A New Ex­o­dus

Why Our Im­mi­gra­tion Sto­ries Still Mat­ter

Forward Magazine - - Contents - By Adam Langer

Amanda Mo­rales hasn’t gone out­side to­day. She didn’t go out yes­ter­day or the day be­fore ei­ther. She is stand­ing in­side the Holy­rood Epis­co­pal Church in Wash­ing­ton Heights, gaz­ing out a win­dow and wait­ing for her two el­dest chil­dren to come home from school. Out­side, it’s cold and over­cast and the view isn’t much for her to look at — apart­ment build­ings, den­tists’ of­fices, a chunk of the Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Bridge. Still, it looks a lot brighter out there than it does here in this solemn Gothic Re­vival church that’s been on the cor­ner of 179th Street and Fort Wash­ing­ton Av­enue since 1914.

In 2004, when she was 17, Mo­rales left her home town in Dolores, Gu­atemala, trav­eled to Mon­ter­rey, Mex­ico, and crossed into Texas. She says that she came to Amer­ica in part be­cause of Gu­atemala’s high crime rate, and she was also afraid of the para­mil­i­tary group that had been try­ing un­suc­cess­fully to re­cruit one of her brothers. She ap­par­ently didn’t un­der­stand that she could have ap­plied for asy­lum when she moved to Long Is­land, where two of her si­b­lings and the fa­ther of her chil­dren still live.

Though she re­mained in the U.S. il­le­gally, Mo­rales worked for a cello com­pany and paid her taxes. Her three chil­dren — Dulce, 10, Daniela, 8, and David, 4 — were born in the States. Even so, the U.S. Im­mi­gra­tion and Cus­toms En­force­ment agency (ICE) is­sued a de­por­ta­tion or­der for Mo­rales, in­struct­ing her to pur­chase a one-way ticket back to Gu­atemala. When she didn’t and in­stead ar­rived at Holy­rood with her chil­dren in Au­gust 2017, she be­came a fugi­tive.

Mo­rales, now 34, has been called the first im­mi­grant in Amer­ica to seek sanc­tu­ary in the Trump era. Save for a cou­ple of short walks in the neigh­bor­hood for doc­tors’ and den­tists’ ap­point­ments, ac­com­pa­nied by friends and vol­un­teers, she hasn’t left the church since she took refuge here.

“Not be­ing able to go out,” Mo­rales says. “That’s the worst part.”


Jef­frey Gale, the cur­rent rabbi of He­brew Taber­na­cle Con­gre­ga­tion, which is just a few min­utes’ walk from Holy­rood, is sit­ting in a pew in the mostly empty church. He came here to­day to visit with Mo­rales, some­thing he does reg­u­larly, and to in­vite her chil­dren to a Fri­day night fam­ily ser­vice at his syn­a­gogue. Right now, he’s wait­ing for Rev. Luis Bar­rios, the charis­matic, ac­tivist priest in charge of Holy­rood who opened the church to Mo­rales and her chil­dren. Gale and Bar­rios will be head­ing to River­side Church later to­day to meet with Ravi Rag­bir, the Trinidad-born im­mi­grant rights ac­tivist and ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the New Sanc­tu­ary Coali­tion. Rag­bir has been fight­ing his own or­der of de­por­ta­tion.

Rabbi Gale tells me that Amanda Mo­rales’s plight re­minds him of the time he spent in the early 1980s in the for­mer Soviet Union meet­ing with Jewish dis­si­dents, in­clud­ing one who’d been ar­rested for teach­ing He­brew. “Two of the peo­ple I saw there wound up in the Gu­lag,” he says. “What’s the dif­fer­ence here? Yuri An­dropov was premier there; what’s our ex­cuse? Why does ICE have to act like the KGB?”

It’s a lit­tle past 3 p.m. The girls, Dulce and Daniela, have come back from school and Mo­rales is walk­ing with them down the nave of the church while push­ing David in a stroller to­ward the makeshift apart­ment where they’ve been liv­ing. Rabbi Gale glances

over at them, then asks me if I’m fa­mil­iar with a line from the Hag­gadah, the story of the Ex­o­dus from Egypt that is told at the Passover Seder: “In ev­ery gen­er­a­tion, each per­son is ob­li­gated to see him or her­self as though he or she per­son­ally came forth from Egypt.”

“Mai­monides adds a key word when he’s dis­cussing this pas­sage — he says that each of us must ‘ con­duct our­selves’ as if we came out of Egypt,” Gale tells me. “What he means is that this is our re­spon­si­bil­ity. We have to help peo­ple get out of their own per­sonal Egypts, and this is her Egypt.”


Wash­ing­ton Heights — a neigh­bor­hood in up­per Man­hat­tan lo­cated be­tween the Har­lem and Hud­son rivers — was once a refuge for Euro­pean im­mi­grants, but it’s now a pri­mar­ily Latino en­clave. And, though Amanda Mo­rales’s story may sound unique to our era, she’s only the lat­est in a long line of refugees who have come here. In the 1930s and ’40s, they came from Nazi-oc­cu­pied Europe; af­ter the end of the Viet­nam War, they came from South­east Asia. Now, the neigh­bor­hood, which was once nick­named “Frank­furt on the Hud­son” be­cause of its Ger­man refugee pop­u­la­tion, is known, in the words of Lin-Manuel Mi­randa, as “the Heights.” Two-thirds of its denizens are Latino, and ser­vices at Holy­rood are con­ducted in both English and Span­ish. In a hall­way at Holy­rood, a sign has been pinned to a cork­board: “No Mas De­porta­ciones!”

