For scholars interested in knowledge transmission and decision-making during migrations, oral history can be a particularly fitting method of analysis. As Alessandro Portelli wrote, “Oral sources tell us not just what people did, but what they wanted to do, what they believed they were doing, and what they now think they did.”1 The following story is based on my 2018 interview with Samuel P., a Jewish survivor from Warsaw, Poland, who journeyed through France and Argentina to eventually settle in the United States in 1964. Although a single first-person account is obviously inadequate to sketch broad historical patterns, it can open a window onto how Polish Jewish survivors acquired knowledge to make decisions about their movements in the wake of the Holocaust. Knowledge here stands for practical information about legal and illegal migratory routes, available jobs, and economic and educational prospects, among other things.
Samuel’s story suggests that Polish Jewish migrants were not mere victims of circumstance. Even in the most precarious conditions of postwar Europe, they exercised some agency in how they migrated and where they lived. To be sure, their agency was structurally embedded in the sending and receiving communities. But by seeking any available information to seize the few limited opportunities, Samuel’s family acted to effect meaningful change in their own lives. They used information from all the sources they could find: their own experience, family letters, other migrants’ know-how, as well as diaspora and kinship networks. What they learned helped them to cope with the contingencies and uncertainties of displacement.2 They improvised and acted creatively, at times outside legal bounds, in search for a new home.
Samuel's Story: Experience and Knowledge
Samuel was born in 1937 to a Yiddish-speaking tailor and seamstress in a working-class Jewish neighborhood in Warsaw.3 In the first months of the war, his father escaped via the eastern borders and was then joined by his wife and a three-year-old Samuel. All three of them were deported to the Komi region in Siberia and later ended up in Kherson where Samuel’s sister was born. They stayed in the Soviet Union until February 1946, when the Polish government brought them to Poland during the repatriation of hundreds of thousands prewar citizens, ethnic Poles and Jews alike. The Polish Repatriation Office put them on a train and sent them to Lower Silesia in the annexed German, now “recovered” territories in western Poland. In their native Warsaw, all their family members had been killed and their home destroyed.
Although they were relatively safe from violence, first in Dzierżoniów and later in Wrocław, Samuel’s father wanted to leave as soon as possible, likely drawing on his experiential knowledge. In Samuel’s recollections of that time, he emphasized the lack of any “sense of belonging” in postwar Poland as the most pressing factor behind their intent to leave. Most Polish Jewish survivors shared this sentiment. Survivors from highly assimilated families or those, like Samuel’s, who stayed in Poland longer into the 1950s, expressed intellectual and emotional attachment to Polish culture, but that was not enough to make them feel “at home” in the country. In fact, their traumatic experiences made it that much easier to consider emigration: genocide, loss of loved ones and homes, a landscape that resembled a cemetery, memories of betrayals by gentile friends and neighbors, postwar outbreaks of violence in the volatile, civil war–like, political situation of the late 1940s, and persistent anti-Jewish hostility across many segments of Polish society.
Decision Time: Letters, Return Migrants, and Knowledge
Between 1945 and 1947, Jews and ethnic Germans were the only two groups that the Polish state “allowed” a relatively free exit without much interference.4 So the question was: where to go? To make these decisions, migrants needed reliable information, which they sought from those with first-hand experience: family members abroad and return migrants in their local communities. In the late 1940s, as Samuel recalled, the family considered Argentina, imagined as a progressive and welcoming country, as their main option. There were a couple of sources for that perception. One was surely an Argentinian propaganda campaign, which must have reached Lower Silesia. The other was the correspondence with Samuel’s two uncles who had lived in Buenos Aires since the 1930s. The brothers belonged to a larger group of 50,000 to 60,000 Polish Jews who had emigrated to Argentina in the interwar period and whose letters provided valuable information about migration routes and the destination itself. Migrants’ occasional visits to Poland also helped to shape perceptions of Argentina and the prospects it offered. The family even acted upon that possibility: Samuel’s father secured visas to Argentina, but alas this plan fell through. It is impossible to say whether their intent to leave was simply shelved for later or completely abandoned. Perhaps it fluctuated with Poland’s changing political and social conditions.
Ultimately, the situation worsened dramatically, and the family left Poland in 1957. Rising antisemitism at work, in their neighborhood, and the country at large as well as the liberalization of emigration policies after a six-year period of closed borders worked together to push them out of Poland. In all, more than 50,000 Jews, that is, about half the remaining Jewish population in Poland at the time, now emigrated.5 By this point, Samuel’s family saw Israel as their only available destination. Indeed, the Israeli government made diplomatic arrangements with its Polish counterpart to allow the legal immigration of Jews. As was earlier the case, correspondence with loved ones who had emigrated before them affected the family’s decision-making process. They were packed and ready to go when their close friend in Israel wrote asking that they reconsider coming there since local conditions might well be too harsh for Samuel’s mother. Even during the earlier emigration in 1949–50, letters from Israel dissuaded relatives from migrating, helping the Jewish communist leadership in Poland in its anti-Zionist campaign to keep the Jewish working class in their Polish “motherland.”6 That was not the case in 1957. However, letters with vivid descriptions of harsh conditions in Israel still figured into the calculations of Jewish emigrants.
