by Erika Alvarez
By late spring 1940, Hitler’s armies had roared through and conquered the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg. Paris was next to topple, in June 1940, when Flora Marbach was awaiting a visa to flee Vienna, Germany. A Jew, and a widow since 1937, Flora must have found the early days of the Third Reich terrible, especially after the government abruptly confiscated her husband’s textile factory and left her without any compensation. She managed to survive on some money of her own and her husband’s insurance, but she knew that as Jews, she and her twelve-year-old daughter, Lizzy, would have no future in a German-occupied Europe. They had to get out, but how??
Lucky for her, an old acquaintance from her days as a banking secretary came through. Harry Zelinka, now a resident of New York City, had persuaded his good friend, wealthy Eliot P. Hirshberg of Scarsdale, New York, to sponsor Flora and her daughter. (Zelinka had already submitted 12 other immigrant sponsorship petitions and wasn’t in a position financially to sponsor more.) Using all but $6 of her money, Flora was able to secure passage for herself and her daughter on the S. S. Rakuyo Maru along with almost a hundred other Jewish refugees. The passenger-cargo ship conveyed them from Berlin by way of Yokahama, Japan, and arrived in the Port of San Francisco on August 28, 1940.
Unlike many immigrants, Flora and Lizzy were processed quite speedily; their interview with the INS took place only three days later, on August 31, 1940. Declared sound of body and mind and in good health, they were questioned about their intentions to stay in the country. They swore that they were not planning to enter, earn money, and then return to their place of origin. Lizzy, at 12, a petite redhead, swore that if allowed to remain in the country she would enter school and remain a student until 16 years of age.
Flora was questioned about her friendship with Mr. Hirshberg, and was forced to admit that she’d never even met the man, that the sponsorship was the work of her old friend, Mr. Zelinka. Apparently, though, Mr. Hirshberg, the vice president and treasurer of a New York jewelry business later known as Kay Jewelers, proved a creditable guarantor. When he’d learned of the two women’s arrival, he’d immediately sent two separate checks—for $100 and $50—through the Council of Jewish Women to fund their trip back east. That, and his financial standing were enough to relieve the fears of the INS that Flora and Lizzy would become a public burden. Thus the two brave women were admitted into the U.S. as quota immigrants under the Immigration Act of 1917 and began their new life in our country.
Erika Alvarez is a freelance editor and writer who is passionate about literature, history, and other cultures.
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