NEW YORK (May. 27)
On the 41st anniversary of her arrival in the United States, Marguerite Mishkin peered at a 44-year-old photograph tacked to the bulletin board of a hotel lobby here, and was shocked to see a face that looked like her own.
The photo, posted at a conference here of people who as children were hidden by Gentiles during the Holocaust, showed a group of Jewish children at an orphanage, like the one in Brussels that Mishkin was taken to after the war.
But Mishkin wasn’t completely sure until Tandy Stewart, who put up the photo, produced a card signed by Mishkin and her older sister.
A group of Jewish girls at the orphanage, all of whom had lost their parents during the war, had signed the card just before Stewart, then known as Annie Klein, left to join the family in Pittsburgh that was to adopt her.
The Mishkin girls, who were hidden during the war by a Catholic family near Antwerp, were later adopted by a family in Chicago.
The reunion was one of many such encounters that took place here Sunday and Monday at the First International Gathering of Children Hidden During World War II.
The exchanges of stories and mementoes did more than revive long-buried memories. They proved the fact that these survivors, who often knew little or nothing of their own families, had indeed had childhoods of their own. It proved, in fact, that they existed.
It was an awakening for people who had been dogged by a sense of having missed out on the first parts of their lives.
“It makes it real,” said Mishkin, 50, who was taken in by a Catholic family before her first birthday and never knew any of her family out side of her sister.
‘I’VE NEVER FELT THAT I BELONGED’
Mishkin had not anticipated running into this human link to her past.
After more than 40 years, the childhood friends discovered tremendous similarities in their lives. Both Mishkin, a Chicago high school teacher, and Stewart, who lives in Hillsdale, N.J., lost their parents at Auschwitz.
“I had no idea how overwhelmed I’d be,” said Mishkin. “I’ve never felt that I belonged. I felt utterly alone, and now I’ve found somebody out there who could almost be my twin!”
The gathering, a joint effort of the Hidden Child Committee and the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, brought together some 1,600 child survivors and their spouses, along with many of their Christian rescuers.
One of these survivors, Abraham Foxman, who is now national director of the ADL, said there are an estimated 10,000 to 100,000 hidden children throughout the world.
Many of those children protected by Gentiles during the Holocaust will never know their true identities, because no family members survived the war. And many of the Christians who protected these children were and are still afraid to admit that they harbored Jews.
Some Jewish child survivors, particularly in Eastern Europe, have in fact not gone public with their true identities. There, it could be dangerous to be a Jew, Foxman said.
Foxman hopes that one result of this gathering will be a new ability for those hidden in their past to come out into the open. “Perhaps if this story is told, if it is put in a positive light,” it will “help bring some of them out of hiding,” he said.
Most of those attending the New York gathering were confronting their memories for the very first time, according to Foxman.
‘REALIZED IT’S ALL RIGHT TO BE ALIVE’
Among those was Jacqueline Sheirr, who stood in front of the bulletin boards scanning hundreds of scraps of paper and photographs. She saw the names of people alive and long dead, coming from all over Europe.
She searched in vain for some recognizable name, perhaps the name of the Catholic boarding school near Paris where she had been sent to survive the war. Unable to find anything that would bring recognition, she turned away in tears.
“The loneliness never, never goes away,” she said, crying.
Sheirr, who saw her parents and grandparents for the last time as she watched the Gestapo round them up, was hidden by a Christian woman who then took the young girl to each of the homes where Sheirr’s mother had left some of the family’s possessions, threatening to turn over the 10-year-old girl to the Gestapo if the items were not given to her.
The woman, who had succeeded in taking of the family’s possessions, then sent her to a boarding school, bringing her back to her home on school vacations only to cook and clean.
Since she was brought to the United States by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society in 1947, Sheirr has not had much contact with other survivors or the French Jewish community.
She was not completely sure why she decided to spend her day off from her job as an assistant manager at a Manhattan clothing boutique attending the conference.
“I don’t know what I came to look for,” she said. “There are things I have totally blocked out. But after 50 years, I realized it’s all right to be alive.”