Edith Lichtenstein Morgan-Froehlig describes her family’s survival as “a series of fortunate accidents.”
She was just 11 when, along with her parents and brother, she fled Europe for America in the summer of 1941.
Her father was Jewish and had been a federal judge critical of the Nazi party. After he was put under house arrest in 1933, her parents knew their family wasn’t safe in Germany, where Edith and her brother were born. They fled to France, but then that country, too, was occupied by the Nazis.
Getting out of Europe entirely was nearly impossible. The United States imposed quotas on immigrants and visas were hard to come by. The SS St. Louis, a ship carrying 900 Jewish refugees, was turned away after making the trek across the Atlantic in 1939 — 250 of those sent back were later killed.
“We just barely made it,” Morgan-Froehlig said, speaking with The Gazette by phone from her home in Worcester, Mass. “We got across the Atlantic by luck.”
Now 88, she shared her memories of that time and of the months that followed, when the Lichtenstein family found refuge in Iowa — at the Scattergood hostel in West Branch.
This year marks the 80th anniversary of the hostel’s opening. Between 1939 and 1943, instead of students, the Quaker boarding school welcomed about 185 refugees.
Iowa's impact on worldwide issue
Before World War II, Scattergood Friends School was a private Quaker school, as it is today. But it had closed in 1931 during the Great Depression.
In 1938, the American Friends Service Committee suggested it could be used to house refugees fleeing the growing conflict in Europe. In 1939, it reopened as a hostel.
The refugees came from all walks of life and several different countries. Most were Jews; others were political dissidents or others forced to flee the Nazis. At the hostel, they lived and worked together while learning English and how to integrate into American society.
Historian Michael Luick-Thrams wrote a book about the hostel, “Out of Hitler’s Reach,” and is director of the nonprofit organization TRACES, which documents relationships between Germans and Americans during WW II. He has been traveling the region talking about that history and will give a speech and tour of Scattergood, open to the public, this Tuesday, July 2.
“It’s important to me to tell these stories. I heard them directly; I have an obligation to share them,” he said.
He emphasized the history is not entirely rosy. For every refugee who made it to the United States, thousands more were left behind. And the generosity of the community only extended so far — when the Friends Committee proposed housing Japanese Americans who had been in internment camps, the West Branch community rejected the idea.
Still, Tanya Demmel, museum coordinator at the Cedar County Historical Society & Museum, said the legacy of the hostel remains an important piece of Iowa history, which is why the museum houses a permanent exhibit on it.
“In my mind it’s significant for Cedar County, because it shows a small, rural Iowa county had an impact on a worldwide issue. We weren’t just growing corn and sending off crops to feed the troops, it was this other thing where we had an impact on the lives of so many people,” she said. “It was a tricky time, coming off the Depression, and people weren’t crazy about people coming into this country and taking jobs. ... It showed the openness of Iowans in that they mostly accepted them.”
Good fortune kept family together
Morgan-Froehlig and her family stayed at the hostel for 10 months, which she remembers as an idyllic time. Raised in Paris, it was her first experience of the countryside.
“We enjoyed it greatly. It was a lot freer than the city, and there was no danger,” she said. “People were kind to us. ... I don’t remember experiencing the kind of things people complain about nowadays, discrimination and such.”
After 10 months at the hostel, they moved to St. Paul, Minn., where the Friends Service Committee had found them a sponsor family. Later she would become a teacher, and though she never had biological children, she was a foster parent for decades and considers several of her former foster children — and their children — part of her family.
She said when she thinks about her own experiences as a child, she knows they could easily have been much worse without both luck and the kindness of others.
“My mother had an absolute unerring instinct for when it was time to get out. We left Paris on foot on June 12, 1940, and the Germans marched into the north of France just after. We walked for 11 days just in front of the German army,” she said.
They then lived in the still-free southern part of France until they were able to get to the United States. Morgan-Froehlig said a Swiss family had volunteered to adopt her brother, but when her mother said no, that family instead donated their life savings so the entire Lichtenstein family could book passage to the United States together on a Portuguese ship.
All of that makes her empathetic to refugees and asylum-seekers trying to reach the United States today.
“What’s going on at the southern border — it’s horrible. Those poor people are fleeing from horrible conditions in their own countries. I’m just appalled we allow those conditions to exist, because we could do something,” she said. “We were fortunate our family was never separated. That probably would have killed my mother.”
Hostel legacy continues today
Thomas Weber, the current head of Scattergood Friends School, said the lessons and philosophies of the hostel community, in which every resident worked together, are still part of the school’s culture today, with students and teachers working alongside each other to care for the school and grounds.
“Our philosophy of teaching and learning is a progressive philosophy — everybody is involved in learning and teaching together,” he said.
That also translates back into attitudes about relationships between Americans and immigrants today, he added.
“From a Quaker perspective, it’s the value of equality. There’s a tagline ... love thy neighbor, no exceptions,” he said. “Whether they’re called migrants or refugees or immigrants, the challenge still is the same. ... It’s just recognizing the fundamental equality among all of us.”
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IF YOU GO
• What: Scattergood and German refugees history talk and tour with Michael Luick-Thrams
• When: 2 to 4 p.m. Tuesday
• Where: Scattergood School, 1951 Delta Ave., West Branch