The long, twisty path that led me to this neigh­bor­hood and to Mo­rales’s story be­gins about 75 Passovers ago — in par­tic­u­lar, with a 1943 ar­ti­cle about im­mi­gra­tion that the For­ward’s ar­chiv­ist, Chana Pol­lack, dis­cov­ered.

In 1943, the For­ward al­ready had a long his­tory of ad­vo­cat­ing for the rights of Jewish im­mi­grants — in 1917, call­ing on Pres­i­dent Wil­son to over­rule a bill aimed at curb­ing im­mi­gra­tion; tal­ly­ing the hu­man costs of the lim­its placed on Jewish im­mi­gra­tion in the early 1920s; re­port­ing from Ha­vana in 1926 about the thou­sands of Rus­sian

Jews forced to stay there when the U.S. adopted a new quota law.

The is­sue of the 1943 news­pa­per is dated April 23. The U.S. had been in World War II for about a year and a half — and the For­ward was re­port­ing news of Jews be­ing mas­sa­cred in War­saw; Win­ston Churchill said that Nazis were plan­ning gas at­tacks on Rus­sia. But another story in that day’s pa­per catches my at­ten­tion: “At a Seder for Refugee Chil­dren.”

This short, poignant ar­ti­cle by Si­mon We­ber that Chana Pol­lack has trans­lated from Yid­dish into English, tells of a Seder that was held at He­brew Taber­na­cle Con­gre­ga­tion, the same con­gre­ga­tion that Jef­frey Gale now leads. The Seder was at­tended by ap­prox­i­mately 100 child refugees from Nazi-oc­cu­pied Europe. Some of the chil­dren had made their way to Wash­ing­ton Heights from Eng­land via the Kin­der­trans­port, in which unac­com­pa­nied Jewish mi­nors flee­ing the Nazis were granted ad­mis­sion to the coun­try by the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment.

In a tra­di­tional Seder, a child asks the oth­ers at the ta­ble the “Four Ques­tions” about the pur­pose of the cer­e­mony; af­ter­ward, grownups pro­vide the ex­ceed­ingly long an­swer. But here in the Heights, the Ex­o­dus was told and acted out al­most ex­clu­sively by chil­dren. And the par­al­lels be­tween their lives and those of the Hag­gadah’s ex­iled Jews seemed in­cred­i­bly timely.

A boy named Max Frankel, age 13, re­cited the Kid­dush — the bless­ing over the wine.

Frankel’s par­ents were Pol­ish cit­i­zens, but he was born in Ger­many, where the fam­ily ran a store that had opened only a few weeks be­fore Hitler be­came Ger­many’s chan­cel­lor. Max and his mother had se­cured pas­sage to Amer­ica via Hol­land, but Max’s fa­ther had been cap­tured by the Rus­sians. At the time of the Seder, as far as Frankel knew, his fa­ther was in Siberia.

“When Max stood up with the wine glass in his hand and started chant­ing in the tra­di­tional melody, one didn’t need to be re­li­gious to be trans­ported,” We­ber wrote. “He too had a past filled with mi­gra­tion and per­se­cu­tion. The role he acted in the Ex­o­dus story was not for­eign to him.”

Werner Ul­rich, age 12, asked the Four Ques­tions. He, his par­ents and his older brother, Ernest, left Mu­nich in Janaury, 1939, two months af­ter Kristall­nacht, and headed to Eng­land, then came to Amer­ica in 1940. Ul­rich’s fa­ther, Karl Jus­tus Ul­rich, who had been a judge in Ger­many, was now work­ing as a ship­ping clerk, and his mother, Mar­garethe “Grete” Ul­rich, worked at home as a seam­stress.

“Werner is one of the lucky ones,” We­ber wrote. “He was saved from Pharaoh with his par­ents and an older brother.”

Rabbi Max Green­wald ded­i­cated the Seder to all of the chil­dren still trapped in Hitler’s Europe. At this point, Al­fred Berg, a slightly built, weary 12-year-old Kin­der­trans­port refugee, who was liv­ing in Wash­ing­ton Heights with his aunt, un­cle and younger brother, burst into tears.

“Where are your par­ents?” We­ber asked the boy.

Berg said he didn’t know — the last he’d heard of his mother was that she was in Mar­seilles, France, and his fa­ther was in a con­cen­tra­tion camp.

We­ber asked how long Berg had been in Amer­ica. “One and a half years,” he said. “I won­dered where his par­ents were now,” We­ber wrote. “Their mother is prob­a­bly cry­ing rivers of tears at not be­ing able to be to­gether with her beloved chil­dren… And their fa­ther, wher­ever he may be, is also prob­a­bly chok­ing out a tear that on the night Jews cel­e­brate free­dom from their slav­ery un­der Pharaoh, he is among mil­lions of other Jews en­slaved by a worse tyrant. Take com­fort…Your chil­dren are think­ing about you and haven’t for­got­ten you in their mo­ments of great joy. And not only your chil­dren, but also Amer­i­can Jews haven’t for­got­ten and won’t for­get you.”

