December 2020 will mark the 80th anniversary of when Herta Griffel boarded a ship destined for the United States to escape the worsening conditions of Nazi-occupied Austria. She was just 7 years old and the only child of Beila Griffel, a Jewish woman.
The decision to send Griffel to the U.S. ultimately saved her life, as she is the sole survivor of her Jewish elementary school class in Vienna.
While her story is different from the millions of European Jews persecuted under Adolf Hitler’s “Final Solution,” it is emblematic of the struggles that immigrants and asylum-seekers in the United States face today, and why the congregations of Beth Sholom and Kol Ami invited Griffel to speak at their annual community Holocaust memorial program on Sunday.
Griffel will share her story of arriving in New York and being assigned a foster family in Baltimore, before moving in with another family, the Friedlanders, for the rest of her childhood. Far from her home and biological family, Griffel did not learn of her mother’s fate until 2004 in Israel at the Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center, which revealed that Beila Griffel died two years after sending her away while being deported from Vienna to Maly Trostinets concentration camp.
The Nazis killed 6 million Jews during the Holocaust, and Frederick County’s congregations are determined not to forget.
The congregations will open their doors to the community for a free program of songs, readings and musical selections at Beth Sholom synagogue at 1011 N. Market St. in Frederick on Sunday starting at 1 p.m.
The theme of this year’s event will be “Save the Children” and “Immigration and Asylum.”
Great efforts were made to evacuate Jewish children from Europe after Hitler came to power in 1933, even before World War II started in the fall of 1939.
Youth Aliyah evacuated 5,000 Jewish children from Europe to Palestine before the war broke out. In all, more than 9,000 children reached Palestine and were saved from imprisonment and execution during the war.
Multiple organizations in France also worked to hide and arrange the release of Jewish children imprisoned in internment camps. Many were smuggled to safety in Switzerland and Spain during the war. It is believed that as many as 12,000 to 15,000 children were saved by the work of these groups in France.
Griffel was just one of a few hundred Jewish children to make it through the U.S.’s strict immigration regulations in December 1940 with the help of the New York-based children rescue organization, German Children’s Jewish Aid. Because of work of volunteers, Griffel survived the war and married Arthur “Otts” Baitch. Together they raised three children and several grandchildren.
As the United States confronts ongoing immigration questions at its southern border, the hope is that Griffel’s story can help to reframe the conversation, according to event organizers.
One of the organizers, Martin Erlichman, pointed to the words of the late Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner who died in 2016.
“You, who are so-called illegal aliens, must know that no human being is illegal. That is a contradiction in terms. Human beings can be beautiful or more beautiful, they can be fat or skinny, they can be right or wrong, but illegal? How can a human being be illegal?” Wiesel wrote.
“Because once you label a people ‘illegal,’ that is exactly what the Nazis did to Jews,” he added.