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The DP Children – Innocent Casualties of War

Part of the Historical Society of Easton’s “Immigrants in Easton” series.

It usually begins with a question. This week’s article was sparked by an inquiry on the Growing Up in Easton page on Facebook.

“My husband remembers a Ukrainian exchange student who attended Samuel Staples School. His name was Boadon (not sure of the spelling, maybe Bohdan) and this was when my husband was in 8th grade around 1952/53. Does anyone else remember this boy?” Laurie Kenny asked.

I am too young to remember what went on at Staples in 1952, but I was certain that  foreign exchange students were never hosted in primary schools. Sending a pre-teenaged child across the ocean to experience a different culture would have been a truly risky business. Trans-Atlantic air travel was still more of a novelty than an everyday occurrence. It took over twelve hours and was rather costly. Travel by sea took a minimum of five days. Sending a small child unaccompanied by a parent would have been an extremely rare occurrence. There had to be another explanation for what her husband remembered.

But as it turned out, her husband wasn’t alone in remembering that foreign-born student who attended Staples during that time.

“My brother and I knew him,” explained Arthur Russell. “He was living with his mother on Morehouse Road, a little south of where it intersects with Banks. He would come to our house on Banks Road. One time while he was there, Oscar Svihra showed up. Boadon went nuts! He thought Oscar in his policeman’s uniform was a Nazi coming to take him away. He moved away soon afterwards, but I don’t know where.”

Well, that was a pretty good indication that young Boadon wasn’t an exchange student. He sounded more like a scared refugee who might have endured the horrors of Nazi occupation in his home country in Europe.

And then another reader, Ann Wilson, offered this.

“What I remember was that we had displaced persons, ‘D.P.’s’ we called them. Some were a bit older but were placed in lower classes because they needed better English skills. There was no English as Second Language back then. It could have been 1952-1954, somewhere within that time frame. We had one boy; he was probably around thirteen. His name was Benjie, and he was from Czechoslovakia. I remember that he dressed very “old world” – high, hand-knit knee socks, knit vests, and coats and clothes that didn’t fit him very well. He was only there a year or so. There may have been other kids, but I don’t recall them. There may have been kids from Ukraine as well. I have no background information on how they came to Easton, who they lived with, or if they had sponsor families. A good research project for someone – Bruce Nelson!!”

Like I said, it usually begins with a question. Or a challenge.

I had already started typing “displaced persons” into the search bar and by the time I had finished reading the comment on Growing up in Easton I was looking at a fairly complete list of sites regarding displaced persons from the Second World War.

And then another comment appeared on Facebook, and I struck gold. It was from Laurie Kenny, the same woman who had posted the original query regarding that exchange student:

“A memory just sparked for me. My father Peter Brichter was a Hungarian Holocaust survivor and came to the United States in January of 1950. He was nine years old, and he and his mother Ilona (Helena) lived at Snow’s farm while Ilona was acting as a nurse/companion for one of the Snow’s elderly grandparents. Peter did not attend school in Easton, and I do not know how long they stayed in town.”

This was fantastic! I now had a complete name to go by. I had been certain that the names Boadon, Bohdan, or Benjie would have led me nowhere. But a complete name with the age, country of birth, and the name of at least one of the parents…that’s about as good as gets when you begin searching for immigration records.

So, let’s begin with a little background on “Displaced Persons”, more commonly referred to as “DP’s”, both during and after World War II.

Beginning with the invasion of Poland in 1939, the systematic interment and extermination of the Jews living in European countries under siege by the Germans caused many Jews to flee to safer territories to avoid imprisonment in concentration camps. Other groups also sought refuge, some from the fear of ethnic cleansing, some from the fear of being detained in forced labor camps to serve the Nazi war machine that was devasting their homelands. In all, it is estimated that as many forty million people were displaced from their home countries during the six years the war raged on.

The agreement for United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration was signed on November 9, 1943. It was funded by a total of forty-four nations. Its mission was to provide aid and assistance to those who had been displaced by the ravages of war. Although the UNRRA used the term, “United Nations”, this institution was established prior to the 1945 founding of the organization we know by that name today. The term was used to refer to the allied nations during WWII. It was a term originally used by FDR in 1942.

The original mission was to provide relief and temporary shelter for those with no place to go and no means to support themselves during the war. But as the war finally wound down in 1945, it became obvious that it would be impossible to repatriate many of the war’s innocent victims to their original homelands. Many would need to be resettled in countries that could accommodate an influx of refugees and provide them with jobs and permanent housing.