Seven and a half decades later, though, the de­tails of this par­tic­u­lar story have been more or less for­got­ten. We­ber won­dered about the fate of the par­ents, but as I read his story, I found my­self won­der­ing what hap­pened to their chil­dren — to Werner Ul­rich, who was “saved from Pharaoh” and brought to live at 1 Sick­les Street; to Al­fred Berg, who had al­ready been sep­a­rated from his par­ents for more than a year and a half; to Max Fran-

In April 1943, He­brew Taber­na­cle hosted a Seder for ap­prox­i­mately one hun­dred child refugees from Nazioc­cu­pied Europe.

kel, who dis­played a flair for the the­atri­cal as he re­cited the Kid­dush. And what hap­pened to We­ber, who wrote the ar­ti­cle?

Seventy-five years is a long time to wait be­fore fol­low­ing up on a story. And yet, im­prob­a­bly, the sto­ries of those refugee Seder chil­dren en­dure. Though the three boys in­ter­viewed for We­ber’s story don’t re­mem­ber the Seder it­self, they still vividly re­call the sto­ries that took them there and the lives they made for them­selves in Amer­ica — in law, in en­gi­neer­ing, in jour­nal­ism. The lives those chil­dren wound up lead­ing, and the lives of the refugees who fol­lowed them in the neigh­bor­hood where they grew up, at­test to the way im­mi­gra­tion has al­tered the fates and for­tunes of fam­i­lies, and to how those fam­i­lies have changed the coun­try that adopted them. To para­phrase the Hag­gadah, what would have be­come of them if they hadn’t es­caped their own per­sonal Egypts? To para­phrase “In the Heights” — Who would they be if they’d never seen Man­hat­tan?

And who would we have be­come with­out them?

I wanted to see if I could find out.


Si­mon We­ber, who wrote the 1943 For­ward ar­ti­cle, had his own com­pli­cated im­mi­gra­tion story. We­ber, who died in 1987 at the age of 76, started out as a staff writer for the For­ward in 1939. He would go on to edit the sto­ries of Isaac Ba­she­vis Singer and serve as the For­ward’s ed­i­tor-in-chief from 1970 to 1987. He ar­rived in Amer­ica in 1929.

“He him­self was prob­a­bly an il­le­gal im­mi­grant,” We­ber’s daugh­ter, Lil­lian Sil­ver, told me. Sil­ver, who has worked as the devel­op­ment di­rec­tor of the Metropoli­tan Opera and ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent of the Park Av­enue Ar­mory, says that, early on, her fa­ther was an avowed so­cial­ist who used forged doc­u­ments to get out of Poland; he worked in Ar­gentina as a painter and a tai­lor un­til he had enough money to come to the States. “How he got to the U.S. was

never to­tally clear,” Sil­ver says. “It was a very dif­fi­cult jour­ney, but when he came to Amer­ica, he be­came the most pa­tri­otic per­son you could imag­ine.” In Amer­ica, We­ber later be­came an ar­dent anti-Com­mu­nist and pro­vided tes­ti­mony against the In­ter­na­tional Work­ers Or­der (IWO), but that’s another story.

In his 1943 ar­ti­cle about the Seder, We­ber wrote, “Lis­ten­ing to the tale of the Egyp­tian ex­o­dus from these chil­dren, it takes on an en­tirely new mean­ing. The an­cient leg­end is re­newed and feels as though it could have taken place only yes­ter­day.”

“I think of how ex­tra­or­di­nary it must have been for him to meet these chil­dren,” said Sil­ver, who was one year old when her fa­ther wrote the ar­ti­cle. “You get the sense that they didn’t un­der­stand how dire their sit­u­a­tion was, and when you re­al­ize how many were or­phaned, it’s ter­ri­bly mov­ing. When he writes about the chil­dren act­ing out the story of the Ex­o­dus, it re­minds me of how he used to talk about the way his grand­fa­ther acted out these scenes. His grand­fa­ther was a fa­mous folk poet in Poland, a bad­khan, a hu­mor­ous sto­ry­teller who would go from town to town. So, talk­ing to these chil­dren must have evoked for him his own ex­pe­ri­ences as a child at Sed­ers; he would have un­der­stood what it was like to not be at your own home with your own fam­ily tra­di­tions.”


“One thing about com­ing to Amer­ica was a lit­tle com­pli­cated,” Werner Ul­rich tells me. “Some­how I had de­vel­oped a prej­u­dice against the U.S.”

