by Larisa Proulx
On May 10th, 1941 the Honigberg Family: Zelik, Rajzla Matla, and Bronislaw, arrived in San Francisco, California and were held at an immigration facility on 801 Silver Avenue. Here they were detained, interrogated, and inspected by U.S. Immigration Officials due to ‘suspicion’ concerning the family’s paid passage to the United States. Immigration officials stated that not only did they need to verify who paid for their steamship tickets to the United States, but that they also needed to verify the family’s ability to sustain themselves financially while residing in the country. The family’s interrogation on Silver Avenue was just one of the many challenges for the Honigberg family in finally obtaining their liberty and safety.
The Jewish family first fled from Warsaw, Poland to Wilno sometime before October of 1940. In September of 1939, the Soviet Invasion of Poland occurred. Soon after, German Armed Forces (‘The Wehrmacht’) also occupied Poland by striking with severe aerial bombings and ground fighting that initially targeted civilians in areas like markets, hospitals, and schools. In October 1939, an organized Polish resistance ended, with Germany and the Soviet Union occupying most of Poland. However, at this time Wilno, Poland, where the Honigberg family was residing, was annexed by Lithuania. Once Lithuania took possession of Wilno, the Honigbergs found that they could not safely live in either a Russian or German territory. They made the decision to leave Eastern Europe all together, hoping to avoid persecution, war, and death.
The decision to leave Warsaw meant that most of the family avoided the Warsaw Ghetto that was established in 1940. About one month after the ghetto was established, Jews were not allowed to leave it. Construction of a wall soon followed, built to create a barrier between the Jews held within the Ghetto and the rest of the world. Anyone attempting to cross the wall, made of brick and barbed wire, was to be shot on sight. Despite the danger, Zelik’s sister-in-law, Aurelia Heroberg, stayed in Warsaw during the time that the family resided in Wilno. Her story is unknown.
Leaving Wilno, Poland, the Honigberg family headed for Yokohama, Japan where they would receive immigration visas under the Immigration Act of 1924. From there they would go to the United States on the steamship Asama Maru. At that time, Zelik, a former president and chief manager of a firm producing mother-of-pearl buttons in Poland, left a factory that had at one time staffed about 500 workers. His wife, Rajzla Matla (a housewife), and son, Bronislaw (a medical student), also left their home intending to never return to Poland. All three intended to come to the United States to eventually become citizens.
Their final destination after San Francisco was New York, New York, where one of Zelik’s friend’s, Allan Gerdau, resided. Due to their personal and working relationship, Gerdau wanted to help the Honigberg family during the war. At Zelik’s request in 1940, all of his business agents in Europe sent money collected in his favor to Gerdau so that it wouldn’t be lost during the war. In 1941, Gerdau held at least $3,700.00 owed to Zelik from business. Gerdau agreed to hold this money for the Honigberg family until they were able to enter the United States and claim it. At Zelik’s request, Gerdau also used some of this money to purchase steamship tickets that would take the family from Yokohama to the United States after they left Wilno. Without Gerdau’s assistance, the Honigberg’s would not have been able to leave Wilno. There were no travel agencies in Wilno that could sell all the tickets to the family, and they were necessary to have in hand to get immigration visas for the United States.
After arriving to the United States, the family’s interrogation was held on May 14th, 1941 at 1:00 in the afternoon (four days after arriving). Two immigration inspectors, a secretary, and Polish interpreter were present for the interrogation. Each family member was interrogated separately and asked specifically about their relationship to Allan Gerdau, the amount of money Zelik had, and who purchased their steamship tickets. At this time inspectors were provided with an affidavit, describing Gerdau’s ability to support the Honigbergs in the event that Zelik’s funds become unavailable. Zelik also informed immigration officials that, in addition to the funds collected by Gerdau on his behalf, the Midland Bank in London also held $15,000.00 in United States currency for him. Upon receipt and confirmation of this information, the family was admitted to the United States on May 14th, 1941.
This is where the Honigberg family’s story begins in the United States, and ends on Silver Street in San Francisco. If you have any additional information that you would like to share about the Honigbergs, please contact the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation at 415-348-9200.
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