townspeople pull books and chairs from the school, beat up a rabbi and burn the buildings down. It was Kristallnacht, or the Night of Shattered Glass, when Nazis ransacked Jewish homes, shops and places of worship across Germany and Austria.

It also was the night when the Gluckmans became determined to flee, or at least to get their two children out of Germany.

A British rescue organization called the Kindertransport adopted Gluckman’s 3- year-old sister in 1939, taking her to England where she would be kept safe. His parents signed their son up for the same program, but Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, launching World War II just before he was set to leave.

The Gluckmans applied for exit visas and kept looking for other ways to get out, eventually finding the Pacific route.

“(My grandfather) read that if you could pay for the entire trip in German marks in Berlin, they were willing to take you,” Gluckman said.

They stopped first in Breslau, now known as the Polish city of Wroclaw, where they paid a final visit the boy’s paternal grandparents. The grandparents had been unable to get an exit visa, but they expressed confidence to family members that they would survive, Gluckman said. The grandfather was a German veteran of World War I.

"He said, ‘I’ve served my country. Nothing will happen to us.’ He even had his old sword over the fireplace, and the Iron Cross,” Gluckman said.

The boy and his parents left Germany for Poland, then crossed through Lithuania to Moscow, where they boarded the Trans-Siberia Express for a long journey across the continent. They sailed from Korea to Japan, and left Japan on Oct. 4, Gluckman’s 11th birthday, arriving in San Francisco nearly three weeks later.

The family of three settled on Sutter Street. Gluckman’s father found work at I.

Magnin department store. His mother became a housemaid for a wealthy family in Pacific Heights.

Their last contact with Gluckman’s grandparents came years later in a postcard thought to be sent from the Auschwitz concentration camp. The vague message expressed that they were doing fine.

“My father spent every waking moment searching for ways to bring his parents out,” Gluckman said.

The grandparents were murdered at Auschwitz in late 1943 or early 1944, Gluckman said. He lost 58 family members in the Holocaust.

Wiping tears as he talked, Gluckman said his name in German means “lucky man.”

He went to his office closet, pulling out a piece of cardboard where his father had drawn a family tree that stretches back to the 19th century. Gluckman keeps it updated, he said, as he used a finger to trace a line to his grandchildren.

“Hitler did not wipe out all of the Jews,” Gluckman said. “There were enough of us here to restart the family.”

– Contra Costa Times/MCT

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