“My un­cle’s fam­ily were very pa­tri­otic English peo­ple, and they tended to look down on the U.S. with no jus­ti­fi­ca­tion what­so­ever,” he says. “But I did have that prej­u­dice, and I was a lit­tle bit un­set­tled at first. At one point, my mother had to come in to talk to the teacher about my mis­be­hav­ior, and the teacher was very kind. The only thing she picked on was the fact that I used Bri­tish terms like ‘lorry’ in­stead of ‘truck.’ My mother asked me, ‘Why don’t you use the Amer­i­can terms?’ And as my mother sank into the ground, I said, ‘What’s good for Eng­land should be good enough for Amer­ica!’ But that was just me ac­cli­mat­ing to the tran­si­tion. For the first three months, I lived with my un­cle’s fam­ily and my par­ents. Ernest, my brother, lived in some­what squalid quar­ters sep­a­rately. But in June, we moved in to­gether as a fam­ily, and af­ter three to six months, I would say I was fully ac­cli­mated.”

Ul­rich, a re­tired en­gi­neer and patent at­tor­ney, now lives in the sub­urbs of Chicago, with his wife, Ur­sula Ul­rich, a re­tired li­brar­ian. They were mar­ried in 1959. Born in Leipzig, Ger­many, Ur­sula left with her par­ents for Eng­land in June, 1939, and came to Amer­ica in Oc­to­ber, 1940. Many of her rel­a­tives stayed be­hind and died in the Holo­caust.

“There is no grave for my fa­ther’s mother,” she says. “She was killed by the Nazis and she ended up in a mass grave.”

I had man­aged to track the Ul­richs down with the help of a phone call to their daugh­ter, a ref­er­ence li­brar­ian. “We have five grand­chil­dren,” says Ur­sula Ul­rich, who got a de­gree in English from the Univer­sity of Chicago. “And all of us were not sup­posed to have chil­dren or grand­chil­dren, ac­cord­ing to Hitler.”

“We did not have close re­la­tions with

‘I think of how ex­tra­or­di­nary it must have been for him to meet these chil­dren. He un­der­stood what it was like not to be at your own home.’

any of our neigh­bors, but it was a gen­er­ally very friendly neigh­bor­hood,” Werner Ul­rich says of the time he lived with his brother and par­ents in Wash­ing­ton Heights. “It had a lot of parks, and I could walk to school if I wanted to save the nickel for the bus, which I fre­quently did.”

Re­call­ing his fam­ily’s ar­rival in Amer­ica, Ul­rich says his fa­ther made the tran­si­tion from be­ing a judge to work­ing as a ship­ping clerk sur­pris­ingly smoothly.

“He tried to make the best of it. He would try to learn about the places where the com­pany he was work­ing for was ship­ping things,” Ul­rich said. “If some­one was ship­ping some­thing

‘We have five grand­chil­dren, and all of us were not sup­posed to have chil­dren or grand­chil­dren, ac­cord­ing to Hitler.’

to North Dakota, he would try to find it on a map.” Karl Jus­tus Ul­rich later be­came a Ger­man teacher at Co­lum­bia Gram­mar School in New York.

Werner Ul­rich stud­ied at Co­lum­bia Univer­sity and got a doc­tor­ate in en­gi­neer­ing sci­ence there. In 1966 and 1967, he taught at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley, where a speech Martin Luther King gave on cam­pus made a strong im­pres­sion: “King had been crit­i­cized for de­vi­at­ing from civil rights to con­cen­trate on his anti-Viet­nam pos­ture, and he said, ‘Some­times, you have to do some­thing not be­cause it’s pop­u­lar, not be­cause it’s ex­pe­di­ent, but you do it be­cause it’s right.’ And of course, he was right.”

Ul­rich had been work­ing at Bell Lab­o­ra­to­ries and was trans­ferred to work in Bell’s Chicago area of­fices where he de­vel­oped tele­phone cen­tral of­fice equip­ment. He was pro­moted to man­age­ment, made his way to the patent depart­ment and, af­ter he turned 50, went back to school to get a law de­gree from Loy­ola Univer­sity.

What’s most in­ter­est­ing about the Ul­richs is not just their per­sonal sto­ries, but the way those sto­ries ex­pand to en­com­pass other sto­ries, the way one im­mi­grant’s story be­comes an en­tire his­tory of im­mi­gra­tion. Ul­rich’s late brother, Ernest, worked in the im­por­t­ex­port busi­ness and, af­ter he re­tired, vol­un­teered for Hu­man Rights Watch; he helped to start HRW’s Ger­man branch in Ber­lin. Ur­sula Ul­rich’s sis­ter, Su­san Wolff, worked as a school­teacher in New York and Vir­ginia where she be­came one of the first teach­ers to use com­put­ers in the class­room. She is po­lit­i­cally ac­tive and, re­cently or­ga­nized a group of 100 or so to at­tend a speech given by Gold Star fa­ther Khizr Khan, who be­came in­volved in a highly pub­li­cized dis­pute with Don­ald Trump dur­ing the run-up to the 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion.

“And just plain wrong — the big­otry,” Ur­sula Ul­rich adds. “We’re all ob­sessed about what hap­pened to the Jews and so we tend to be very wel­com­ing to im­mi­grants, and we find the anti-Mus­lim prej­u­dice ap­palling. And those young peo­ple who were brought here — the DACA peo­ple — we just hope it’s go­ing to work out for them.”


The Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Bus Ter­mi­nal, which Amanda Mo­rales can see from the front of Holy­rood Church, has been there since the early 1960s. Al­fred Berg can still re­mem­ber the apart­ment build­ings that used to be there be­fore they were lev­eled to make way for the bus sta­tion. He’d pass them on his way to play hand­ball or chess in Fort Wash­ing­ton Park.

In 1943, when he at­tended the Seder at He­brew Taber­na­cle, where his un­cle and aunt were mem­bers, Berg still held out some hope that he would see his par­ents again. He never did. The last mem­o­ries he has of his par­ents is of them wav­ing to him be­hind the fence of an in­tern­ment camp as he was sent off to a chil­dren’s home in France. Since he was 8, he has kept an al­bum filled with pho­tos and the let­ters that his par­ents sent him.

“They were mur­dered in Auschwitz,” Berg tells me from his home in Rock­land County, New York, where he lives with his wife. “I had pretty much as­sumed that’s what hap­pened when we lost con­tact with them, but I didn’t learn the truth un­til a num­ber of years af­ter the war. In those days, mail was cen­sored and you couldn’t get much in­for­ma­tion. We knew they were in an in­tern­ment camp, but then we lost con­tact. Ul­ti­mately, what we found out, af­ter a lot of dig­ging in records from Yad Vashem, is that they were shipped by cat­tle cars to Auschwitz. I’ve tried for years to find out ex­actly what took place, but all I know is they were prob­a­bly put in a gas cham­ber a few days af­ter they got there.”

Berg, 87, got his de­gree in en­gi­neer­ing from Ne­wark Col­lege of En­gi­neer­ing. He served in the army dur­ing the Korean War, and af­ter his ser­vice, found work as a civil en­gi­neer. He spent most of his ca­reer with New York’s Metropoli­tan Tran­sit Author­ity. He and his wife have two adult daugh­ters.

“I’ve had a nor­mal, Amer­i­can life,” Berg says. “I came here as an im­mi­grant kid, and that’s what this coun­try is com­posed of. It’s com­posed of im­mi­grants, and it’s been that way for gen­er­a­tions. When I was grow­ing up, I felt like a nor­mal Amer­i­can kid be­cause that’s what I was.”


“As my mother said,” Max Frankel tells me. “’Any­body who got out has a story.”

There are about a dozen Max Frankels liv­ing in New York. But, shortly af­ter I send an email to the first one on my list, to the Max Frankel who was ex­ec­u­tive ed­i­tor of The New York Times, to the Max Frankel whose pic-

ture could at one time be found on the side of Times’ de­liv­ery trucks, he emails back to tell me I found the right one.

Frankel, now 87, is re­tired and lives on the Up­per West Side of Man­hat­tan. Though he doesn’t re­call the refugee Seder, he still re­mem­bers He­brew Taber­na­cle, where he con­ducted ser­vices as a kid and where he played the lead in a show called “Best Foot For­ward,” which fea­tured the hit song “Buckle Down, Winsocki.” (The mu­si­cal was later turned into a 1943 movie star­ring Lu­cille Ball.)

“That’s where I was bar mitz­va­hed,” Frankel says. “I had a great singing voice, and I was a great ham.”

“There was very lit­tle traf­fic,” Frankel says of his old neigh­bor­hood. “We played ‘curb ball’ on the cor­ners. You’d bounce the ball off the cor­ner curb, and the other three cor­ners would be the other bases.”

He de­scribes Wash­ing­ton Heights as “heav­ily Jewish.” “It was made up of Ger­man refugees with whom I did not di­rectly as­so­ciate at the time be­cause we re­garded our­selves as Eastern Euro­pean and they looked down on us,” he says. “We were at the south­ern end of the neigh­bor­hood, and when you crossed Broad­way, you got into a Puerto Ri­can neigh­bor­hood briefly, and there was the Ir­ish neigh­bor­hood where you might get the hell beaten out of you, and when you got to St. Ni­cholas, there was a fairly elite black pop­u­la­tion, and then you got to Coogan’s Bluff, over­look­ing the Polo Grounds, where we would climb up on the rocks and watch a bit of a ball­game.”

If you’re look­ing for an all-Amer­i­can tale of im­mi­grant suc­cess, you’d be hard-pressed to find a story bet­ter than Frankel’s. His fa­ther, who made his way out of Siberia and even­tu­ally ar­rived in Amer­ica on Colum­bus Day 1946, opened a store called “Frankel’s” at the cor­ner of Am­s­ter­dam Av­enue and 145th Street. Mean­while, Max, went into jour­nal­ism.

“My mythol­ogy aptly suited Amer­ica, which in­spires the am­bi­tion to com­mand even as it re­wards ef­forts to con­form,” Frankel wrote in “The Times of My Life and My Life with The Times,” the 1999 mem­oir about his re­mark­able ca­reer, which was pub­lished more than 50 years af­ter he re­cited the Kid­dush at He­brew Taber­na­cle.

