Holocaust refugees recall exodus, arrival on Pacific Coast

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By Matt O'Brien
Saturday, December 11, 2010; 7:08 PM

ALAMEDA, CALIF. - His father roused Harry Gluckman from a deep sleep, urging the 11-year-old to get out of his cabin bed and climb to the deck of the steamship, the Heiyo Maru.

The boy rushed outside to see the Golden Gate Bridge soaring above him. In the pre-dawn darkness of Oct. 21, 1940, as the Japanese liner sailed beneath the famous gateway that had opened just three years earlier, he gaped at its beams and towers.

"My father always referred to it after that as 'My Golden Gate of Freedom' whenever we crossed the bridge or came near it," Gluckman said.

The family was among as many as 600 Jewish refugees who sailed into San Francisco Bay between 1939 and 1941, fleeing Nazi persecution in Germany, Austria, Lithuania, Czechoslovakia and Poland.

They were part of a largely forgotten Pacific exodus that was much smaller than the stream of thousands of refugees who reached the East Coast.

Gluckman, 82, is one of a handful of refugees in the Bay Area who vividly remember the transoceanic voyage to San Francisco. The Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation has spent months trying to track down others, hoping to share the little-known stories while there are still people who can tell them.

After the outbreak of war in Europe made escape across the Atlantic Ocean difficult, hundreds of European Jews took advantage of a small window of time when the Pacific Ocean was open to passenger travel.

"In 1940 and 1941, right up to Pearl Harbor, the Pacific was still open," said Eddie Wong, director of the Angel Island foundation.

A 're-birthday'

The Gluckmans crossed most of the world to get to California, fleeing Nazi Germany by way of the trans-Siberian railroad, then boarding ships in Korea and Japan.

Speaking at his Alameda home on Oct. 21, the 70th anniversary of his arrival, Gluckman called the day his "re-birthday." He clutched a newspaper clipping that shows him wearing knee-high socks and smiling as he stood in a crowd that posed after walking onto a San Francisco pier.

The immigration station opened in 1910. It was a processing point for most of the Jewish refugees who arrived in San Francisco before the station burned down and was closed in early October 1940, just weeks before the Gluckmans arrived.

$3.36 and suitcases

Many of the Jewish families did not readily have the American sponsors they needed to get a U.S. visa, but they sought them out by calling or sending letters to American Jews who shared their surname. The Gluckmans' sponsor was a man in New York they had never met but who shared their last name and agreed to vouch for them if they promised never to contact him for financial help, or even to express gratitude, once they reached America.


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