My Parents Were Saved on Schindler’s List. Then America Took Us In

Only mediocrities shun the competition of new challengers and seek to restrict immigration

The Stuttgarter Zeitung runs a photograph in 1999 of the list of 1,200 Jewish concentration camp inmates saved by Oskar Schindler.

On Friday, January 13, 1950, my parents and I arrived with another 1,295 displaced persons aboard the USS General Stuart Heintzelman at Pier 59 on West 19th street in Manhattan.

James Remy, captain of the crowded vessel, called it the “the worst crossing he had ever experienced,” according to a story published the next day in the New York Times.

People aboard the ship were seasick from the 45-foot waves, sometimes confined to their quarters which were large spaces divided between women and children on one side of the boat and men on the other, with no privacy whatsoever.  Many children came down with measles. 

But when my parents (Holocaust survivors who’d been on the now-famous Oskar Schindler’s list) and I (born in Germany after the war) set foot on U.S. soil as refugees, among the lucky ones designated to become permanent residents through the Displaced Persons Act (signed into law in June 1948 by President Harry Truman), we could not have been happier. 

Picked out from the crowd, I was photographed pointing to a large page on the calendar and under the headline: “Friday the 13th? It’s a Great Day.”

Samuel Heilman, when he was 3, arriving in New York Harbor on January 13, 1950.
New York Times

My picture appeared in a bunch of papers with the accompanying story that explained how fortunate we were and how we now brought the number of DP’s allowed in the United States to over 122,000. The number would ultimately rise to 415,000.

It was barely 10 years after 937 refugees – not much different from us – had been refused entry and their ship, the St. Louis, turned back to Germany where many were sent to their death.

The dark shadow of that unsuccessful voyage more than helped my parents disregard their own rough passage.

Even the fact that my mother and I had been accidently locked in a shower as we passed the Statue of Liberty, with her famous greeting that meant so much to us: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” which we all surely were, couldn’t spoil a thing.

Many of the refugees like us went on to build lives, transforming a nation of immigrants into the true new colossus, the most powerful and free home of the brave, from sea to shining sea. 

My mother, for whom the transition had been most difficult and who was traumatized by her years of torture and insecurities, had barely left our new home in Boston during the first six months of our life in the U.S. In time, she would come to repeat, like the words of her many prayers: “God Bless America.”

She watched as we all pursued and found the American dream, and made our own contributions to making America great by lifting ourselves up. 

As I grew into the social scientist and educator I now am, I understood through my own life experience and the facts on the ground that the decisions lawmakers and leaders of America had made to open their borders to immigrants – to people willing to take the risk of starting their lives over, learn a new language and reassemble themselves – was the true secret of America’s continuing ability to revive itself and beat all challengers to its dominance.

It is the countries that accept immigrants and open themselves to refugees who consistently surpass the creativity, productivity and progress of those nations that close themselves off from newcomers, who believe they have all the talents and abilities they need within their borders. 

The hunger, initiative and infectious patriotism that refugees have for the country that opens itself to them and offers them an adoptive home can never be exceeded by the sense of entitlement and superiority that infects nativist cultures who fear the stranger and limit the immigrant.

Mediocrities generally shun the competition of new challengers and seek to restrict immigration.  A president who claims his goal is to “Make America Great Again,” but whose signature act becomes to close the door on refugees, build a wall to restrict immigrants, and warns the rest of us to shut up if we protest this is dooming his nation to mediocrity. 

And those who encourage or endorse such actions – be they at home or abroad – are no better.