Frankel spent half a cen­tury with The New York Times, start­ing out as a $20-a-week re­porter cov­er­ing cam­pus news while still at­tend­ing col­lege at Co­lum­bia. In the army, he worked as a cor­re­spon­dent for Stars and Stripes, and, af­ter he got out, be­gan work as a full-time re­porter for The Times in 1952. He served as a Mos­cow cor­re­spon­dent in the 1950s, a Wash­ing­ton cor­re­spon­dent in the ’60s and White House cor­re­spon­dent dur­ing the John­son ad­min­is­tra­tion; as head of the Wash­ing­ton bu­reau, he was in­stru­men­tal in the Times’s de­ci­sion to pub­lish the so-called “Pen­tagon Pa­pers” in 1971. In 1973, he won a Pulitzer Prize for his cov­er­age of Richard Nixon’s trip to China, then went on to serve as The Times’s ex­ec­u­tive ed­i­tor. If you Google “Max Frankel” and “Ger­ald Ford,” you’ll find the most mem­o­rable mo­ment of the 1976 pres­i­den­tial de­bates be­tween Ford and Jimmy Carter, in which an in­cred­u­lous Frankel asks a flum­moxed Ford to ex­plain his as­ser­tion that there was “no Soviet dom­i­na­tion of Eastern Europe.”

“When we lived in Wash­ing­ton Heights, my stop was 157th. When I went to Mu­sic and Art High School, it was 137th. When I went to Co­lum­bia, my stop was 116th, and when I worked for the Times, my stop was 42nd. We

had a big house in Riverdale, then my wife and I moved back to the city,” Frankel says. “I’ve spent my whole life on the Num­ber 1 train.”

In 2001, not long af­ter he’d stopped writ­ing a me­dia col­umn for the Times, Frankel wrote an es­say for the pa­per’s 150th an­niver­sary. It was nearly 60 years af­ter he’d come to Amer­ica, and yet, his own story and how it re­lated to those of other be­sieged com­mu­ni­ties was still fresh in his mind. “Turn­ing Away From the Holo­caust” ad­dressed how The Times had buried the story of Nazi geno­cide as it was hap­pen­ing, and dis­cussed the im­pli­ca­tions of that over­sight.

“To this day the fail­ure of Amer­ica’s me­dia to fas­ten upon Hitler’s mad atroc­i­ties stirs the con­science of suc­ceed­ing gen­er­a­tions of re­porters and edi­tors,” he wrote. “It has made them acutely alert to eth­nic bar­bar­i­ties in far-off places like Uganda, Rwanda, Bos­nia and Kosovo. It leaves them ob­vi­ously re­solved that in the face of geno­cide, jour­nal­ism shall not have failed in vain.”

“My fam­ily were refugees,” Frankel tells me. “We had a hell of a time get­ting our visa be­cause of the pol­icy of the gov­ern­ment to keep peo­ple out. The story of im­mi­gra­tion to the United States has haunted me all my life.”


The story of the refugee Seder and how the kids who at­tended it suc­ceeded in Amer­ica could end there. But it doesn’t — be­cause the tale of im­mi­grants com­ing to He­brew Taber­na­cle and trans­form­ing them­selves and their coun­try per­sisted and still per­sists. The faces are dif­fer­ent; their sto­ries are fa­mil­iar.

Thirty-five Passovers later, it’s the late 1970’s. The Viet­nam War is over, and South Viet­namese refugees have been flee­ing their coun­try’s Com­mu­nist regime in mas­sive num­bers. Hun­dreds of thou­sands of the so-called “boat peo­ple” are head­ing for the South China Sea, tak­ing crowded and rick­ety fish­ing ves­sels to Malaysia, Thai­land, Hong Kong and else­where.

Over the course of nearly two decades, an es­ti­mated 2 mil­lion boat peo­ple es­caped Viet­nam, and hun­dreds of thou­sands of them died at sea. Be­tween 1978 and 1997, ap­prox­i­mately 400,000 were re­set­tled in Amer­ica.

“It was a hor­ri­ble story,” says Lam Hoang Nguyen. He was 14 when his fa­ther, Be Van Nguyen, who had es­caped the coun­try af­ter be­ing re­leased from a North Viet­namese con­cen­tra­tion, or “reed­u­ca­tion,” camp, cap­tained a 12-foot-boat packed with 52 peo­ple, in­tend­ing to sail to In­done­sia. “It had al­ready taken two days, and then, be­fore we got there, we were caught by sea pi­rates,” he says. “It was very bad. They tied my fa­ther up, and I was the last kid taken off the boat by the pi­rates. They went to search the boat for money, and then they re­leased my fa­ther and let us go to In­done­sia. We were lucky. From what I heard, the next boats they cap­tured, they beat peo­ple up and raped women, but that didn’t hap­pen to us.”

At the time, Si­mon We­ber was the For­ward’s ed­i­tor-in-chief, and he likened the boat peo­ple’s predica­ment to that of Jews in Nazi Ger­many. “En­graved deep within the mem­ory of ev­ery Jew is the sad chap­ter in civ­i­liza­tion’s his­tory, when Nazi Ger­many at­tempted to carry out their pro­gram of geno­cide,” We­ber wrote on July 15, 1979. He urged the Jewish com­mu­nity to rally at the United Na­tions to help “save the ‘boat peo­ple.’”

