13 April 2009

Iowa: WWII refugees and helping hands, April 15

Google is my friend - I continually find interesting stories that may shed light on why our ancestors went to a specific place or the experiences they went through.

This West Branch Times (Iowa) story certainly provided a glimpse into the help received by Jewish refugees, 1939-1943. Perhaps it will provide clues or links to your own family history.

Next week will mark 70 years since four Europeans, fleeing for their lives from Nazi Germany, found refuge in West Branch at Scattergood School. More and more would come, and in four years 186 “Scattergoodians” passed through what became the Scattergood Hostel from 1939 to 1943.

Cedar County Historical Society Museum recently acquired an exhibit marking the school’s World War II contribution and at 7 p.m. April 15 will host an official public opening and dedication of the 200-square-foot display.

Some 85 percent of the refugees were Jewish. The average stay was four months, and in that time the Quakers helped the visitors learn English, American history and geography. In return, the guests pitched in with gardening, yardwork, farming and household chores like dishes and laundry. Even the men.

“That was totally unheard of ... (such chores) were not part of European culture,” Museum Recording Secretary Sandy Harmel said. “But they all did it.”

Although the school was a victim of the Depression and had closed in 1931, the Friends heard that the refugees needed a place to stay while getting acclimated and thought the school was appropriate. It could house from 25-30 individuals at each time.
Many of the refugees came alone, some as children. Some waited to return home. Some were forced to leave family behind. Many never saw their families alive again.

“I ask kids to imagine what it would be like if they lost all their friends, toys, and most of their family and moving miles away to a land where they don’t know the language,” she said. Scattergood staff produced a newsletter to give them updates on the war.
The exhibit includes large panels explaining the history of Quakers and Jews until WWII, and includes furnishings and items of the times, along with display cases of actual items preserved from the hostel and photographs of the guests.
Three people with ties to the hostel have confirmed their attendance, Harmel said. One is George Willoughby, now living in New Jersey, whose mother helped open the hostel and then helped work on staff. Another is George’s daughter, Sally. A third is Nicole Hakel, now living in Philadelphia, who was a guest when she was between 3 1/2 and 4 1/2 years old. Harmel said that Hakel tells her she still has vivid memories of her visit, despite her young age at the time.
The exhibit is from Traces, a WWII museum in St. Paul, Minnesota.

See the link above for events connected with the exhibit, such as a 6pm, April 15 lecture and slide show by Traces founder Michael Luick-Thrames, author of “Out of Hitler’s Reach.”

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