OSE Children In Foster Homes


The OSE—the initials stand for Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants was and is an organization dedicated to the welfare of Jewish children. In 1941 and 1942 about 200 boys and girls between the ages of seven and 16 who had been living in children’s homes in France run by the OSE arrived in the United States. In most cases, one or both of their parents had either already been imprisoned or murdered by the Nazis or were trapped inside Germany, Austria, Poland or the Low Countries, after they had managed to help their children escape to France, where they were eventually taken into the OSE homes.

There were several transports. The journeys began with a long train trip to the Spanish border, then after changing trains, and across Spain and to Lisbon, Portugal where they boarded their ship, either the Mouzinho or the Serpa Pinto to cross the Atlantic Ocean. They were admitted to the U.S. on a special State Department visa, which gave them permanent residence in the country at a time when immigration laws severely restricted admission.

The boys and girls ranged in age from 7 to 16. Unofficial policy in France suggested an upper age limit of 12, based on worry that it would be difficult to find foster homes for older children. But another dictum was not to separate siblings, so if a child under age 12 was chosen all older siblings became eligible also. P84-

I was one of the group of OSE children to come to the U.S. in this way in 1941.

Close to half a century after the children arrived in the U.S. a small number of the group organized a reunion of OSE children, which took place in Los Angeles, CA in March 1989. The reunion organizers were Art Kern, Aaron Low, Renee Eisenberg [2nd generation], Norbert Rosenblum, Fred Jamner and Henry Schuster. The organizers also produced a sourvenier reunion album, for which those at the gathering, as well as some others whom the organizers located but who were unable to attend, wrote brief biographical sketches.

Following the reunion a number of OSE children agreed to participate in a confidential survey and share details of their lives in their American foster homes and their feelings about them. In this report I have drawn on this survey, the biographical sketches that appeared in the album, and oral comments made to me.

Some were sent to boys’ boarding schools or orphanages. Most, however, were placed in foster homes. They did not know their foster parents, even though in some cases they were related to them. The foster home experiences became deeply embedded in the children’s memories and generally had a lasting effect on their adult lives.

Only a minority of the children felt loved and accepted in their foster homes. It is never easy to join and become part of an existing family. It was particularly difficult for the OSE children, whose lives had already been disrupted by war, separation and privation of varying degrees. Many had lost parents and siblings.

The children did not feel welcome in their American foster homes. Difficulties arose over observance of Judaism and unequal treatment between foster parents natural children and the OSE children. Some foster parents took the refugee children into their homes for money, and children worked at after-school jobs in their early teens; some were only 12 when they began work to help contribute toward their upkeep.

Children felt insecure because they saw they could be removed from foster homes at any time. It was not unusual for the children to live in two or more foster homes between the time they came and adulthood. Siblings were sometimes separated. The oldest generally indicated strong feelings of responsibility for younger brothers or sisters but were powerless to prevent separation.

On the whole, children in boarding schools and orphanages fared better than those in foster homes. Fifteen boys from the June 1941 transport were sent to the children’s home called Vista Del Mar, in Los Angeles. Some stayed there for a few weeks, others for as long as 10 years. Boys also mentioned stays of one year in orphanages in Chicago and Hartford, Connecticut. A few were placed in the Homewood Terrace Children’s Home in San Francisco, whose official name was the Pacific Hebrew Orphan Asylum .

One boy who spent most of his time from age 11 to 19 at Homewood said, "I look back with fondness on my years there." He was sent there after two unsuccessful foster home placements. In the first he was "allowed to clean house and work in the back of their grocery store stacking bottles, cans, etc." He remembers little of the two homes but characterizes the experience as "lousy."

Another boy who lived in the Bellefaire Jewish Orphanage near Cleveland, Ohio following time in two separate foster homes said the orphanage "was the best of the three." Interestingly, there was only one other refugee child there. He emphasizes that there was "no prejudice or partiality," and still has two close friends from this home.

In contrast to these positive memories in orphanages, a boy who lived in foster homes said, "I did not have anyone to rely on or confide in." Another wrote, "I felt like a little bit of a second class person as a result of not having a family and a country." Perhaps the clearest indication that foster parents were not going to play the role of or fill the need for loving parents was that they did not treat their foster children as well as they did their own.

"The refrigerator was off limits to me," reported a girl who believed this prohibition to be unique. It was not. More than 50 years after the event, a man spoke with great bitterness about his foster parents who let his cousins go to the refrigerator for a piece of fruit anytime they wanted, while he was specifically forbidden to do so. Such treatment made him feel "poor and lonely." Another remembered that his foster parents were partial to their children "when it came to Chanukah gifts."

A girl recalled that her foster mother showed favoritism to her own daughter when it came to household chores. Foster parents bought new clothes for their own children and made their foster children wear hand-me-downs, not always in the best condition. These distinctions resulted in anger and lowered self-esteem. The saddest comment came from a boy who said, "Their children were rightfully treated better."