In the United States, the Displaced Persons Act of 1948 was meant to allow the immigration of up to 200,000 people living in DP camps in specific countries and the American controlled sectors in other areas of Europe. While those numbers were not only inadequate given the tremendous numbers of refugees who were still displaced nearly three full years after the end of the war, it was also discriminatory against a huge population of Jews.

The act only provided eligibility to enter the United States to those refugees who had reached DP camps in Germany, Austria, or Italy prior to December 22, 1945. That disallowed nearly all the Jews from Poland and the Soviet Union who had not reached those countries by the end of 1945.

In addition, the 200,000 limit reduced the number of spots already spoken for by immigrants who had been waiting their turn to enter the United States under the traditional quotas from each country.

By the time the United States amended its policies to allow greater numbers of admissions with lesser restrictions in 1950, some displaced persons had been living in camps for as long as seven years. In the case of many of the Jews who had been freed from the concentration camps run by the Nazi’s, the over-all experience of remaining in the DP camps until they could find a new home in a foreign land hadn’t seemed like much of an improvement. While they were no longer starving, they were still living in crowded and often unsanitary conditions where many still perished from the lack of adequate medical care.

Peter Brichter

Ilona Eisenberg married Ladislaus (Lazslo) Brichter on May 19, 1929 in Vienna, Austria. The youngest of their three children was born in Budapest on December 26, 1940. His name was Peter.

Hungary was a member of the Axis powers during Second World War. During the first few years of the war, Jewish families such as the Brichter’s were protected from deportation and imprisonment in German concentration camps. That changed in 1944. Ladislaus was arrested that year and sent to Auschwitz where he would die in a gas chamber in 1945.

Much of Ilona’s family had already made the journey to Saint Gallen in Switzerland, not far from the German border, where they would wait out the hostilities in the hopes of one day returning to their homeland. The eldest Brichter child had died when he was about four years old. Ilona’s daughter, Eva, was left with friends in Budapest before Ilona and young Peter departed for Paris where Ilona hoped to join other members of her family.

Much of Peter’s story was put on paper in 2002 after he had suffered a seizure. He recounted his memories as a child, but much of what he wrote lacks specific time references; not unusual as those recorded memories began when he was only three years of age. Keeping them in proper sequence would have been almost an impossible task. What follows is this researcher’s best attempt to put a few of Peter’s rambling memories in some semblance of chronological order.

Peter Brichter with his mother Ilona c.1947

Ilona and Peter first lived in an apartment in Paris. Peter’s uncle, Eugene, was part of the French resistance movement and he was apparently successful in recruiting Ilona to join him in an attempt to sabotage the German occupiers of France in early 1944. Initially, three-year-old Peter was left in the care of some other Jewish members of the resistance. He lived with the others on the outskirts of the city until one day when the group felt the need to move him to a safer place. That place was in Normandy. “This old wrinkled up lady of German descent took care of me and my very good friend Jacques.  I got to see the American troops on a paved road where as far as your eye could see tanks, trucks, jeeps and more. But most of all, were the number of soldiers on both sides of the road. I was so excited my heart was pounding.”

Peter and his friend Jacques c.1945

At some point, Ilona and Eugene’s luck ran out. “My uncle and mother somehow got separated and were captured by the Gestapo. My mother was taken to the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen.  Fortunately, she was eventually liberated.” Depending on exactly when Ilona was incarcerated there, she could have won her release in an exchange for a German prisoner held elsewhere, or when the British liberated the camp on April 15, 1945. “When I finally did see my mother, I swear I did not recognize her. She was very thin, gaunt, and seemed to have a look of rage on her face at the time. I had no understanding of why she looked like that or any knowledge of war.”

The war had ended when Ilona and Peter took the train to Saint Gallen, Switzerland to visit his grandmother, Ester Hermele Eisenberg. It would be the first time he would meet her. Also in Saint Gallen were Ilona’s sister Elisabeth Welt, her husband Seigfreid, and their two Swiss born children. The Welt’s had already found a sponsor in America who would take them in and guarantee Seigfried employment, a prerequisite for anyone looking to emigrate to the United States in the years immediately following WWII. They would sail aboard the Marine Shark to New York in September 1947, heading for a final destination of Bridgeport where Ilona and Elisabeth’s cousin, and the family’s sponsor, Joseph Eisenberg was the president of the Reliable Coffee Company on Water Street, a wholesaler of groceries and liquor.

