Midwest isolated from Nazi atrocities

By ANDREW JAROSH of The News-Sentinel

While his wife gave piano lessons to make ends meet, Fort Wayne merchant Jacob Schwartz spent his hard-earned money helping six Jewish families escape the Nazis and find lives of hope and opportunity in America.

But why, when the families Schwartz helped with lodging and jobs moved elsewhere with nary a letter or note of gratitude? But why, when he was never recognized or honored for his efforts?

"It had to be done" was his response, said his daughter, Fort Wayne native Leah Schwartz Tourkow.

In Fort Wayne, Jacob Schwartz's relief efforts came at a time when the local Jewish community was caught largely unaware of the magnitude of the horror that became known as the Holocaust. While Nazi Germany was systematically murdering Jews and others it considered subhuman in extermination camps such as Auschwitz, Treblinka and Dachau, Fort Wayne's Midwestern isolation left many local Jews unaware of the atrocities.

Tourkow, a student at South Side High School at the time, became aware of the persecution of the Jews in Europe through her father's involvement with refugees, not because the topic was widely talked about in Fort Wayne.

In high school, she said, the subject wasn't discussed at all. Tourkow even had a friend whose mother removed pages from newspapers with stories about the death camps to shield her daughter from the unpleasant news.

Frances Kaye Shine, another Fort Wayne native, said life in Fort Wayne during World War II also insulated her from knowing much about the atrocities by Nazis against Jews.

"I was at that stage (where) my thoughts weren't going in that direction," she said. While her husband was in the Army infantry, Shine was back in Fort Wayne expecting a child. As a local Red Cross volunteer, Shine was involved with the war effort by helping with knitting and transportation. But she was still relatively oblivious to the Holocaust until the death camps were liberated at the end of the war.

"I knew things were bad," she said. "I just didn't know how bad they were for the Jewish people."

The bleak situation for Jews was exacerbated by U.S. policy that made it difficult for immigrants to reach our shores. Instead, America put up a bureaucratic maze that prevented all but a few Jewish refugees from entering the country. As early as 1940, the State Department outlined ways consulates could indefinitely postpone the granting of visas. It led to immigration being cut to 25 percent of quota.

It wasn't until 1944, a year before the war's end, that the U.S. government established the War Refugee Board to help organize European evacuation efforts. While the War Refugee Board helped save as many as 200,000 Jews, millions of other Jews were murdered as Allied nations procrastinated in the early stages of the war.

Tourkow said her father was able to get refugees to Fort Wayne because he met the stringent criteria for immigration to America. For example, he had to guarantee to provide immigrant families with a certain amount of money and a job for as long as five years "so people wouldn't be dependent on the government."

Jacob Schwartz was able to help six refugee families over a period of 1 years because of the store he owned, the Michigan Furniture Co., at 1315-17 Calhoun St. Leah Tourkow said her father used the store "as a start up" where immigrants could work and get acclimated to American life before moving on.

Ultimately, the personal involvement of Jews such as her father proved to be an effective way to help refugees, Tourkow said.

"We as a Jewish culture take care of one another," she said. "We had no country. Who was going to take care of them but us?"

Josephine Rothberg, meanwhile, speaks with a bit of guilt in her voice when she talks about life in Fort Wayne during the war and her relative lack of knowledge — and response — to the plight of Jews in Europe.

"I'd like to find a great defense for myself," said the South Side High School graduate, "but living in Fort Wayne isolates you from it."

Rothberg, who moved to Fort Wayne in 1923 as a 9-year-old, had her second child during the war years. Her husband was in the military; she moved around a lot to be with him when they weren't in Fort Wayne.

She remembers the occasional synagogue sermon about the persecution of Jews in Germany.

"But for Jews, it wasn't unusual" to be persecuted in Germany, Russia or other European countries, so the significance of what was happening to her people was mostly lost on Rothberg. To this day, she said American Jews ask themselves, "where were we and what did we know?"

She also remembers talk about letter-writing campaigns to defeat limits on the immigration of German Jews, Rothberg said.

But it was not until the end of the war, when firsthand accounts of the death camps, gas chambers, mass graves and crematoriums made headlines, did Rothberg grasp the magnitude of the Holocaust.

As the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust became evident, Rothberg said it also changed her opposition to Zionism. Many European Jews who settled in America considered themselves assimilated to American culture and life. Zionism, however, drew attention to the apparent inability by Jews to assimilate in foreign countries, hence the need for their own nation in Palestine, she said.

News of the death camps called attention to the fact "maybe we hadn't made it" after all, she said. As a result, Rothberg become more active in Jewish affairs, and to this day donates to organizations that teach tolerance.

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