25 May 2010

Florida: The right place, the right time

Historic preservationist Josh Wilks was in the right place at the right time when he saw a suitcase in a trash pile outside the Finkelstein home in Pensacola, Florida.

The owners gave permission for him to take it, and thus began the story of its contents - handwritten trans-Atlantic Holocaust-era correspondence in English and Yiddish - as Wilks, 31, tracked down generations of Fuchs and Finkelsteins.

In the Pensacola News Journal, the story, by Louis Cooper, covers a tragic era, refugees, immigration, Prague, London, a Jewish community's help and more. There are also images of the original letters.

In 1939, Eugene Fuchs and his family, from Prague, wrote to his cousin Katie Finkelstein in Florida, asking for help so that they could come to America because of the worsening situation. Through Finkelstein's years of effort and eventual sponsorship, Fuchs, his wife Ester, and children, Klara — now Claire — and Harry, arrived in America in 1948 and changed their name to Fox.

With the family's permission, Wilks researched the letters and searched for the people mentioned in them - and their descendants, checking records, manifests and cold-calling Fuchses and Foxes around the country.

"I was hit with an overpowering feeling of awe that one person, Katie Finkelstein, a housewife in 1939 Milton, Florida, was trying everything she could to help this family she had never met. She was their only link outside of Europe — to survival — and she knew that."
Wilks found Fuchs' daughter, Claire Perskie, who was 5 when she fled Prague with her mother and brother. All she knew was that they only had her mother's knapsak when they left at night, traveled by train and boat to Holland and England. where they rejoined Fuchs. The little girl was sent to foster care while her parents and brother went to a Czech refugee camp. Meanwhile, they were trying to get to the US.

She had never known how Finkelstein had helped until she saw the letters.

Read the story of how Finkelstein organized a group to help the family, including the Department of State, Temple Beth El, a local attorney and a congressman who was later governor.

Wilks wants the primary source letters to be used to focus the impact of the Holocaust on a local family. He's working with the family, the University of West Florida, the Library of Congress, local historians and others to decide the best way.

Read the complete story and view letter images at the link above.

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