It was in Saint Gallen that Ilona began planning their journey to the United States. Repatriation to Hungary was out of the question. It had fallen to the communists and was then under the control of the Soviet Union. Her daughter Eva was still there, but she was trapped behind the Iron Curtain. Ladislaus had died at Auschwitz, and Ilona was a widow with a child to look after. If Ilona and Peter were to have a new life, it would need to be in the United States.

Unlike her sister and her family, Ilona had no paperwork and not enough money to buy passage to the United States. All her records were in Hungary. Proving Peter was her son would be difficult, and as it turned out, a very long process. She would need to apply as a Displaced Person and that meant spending some time in a DP camp. She found a sponsor in Samuel Eisenberg, Joseph’s younger brother and the secretary/treasurer of the same wholesale company the Eisenberg family owned in Bridgeport.

It took affidavits such as this to obtain the necessary paperwork that would allow Ilona and her son Peter to obtain the proper documents that would allow them to travel to the United States.

Prior to ending its European mission in 1952, The International Refugee Organization was set up to process, arrange, and provide passage to the United States and Canada for the thousands of displaced people who needed to be relocated. Ilona and Peter made their way to the resettlement camp at Amburg, Germany sometime in 1949. It was there when Peter was involved in an accident that resulted in his breaking his arm in multiple places. His recuperation and rehabilitation would add an additional nine months to their stay in Germany. Nine additional months in a DP camp with hundreds of others like themselves.

The USAT C.H. Muir docked at Bremerhaven, Germany as it awaits several hundred displaced persons heading to the United States. c.1950

Finally, the pair sailed from Bremerhaven, Germany to New York on the 10th day of January,1950. They would arrive in New York on the 21st, less than a month after Peter’s ninth birthday.

“We were set to leave on one of those Queen Mary-type ships.” The ship was the USAT C.H. General Muir, a troop transport ship commissioned in 1944 that was then ferrying displaced persons between Europe and the United States. “It was super huge, but accommodations were deplorable. The trip took seven days and nights” (according to the ship’s records, the trip took eleven days, not seven). “We lived in the bottom of the ship, in what one would call the hold. It was one experience I will never forget. We slept in hammocks. It stank. We were almost on top of each other. A mere bed sheet would separate you from your neighbor. We would have emergency drills up on the top deck… It was almost indecent the way one was treated. We were called “D.P’s” (Displaced Persons). After this ordeal, we finally arrived in New York and Ellis Island. I was on the top deck. I still remember this; I reached into my pocket where I had five Deutsch Marks for money. I tore them up into small pieces and threw them all into the bay.”

The USAT C.H. Muir as it sails from Bremerhaven, Germany sometime in 1950.

After spending some time in the care of a Jewish orphanage in New York City while Ilona got situated in Connecticut, Peter was retrieved by his mother and soon ended up living at the Snow’s farm in Easton. Like so many other displaced children from Europe, Peter had yet to begin his education and he was by then, nearly ten years of age. How long he and his mother spent in Easton is unknown. His time here was likely relatively brief like that of Benji and Boadon. How many of these children passed through small towns like Easton may never be known, but they were here and that experience certainly made an impact on their young lives and the people they came in contact with.

Peter Brichter’s Certificate of United States Citizenship that was issued in May of 1955.

It is stories like this one that we need to record and preserve. Not just the facts and figures. Not only the numbers and the organizations involved in the relocation of millions of people. But stories about the people themselves. What they experienced. How their lives were changed. That is why the Historical Society of Easton has spent so many countless hours over the past two and half years bringing you stories about the women of Easton; those who served from Easton; and now, immigrants who came to Easton.

Our town was shaped by all these people. It is imperative that we continue to research and record who they were and what they experienced. That’s what history is truly about. The human experience.

If you like what we do, won’t you please consider supporting our all-volunteer efforts with a donation to help us continue to expand our database and digitize our archives so that we can share them with the world by uploading them onto the UConn Library digital platform? To those who have previously given, we can’t thank you enough. It is through your generosity that our organization has managed to survive and expand our service to the community.

A special thanks go out to Laurie Kenny for her many contributions to the above article. If anyone who has immigrant ancestors who have lived in Easton has a similar story to tell about their family, please share it with us so that we can record it and preserve those memories for future generations. You can email information and photographic scans to hsectresearch@gmail.com.

Please visit our website to become a Patron of the Society at: Donations and Patrons – Historical Society of Easton Connecticut (historicalsocietyofeastonct.org)