On Fe­bru­ary 1, 1980, Robert Lehman, then the rabbi of He­brew Taber­na­cle, stood be­fore his con­gre­ga­tion to de­liver a ser­mon, ex­plain­ing why his con­gre­ga­tion would be spon­sor­ing a fam­ily of boat peo­ple. The speech can be found, along with many of his other ser­mons, in Lehman’s pa­pers at the Cen­ter for Jewish His­tory in New York.

“I re­call faintly my feel­ing when I stepped off a boat in 1938,” said Lehman, who came to Amer­ica from Ger­many at the age of 11 and served as rabbi of He­brew Taber­na­cle from 1965 to 1997. “They are refugees from per­se­cu­tion much as we were forty years ago.”

“There is a ques­tion that is asked by some,” he said. “Is this a Jewish is­sue,

‘We al­ways thank the rabbi and his tem­ple — they were there with us from the very be­gin­ning. ’

or what is Jewish about it at all? Per­son­ally, I have no sym­pa­thy for those who ask these types of ques­tions. Of course it is a Jewish mat­ter as it is the need of any and all who stand for­saken and alone…. We ac­cused the world of not com­ing to our aid when we needed it dur­ing the Holo­caust. Now, we have a chance to show the world and we must not be found want­ing.”

“My fa­ther was a refugee,” says Robert Lehman’s daugh­ter, Sharon Lehman, who is now a so­cial worker who works with foster chil­dren. “He came over from Ger­many. He was a Holo­caust sur­vivor. The con­gre­ga­tion was made up of a lot of Holo­caust sur­vivors, so it was typ­i­cal of them to want to help some­one in need.”

The con­gre­ga­tion spon­sored Be Van Nguyen, who had served as an of­fi­cer with the South Viet­namese navy, and his son Lam; the rest of the fam­ily — Nguyen’s wife and his five other chil­dren — stayed be­hind. When Nguyen and his son made enough money, they would bring ev­ery­one else over to Amer­ica. He­brew Taber­na­cle found the Nguyens an apart­ment, and do­nated money and ba­sic house­hold items — salt and pep­per shak­ers; dishes, flat­ware, bed­ding; rice bowls and chop­sticks.

“We helped them set­tle in,” says Ar­lene Haas, who re­mem­bers as­sist­ing the Nguyens when she was a stu­dent at Barnard Col­lege; she is now an en­vi­ron­men­tal lawyer in the Chicago area and has done pro bono asy­lum work and has worked with Ti­betan refugees. “I re­mem­ber hav­ing them over for din­ner, and my mom cooked in­stant rice, and the fa­ther ex­plained to her po­litely that the rice was too soggy. I re­mem­ber show­ing them the gro­cery store and how things worked there. We went over to their apart­ment, and I re­mem­ber my mother show­ing them that, in Amer­ica, we keep ba­nanas out­side of the re­frig­er­a­tor.”

One of the mem­bers of He­brew Taber­na­cle helped find Be Van Nguyen a job as a re­pair­per­son for a cuckoo clock com­pany in Man­hat­tan; Lam at­tended Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton High School.

In 2018, the Nguyens were tough to track down — theirs is an in­cred­i­bly com­mon Viet­namese sur­name. And, though, as it turns out, Lam Nguyen has told his story once be­fore — to the au­thor Janet Bode for her book “New Kids on the Block: Oral His­to­ries of Im­mi­grant Teens” — he did so us­ing a pseu­do­nym. I found him via a post on a Face­book page which led to a Viet­namese real es­tate agent who put me in touch with him.

“Oh, my God, I didn’t know any English; the only English word I knew was Coca-Cola,” Lam Nguyen tells me. “I didn’t have many win­ter clothes. I had a light jacket and shoes, and some kids made fun of me, but I kept think­ing pos­i­tive and I did my work be­cause we had to sup­port my mom and my sis­ters and my brothers. So many things had hap­pened to us: We had ev­ery­thing and we ended up hav­ing noth­ing and so we had to start our new life here all over again. I feel up to this day that I re­ally missed my child­hood, be­cause the child­hood I have in my mem­ory re­ally wasn’t that great.”

When the cuckoo clock com­pany moved from New York to Rhode Is­land, Be Van Nguyen and his son moved too. Over the years, Lam Nguyen found work at Burger King, in a Laun­dro­mat, at a cam­pus em­ploy­ment of­fice and at a bank. Most re­cently, he sold Toy­otas.

In 1990, the en­tire Nguyen fam­ily fi­nally re­united in Rhode Is­land, where many of them still live. There are chil­dren, nieces, neph­ews, grand­chil­dren and great-grand­chil­dren. Be Van Nguyen re­tired about 10 years ago.

“Some of them have just fin­ished school, some of them are en­gi­neers, some are in medicine, and some work in com­put­ers and I.T.,” says Lam Nguyen. “My fa­ther and I worked very hard and we sac­ri­ficed ev­ery­thing for our fam­ily, so the next gen­er­a­tion could have a bet­ter life. If we would’ve died at sea, none of this would have hap­pened. So, when­ever hol­i­days come or Thanks­giv­ing comes, we thank God for ev­ery­thing. And we al­ways thank the rabbi and his tem­ple — they were there with us from the very be­gin­ning. They’re al­ways in our hearts and we will never for­get them.”