When the degree of religious observance between the foster parents and the OSE children varied, the children were powerless and lost in every case. One boy said simply, "I would have liked more Judaism." Another tried for three months to keep kosher and observe Kashrut before he gave up. A third said, "I was much more religious than they were but eventually changed to their style."

Conflict raged in one home, where a girl reported she was made to feel "Judaism was un-American." Her brother was not permitted to cover his head and wear a yarmulka, and her aunt threw his Tefilin [philacteries], required to be worn during daily morning prayers, into the garbage. As it is considered a sacrilege to mistreat Philacteries, which contain words of scripture, the boy surreptitiously dug in the trash to retrieve them and gave them to a fellow OSE boy for safekeeping. But he himself ceased all religious observance. Fortunately, there were also a number of homes where no conflict over religion occurred.

As teenagers, both boys and girls felt the need for pocket money. They had newspaper routes, worked as baby sitters, delivered groceries and worked in various stores. None reported receiving pocket money from their foster parents. Most of the children were aware that their foster parents received payment from the Jewish Child Care Association for their care, and several concluded that they were taken in solely for the money. Feeling unloved, they could think of no other reason their foster parents bothered to take children they clearly seemed to dislike.

A number turned some or all the money they made at after-school jobs over to their foster families. "The first thing we talked about was how much money I will have to pay to live with them," reported a 16-year-old boy. He also had to clean the house for three hours on Sunday mornings. He feels the family took advantage of him but said he was "a very obedient child and did not want to make waves." During his stay his foster family who "was in need of money" took in various other foster children.

A girl had only hand-me-downs, although relatives gave her aunt money for clothes. When at 15 she took a part time job as a salesgirl, her aunt demanded a monetary contribution to the household, "even though she was still receiving money for me from the Jewish organization."

All the children wanted to be Americanized as quickly as possible. A boy was called a Nazi in school until he lost his accent. Another was referred to as a refugee during all the years he lived with his foster family. Only when he joined the U.S. Navy where nobody knew his origins was he treated "as equal."

Many boys and a few girls changed their names. Ernst became Ernest. Jakob became Jack. Julius became Jay. Inge became Jane. Eugen became Gene. Helmut became Harvey. Manfred, Siegfried and Fritz all became Fred. Hanns and Heinz both became Henry. Hannelore changed her name to Annette. One shortened his surname because he was "apprehensive of his Jewish sounding name."

The OSE children whose experiences I have described here lived in many different parts of the U.S. While a large number settled in New York and California, they also went to Connecticut, Georgia, Iowa, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C.

Forty-seven children who attended the 1989 reunion provided information about their placements in the U.S. Fifteen spent all their time in one foster home; nine had two foster homes, five had three, two had four and two had five. Five spent all their time in orphanages, while five were removed from foster homes and placed in orphanages.

Several did have good foster home experiences. A boy was happy with his foster family but had to leave for an orphanage because of his foster father’s military commitments. A girl who was happy with her foster family was more fortunate. er family not only adopted herNoHer foster parents legally adopted her and later brought her sister who had been trapped in Europe throughout the war to America.

Several OSE children set out on their own, when a foster parent died. However, foster children were often asked to leave their foster homes in their late teens. When at the age of 19 one young man resigned from a job with a firm owned by his foster parents, they told him to move out. Another was "thrown out," when he used money he had saved to buy a car against his aunt’s advice. A girl said she left at age 20 due to unspecified "conflicts," and added that her foster parents who were her relations refused to attend her wedding the following year. Several said they married to get away from their foster families; not surprisingly, they described these marriages as mistakes that eventually ended in divorce.

In adulthood contact with foster families was sporadic. One who did not care for his foster family maintained some contact, because he felt it was his duty. The group who organized the 1989 reunion have been close friends for decades. They spoke of themselves as "a surrogate family" and "our Los Angeles OSE family." Said one of the group, "We’re each other’s family."

Summarizing his life in his foster home, one boy said, "A child needs love and understanding, not material things. If a person has a foster home and does it for the money, the child will suffer. " Concurring with these sentiments another boy, one of the few who thrived in his foster home, said, "My cousin and aunt treated me like a brother and son. [They and my uncle] tried hard and essentially succeeded to give me a new home and family love."

Of the 70 OSE alumni who attended the 1989 reunion, one third survived the war in Europe and came to the U.S. afterwards. The French Underground helped some by hiding them in convents or with farm families. One who was arrested survived incarceration in Auschwitz Concentration Camp. A small number were reunited with their own families on arrival in the U.S.

In spite of their traumatic childhood, the children included in this report lived productive lives in the U.S. fully justifying the special visa under which they were admitted. Almost all married and raised families of their own. At least half obtained college degrees. The group includes attorneys, engineers, college professors, a rabbi, an architect, a U.S. Intelligence Officer, a medical doctor, a psychiatrist and a man who obtained a master’s degree in social work and specializes in helping abused and troubled teenagers. A number have built and run their own businesses. Several women have been active in politics, and one, the late, much loved Flora Hirsch Spiegel, became the Mayor of Corona, California.

A statistical summary of the history of this group of OSE children appears here.

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