Bela, the Forgotten War Orphan

Bela, the Forgotten War Orphan

Regarding the murkier pieces of the story, the family has its theories.

“The way the story goes is that Bert wanted to adopt a little Jewish orphan,” Beth said, “and in the middle of the process he gets a Dear John letter.”

Neither Ruth nor Beth knew much about Jeanne Simons before she left Brooklyn. In 1947, she married Meyer Kashkin in Florida. They had a daughter, Deena Altman, who lives in San Diego with her family. Ms. Altman, 65, agreed to talk about her mother but knew almost nothing about the orphan photographed with her mother on the LaGuardia tarmac.

She remembered a rare conversation about her mother’s past, Ms. Altman said, when Jeanne told her about her marriage to Bert Simons. By then, Jeanne lived in Los Angeles and had a new family with her second husband. She and Bert married much too young, Jeanne told her, and she was miserable. Before Bert joined the army, Ms. Altman recalled her mother telling her, she had two abortions.

While Bert was overseas, Jeanne fell in love with a neighbor. She planned to tell Bert she wanted a divorce when he got back from his service, when she got word of Bela’s adoption. “When she found out about the adoption, it was already done and she had no say in it,” said Ms. Altman. “She didn’t really tell me how it resolved itself, she just told me it was an overwhelming moment and really difficult.”

After that conversation, Ms. Altman said, she never heard about Bela from her mother again. Years later, leafing through Jeanne’s old photo albums, Ms. Altman was reminded of the conversation with her mother. “I saw her life with Bertie, and in the back there was this picture that was just floating there, of this little girl, and I thought, Gee, I wonder if that’s the orphan.”

By then, Jeanne was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and Ms. Altman couldn’t ask her questions. In 2013 a genealogist emailed Ms. Altman about Bela Simons. He’d been hired by Captain Nowalsky’s family to locate survivors he’d helped during the war. Ms. Altman didn’t have answers; she didn’t even know if Bela was alive. A few days later, the genealogist wrote back to her to tell her that Bela had been adopted by Bert’s sister Lottie, and that she was alive.

When Lottie Simons first met Abraham Saperstein, at a tuberculosis sanitarium in Saranac Lake, he told her he was going to marry her. Which he did.

They lived on Long Island, where Abraham had a medical practice, and both were active members of the local temple, the country club and various charitable organizations.


After a day on the front page, Bela quickly became Ruth. Credit Andy McMillan for The New York Times

In 1933 their son, Raymond, was born. Lottie, often in and out of the hospital struggling with TB, was told she couldn’t bear more children. It is quite likely that when Bert arranged to adopt a German orphan, he had his sister in mind as the mother. Before meeting Bela, he asked Lottie about her “full requirements” and promised to send photographs. With her authorization, he wrote, he would arrange to make “authentic contact with a youngster.” He referred to Bela — whom he almost immediately began calling Ruth — as Lottie’s child from the get-go.

While adopting a war orphan in Europe was exceedingly difficult, obtaining a visa was almost unheard-of. Apart from a peak in the early 20th century — nearly 12,000 arrivals at Ellis Island were processed in a single day in April 1907 — immigration into the United States had been generally restricted over the years. The Immigration Act of 1924 limited the number of immigrants based on a national origins quota, resulting in the restriction of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia. During the Depression, President Herbert Hoover encouraged the State Department to reduce the number of visas issued. It became very difficult for individuals to enter the U.S. once the war had begun.

A 1939 Gallup poll found that 67 percent of Americans opposed accepting refugee children from Germany. But as details of the mass murder in Europe emerged, President Franklin D. Roosevelt came under international pressure to help rescue Nazi victims. Roosevelt circumvented the immigration quotas of 1924 by establishing the Oswego internment camp. He opened up an unused military shelter in Fort Ontario, in Oswego, N.Y., for 983 refugees to come in as “guests,” under the provision that they’d return to Europe after the war.

Historians have found it impossible to estimate the number of children orphaned by the war. Some children came to the United States under the premise that they’d stay with relatives. Many bounced around different homes, said Beth B. Cohen, a historian and the author of “Case Closed: Holocaust Survivors In Postwar America.”

Children like Bela, who often didn’t know their own name, age or hometown, were transferred to orphanages around Europe. Jewish organizations encouraged orphans to be sent to communal settlements, or kibbutzim, in Palestine. Bela herself was slated to ship off to Palestine. But Sergeant Simon’s military connections, combined with his sister’s financial resources and community connections, changed her fate.

Days after meeting Bela, he actually kidnapped her. At one point, Bela was transferred to a displaced persons’ camp in the British zone without his knowledge. When officials refused to release her to him, Sergeant Simons bundled her up in his G.I. overcoat, and they took off in his jeep. According to an article that ran that April in The Grooper, a weekly newspaper of the American military in Germany, “high-ranking brass” gave him a pass. He wasn’t charged.

Sergeant Simons managed to place Ruth in a private home in Berlin under U.N. supervision, where she would receive personal care and he could visit more frequently. His letters to Lottie during this time describe a near-obsession with Ruth’s plight. He reached out to Jewish welfare organizations helping refugees, the State Department in Berlin and the Judge Advocate General’s office.

Meanwhile, Bert urged Lottie to use her connections in the community to lobby congressmen. Among those, he mentioned New York Representative Emanuel Celler, a key immigration advocate who had been in Congress since 1923, and who had spoken out against the Immigration Act of 1924.

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