THE GREY FOLDER PROJECT
A Trip to Washington
Deportation to Gurs, 22 October, 1940. Photo ©Stadtarchiv Mannheim - Institut für Stadtgeschichte. Ludwigshafen a. R., 1940.
FRIEDA HAD BEEN SO CLOSE TO RECEIVING HER U.S. VISA in Germany, but after she was deported to Gurs in October, 1940, the process was delayed. First, documents had to be transferred from Stuttgart to Marseille, which took several weeks, then there was another delay until the Vichy French authorities began to issue exit visas to Gurs deportees in January 1941. In January and February, the U.S. consulate in Marseille started summoning deportees for interviews in January/February 1941-- but by July, 1941, a shift in U.S. visa policy greatly restricted the number of visas issued to deportees.
In Chicago, once my parents and grandparents learned that Frieda had been deported to France they tried to help rescue her in any way they could. They sought assistance from aid organizations such as The American Friends Service Committee (the Quakers) and HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.
"WE HEARD THAT MY AUNT FRIEDA had been deported, that she was in Gurs," my father told me, a story with a tragic ending. "I tried to help rescue her by asking the State Department for a visa."
Yes, my father had told me about going to Washington D.C. to plead with the State Department for Frieda's life -- a visa to release from the concentration camp in France. But until I discovered this yellowing envelope tucked into the grey folder, I had never before seen the sweet and poignant letter (in the charming envelope) that my mother handed to my father as he was boarding the train that day of the appointment in July, 1942. "I will keep you company a little way," she wrote.
"IMAGINE I AM SITTING BESIDE YOU and we are looking out the window together, and we are saying to each other how many people are involved in this trip to Washington. . ."
My mother, Edith Arshack Sonneman, Chicago, 1940.
"YOU WILL DO YOUR BEST by all of them and if you are successful how glad we shall be, and if you are not, we will at least know we have explored every possibility and exerted every energy."
OF ALL THE DOCUMENTS I had seen (and would see) in my search to uncover the truth of my family's story, none touched me more profoundly than this letter. The first dozen or so times I looked at it, I wept every time. Perhaps it was the strength and depth of my parents' love for each other that moved me so deeply, and the tenacity, hopefulness and dedication with which they attempted to rescue Frieda.
For even though I know how the story turned out, reading my mother's letter I felt that I too was in a sense sitting beside my father on that July day in 1942, feeling all the apprehension and hopefulness in that train trip to Washington D.C.. He would have been planning what to say, in his still-awkward English. What words could best convey the gravity of the situation? How could he persuade the State Department to grant Frieda the visa-- and save her life?
There is no record of my father's train trip back to Chicago, after the meeting, but I imagine him rereading my mother's wise and comforting words -- "we will at least know we have explored every possibility and exerted every energy."