At the time, there was also a minuscule amount of Jewish return migration from Israel.7 Some leftists who had emigrated to France and Argentina made their way back to Poland as well. Among these were Greek and Spanish communist refugees who received Polish asylum.8 These migrants brought with them precious practical knowledge about migration routes and strategies as well as general information about life abroad. These stories and transnational connections must have played a role in migration decisions in 1957. The workers at Samuel’s father’s cooperative were probably keen participants in the exchange of information about who emigrated, how, and where. One of the father’s coworkers was plugged into these networks through a relative. His advice was: “Listen, I have a brother in Paris . . . Why don’t you go to Israel in transit through Paris, get off the train, and my brother will help you get papers.”9 That illegal scheme became their plan in the spring of 1957. Like all the 1957 migrants, Samuel and his family received exit documents without the option to return. They were now stateless.
Coping in Transit: Diaspora, Kinship, and Knowledge
The family stayed in Paris for two years, able to survive in the new city thanks to a combination of Jewish acquaintances and family members, the Polish and Yiddish press, established Jewish migrant venues, Jewish organizations, and the father and son’s own practical skills. Since they were formally stateless, on a transit visa to Palestine, they could not legally work or study. Nor did they know the language. The French Jewish organization COJASOR helped them with some rent money.10 But other than that, they had to depend on their own resourcefulness to make ends meet. All the odd jobs in sewing sweatshops that Samuel and his father did during their stay in Paris were obtained thanks to the information circulated through local Polish Jewish networks. The now twenty-year-old Samuel found his first job through the Polish-language paper Wolność (Freedom). Another job came through a chance meeting in the Pletzl of Paris (the Jewish quarter in the fourth arrondissement) with an old colleague from the cooperative back in Poland; Samuel and his father strolled every weekend in this part of Paris in order to meet other Polish migrants.
Despite the hard work and difficult living conditions, Samuel recalled that his family was hoping to stay in France. But these hopes were soon disappointed by the power of the state. The Fourth Republic under the presidency of René Coty went through social and political turmoil that contributed to heightened anti-immigrant sentiments.11 The family’s arrest was imminent. When it finally happened, they were told that they could stay if their adult son either joined the Foreign Legion or worked in a coal mine for several years. Samuel did not want to do either, so the family reluctantly prepared to leave under formidable pressure by the French immigration system. Again they faced the decision of where to go. Based on available information, they had two choices: Argentina and Australia. It is unclear how they came to see Australia as a viable option, but they were not wrong: the Australian government had a robust (white) immigration program in the 1950s.12 At the same time, Argentina has been on their minds for more than a decade, so family obtained visas for both destinations. They did not know anyone in Australia, whereas Samuel’s uncle sent them money for passage to Argentina. They reached Buenos Aires in November 1959.
Intergenerational "Go-Between": Accessing Knowledge
In Buenos Aires, local ethnic and kinship networks continued to play a pivotal role in helping the family survive. Most of them were accessed through Samuel’s father. It was the father’s brother and several of his friends from Poland, mainly tailors, who ran their own workshops and stores and were able to help him start his own business in the city. But since their stay in France, Samuel’s own role in the family bourgeoned. In Paris, he helped his father make a living and now, in Buenos Aires, he became his father’s salesman. In displacement, Samuel’s excellent interpersonal and learning skills turned him into his parents’ go-between with the non-Jewish world. He helped them cope with day-to-day challenges, as their knowledge from Poland and their stay in the wartime USSR was “losing its value” in the new linguistic and cultural context.13 Although initially Samuel himself struggled, he was quicker to learn and amass new socio-cultural knowledge, almost seamlessly traversing first- and second-generation migrant experiences. He improvised or acted creatively to access information to protect his family, secure permanent residence, and fulfill his own aspirations. In France, it was he who made contacts in the immigration office to legalize his family’s stay. In Argentina, the lack of economic and educational prospects, rising antisemitism (after the kidnapping of Adolf Eichmann), and letters from his old friend, who now studied at the University of Maryland, inspired him to pursue a U.S. visa. Although, the wait took fifteen years under the quota system, tailors’ networks came to the rescue yet again. Friends and retailers with whom Samuel worked in the city arranged contacts with a clothing store in Baltimore. That business offered Samuel’s father a job and a visa, and the family arrived in the United States in the spring of 1964.