It’s near­ing din­ner­time in Holy­rood Church. Out­side, the sun’s nearly down — though it was pretty dark in here be­fore, it’s darker now. Amanda Mo­rales is sit­ting on a red plas­tic chair in the front room. In the clut­tered room be­hind her, her three chil­dren are sprawled on the floor and the bunk beds. Books have been taken off shelves to make room for toi­letries, stacks of clothes and a TV with DVD player. House­hold items are stuffed in plas­tic stor­age bins. There’s no stove or kitchen to speak of, but for now, this will have to do. While she waits for word on the ap­peal of her de­por­ta­tion or­der, Mo­rales will stay here. Wel­come to the world of refugees in Amer­ica, circa 2018.

“We know we are break­ing the law,” says Fa­ther Luis Bar­rios, Holy­rood’s priest who, by his own count, has been ar­rested 65 times for civil dis­obe­di­ence. “But we have a moral obli­ga­tion to break the law. Re­mem­ber: Ev­ery­thing Hitler did was le­gal.”

At the be­gin­ning of the Mo­rales’s time here, the two older chil­dren had trou­ble ad­just­ing — the el­dest daugh­ter, Dulce, came home from school cry­ing on the first day, fear­ing other kids would find out she was liv­ing in a church. But now, Mo­rales tells me through a trans­la­tor, they have be­come more ac­cus­tomed to their sur­round­ings.

At least she isn’t afraid as she used to be; for now, she feels safe in­side this church. Al­though ar­rests for vi­o­la­tions of im­mi­gra­tion laws have gone up by 30% dur­ing Don­ald Trump’s pres­i­dency and Mo­rales says that she’s felt the changes that have taken place in the coun­try since Trump took of­fice, she thinks ICE is un­likely to ar­rest her here. (“If they do,” Fa­ther Bar­rios tells me, “the shit will re­ally hit the fan.”)

Mo­rales says the hard­est part of her ordeal is the claus­tro­pho­bia, the stress and the mad­den­ing bore­dom, the days spent watch­ing the news and soap op­eras, or mind­ing her son as she waits for her daugh­ters to come home.

From the back room, there are the sounds of chat­ter­ing and gig­gling. And, as Mo­rales’s three chil­dren laugh and play, I’m think­ing again of those three other chil­dren who came to Wash­ing­ton Heights 75 Passovers ago, and, through the help of this com­mu­nity, rein­vented them­selves as Amer­i­cans. I’m won­der­ing if these chil­dren will get the same chance.

Even so, Mo­rales says that she still thinks of this coun­try as the land of op­por­tu­nity.

“It’s a place where peo­ple come to find a bet­ter life,” she says. “When I came here, I knew what the risks were. But there are a lot of risks in ev­ery coun­try in the world.”

I ask her what the first thing is that she’ll do once she gets out of here. She gives a half-smile and looks past me and out the door.

“Take a walk,” she says. “Some­where. Any­where.”

He­brew Taber­na­cle is now led byRabbi Jef­frey Gale.

Holy­rood Epis­co­pal has been in Wash­ing­ton Heights formore than a cen­tury.


Since Au­gust, 2017, Amanda Mo­rales has been liv­ing in a makeshift apart­ment at Holy­rood Epis­co­pal Church.

The Depart­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity told Mo­rales to buy a one-way ticket to Gu­atemala.


Cap­tured Jewish civil­ians who par­tic­i­pated in the War­saw Ghetto Upris­ing are marched out of the city by Nazi troops, War­saw, Poland, April 19, 1943.


Si­mon We­ber, who had his own com­pli­cated im­mi­gra­tion story. started out as a For­ward re­porter and went on to be­come ed­i­tor-in-chief.


THE EN­GI­NEER AND THE LI­BRAR­IAN: Ur­sula and Werner Ul­rich

NOW: Al­fred Berg at home in Rock­land County, New York.


THE MEM­O­RIES: When he was sep­a­rated from his par­ents who were later mur­dered at Auschwitz, Al­fred Berg kept a book of fam­ily pho­tos and let­ters thathe still cher­ishes to­day.

THEN: Berg stand­ing be­tween his fa­ther and mother who holds his younger brother.


THE IM­MI­GRANT: While his fa­ther was im­pris­oned in Siberia, Max Frankel and his mother made their way to Amer­ica.


END­LESS VOY­AGE: In 1978, over two thou­sand boat peo­ple seek refuge in the Philip­pines.


MAN­UAL LA­BORER: Frankel would go on to be­come The New York Times’sex­ec­u­tive ed­i­tor.


THE ES­CAPEES: Many have likened the fate of Viet­namese ‘boat peo­ple’ to the plight of Jewish refugees dur­ing World War II.


THE NGUYENS: From left: Lam Hoang Nguyen, his niece Kim­berly, his fa­ther Be Van and his brother Van.


THE SYN­A­GOGUE: He­brew Taber­na­cle Con­gre­ga­tion in Wash­ing­ton Heights.


SANC­TU­ARY: Amanda Mo­rales and her son David in their tem­po­rary ac­com­mo­da­tions at Holy­rood Epis­co­pal Church.

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