Although the United States serves as the last or “final” destination in this article, Samuel’s story should not be viewed from this perspective. Such teleological thinking distorts his journey, which could have ended in Poland, Israel, France, or Argentina, if the constellation of factors had changed ever so slightly. The lines between permanence and impermanence constantly blurred when the family made any of a myriad of decisions about their movement and settlement. Certainly, larger forces or structures at play often constrained their options, such as state immigration policies and national economies. Within these constraints, however, Samuel’s family members were also able to make meaningful choices based on the information available to them. Samuel’s father and then Samuel himself successfully mobilized their kinship and diaspora networks, mainly grounded in their trade, to assemble knowledge about safe routes, decent jobs, and local prospects. They fashioned it from the letters of friends and family abroad, native language newspapers, and casual conversations in the workplace and in ethnic neighborhoods of the Polish Jewish diaspora. This acquisition and formation process, and the creative use of the resulting knowledge, proceeded within gendered and generational family dynamics.14 Ultimately, their extraordinary resilience and creativity made their knowledge practices possible. They used knowledge as a strategy not merely to survive but to build a new life in the safety and security of a new home.
This blog post was made possible, in part, thanks to the author’s 2021 Ben and Zelda Cohen Visiting Fellowship at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies.
- Alessandro Portelli, “What Makes Oral History Different,” in The Oral History Reader, ed. Robert Perks and Alistair Thomson (London: Routledge, 2006), 36. ↩︎
- Simone Lässig and Swen Steinberg, “Knowledge on the Move: New Approaches toward a History of Migrant Knowledge,” in “Knowledge and Migration,” ed. Lässig and Steinberg, special issue, Geschichte und Gesellschaft 43, no. 3 (2017): 340. ↩︎
- All biographical information and quotations are based on an interview I conducted with Samuel P. in Washington, DC, on February 26, 2018. I recorded the conversation digitally and quote from it here with his permission. I remain immensely grateful to Samuel for trusting his story with me and for his careful reading of the text. ↩︎
- Dariusz Stola, Kraj bez wyjścia?: migracje z Polski 1949–1989 (Warsaw: Instytut Pamięci Narodowej, Instytut Studiów Politycznych PAN, 2012). For millions of ethnic Germans, the exit was far from voluntary. In the final months of the war, almost seven million Germans fled Poland in fear of the Soviet Army and reprisals by the local population. Almost three million Germans were forced to leave the country between 1945 and 1947. Małgorzata Ruchniewicz, “Niemcy,” in Wysiedlenia, wypędzenia, ucieczki 1939-1959. Atlas ziem Polski: Polacy, Żydzi, Niemcy, Ukraińcy, ed. Witold Sienkiewicz and Grzegorz Hryciuk (Warsaw: Demart, 2008), 171, 186–93. ↩︎
- Ewa Węgrzyn, Wyjeżdżamy! Wyjeżdżamy?!: Alija gomułkowska, 1956–1960 (Kraków: Austeria, 2016) ↩︎
- Dariusz Stola described how Jewish communists discouraged emigration by printing letters from Israel in newspapers like the Polish Yiddish Głos Ludu /פֿאָלקס שטימע (People’s Voice). Stola, Kraj bez wyjścia?, 58. ↩︎
- Ori Yehudai, Leaving Zion: Jewish Emigration from Palestine and Israel after World War II (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020); Marcos Silber, “‘Immigrants from Poland Want to Go Back’: The Politics of Return Migration and Nation Building in 1950s Israel,” The Journal of Israeli History 27, no. 2 (2008): 201–219. ↩︎
- Stola, Kraj bez wyjścia?, 39. ↩︎
- Interview Samuel P. ↩︎
- The Comite Juif d’Action Social et de Reconstruction (Jewish Committee for Social Action and Reconstruction) or COJASOR was created in March 1945 to offer comprehensive aid to Jewish survivors in France. ↩︎
- Although France signed the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, that agreement did not apply to Samuel and his family because only those who had left their countries due to pre-1951 events were protected. “The 1951 Refugee Convention,” UNHCR The UN Refugee Agency, https://www.unhcr.org/3b66c2aa10. ↩︎
- Eric Richards, Destination Australia: Migration to Australia since 1901 (Sydney: UNSW Press, 2008), 204–243. ↩︎
- Simone Lässig and Swen Steinberg, “Why Young Migrants Matter in the History of Knowledge,” in “Knowledge and Young Migrants,” ed. Lässig and Steinberg, special issue, KNOW: A Journal on the Formation of Knowledge 3, no. 2 (Fall 2019): 195–219. ↩︎
- I develop a gender analysis of how mothers and daughters mobilized their networks differently than their husbands and sons did in my forthcoming article: Anna Cichopek-Gajraj, “Agency and Displacement of Ethnic Polish and Jewish Families After World War II,” in “Gender and Sexuality,” ed. Marta Cieślak and Anna Muller, special issue, Polish American Studies 78, no. 1 (Spring 2021). ↩︎