Monday, January 30, 2017

Another Story that Resonates Today

Another Story that Resonates Today

My family had been within days of receiving permission to immigrate to Canada when the Germans invaded Belgium. On May 10, 1942 the Germans began the invasion of Belgium. Nonetheless my uncle, Fred Rosenberg, got up and went to work. In a report he wrote in 1945, my uncle said nothing usual happened in the morning. However, by mid-afternoon his boss told him he needed to register with the police. My uncle was a German Jew working in Brussels, Belgium. Within forty-eight hours, my uncle and his stepfather were sealed in a cattle car on their way to an unspecified destination.

Initially, my uncle wasn’t arrested because he was a Jew and it wasn’t the Germans who detained him. Rather the Belgians and then the French had him arrested because he was from Germany. Although my uncle and his family had fled Germany to avoid persecution, the Belgian police rounded up male German Jews because they might be German spies. As the United States government singles out Muslims in order to “protect” America from terrorists, I hear echoes of my uncle’s story.

After sleeping on the track of the local sports stadium on the evening of May 10th, my mom and grandmother watched helplessly as my uncle was crammed into a truck for the ride to a military barracks. He wouldn’t see them again for almost two years. My uncle describes being jeered by crowds for being a German and a Jew. He mentions being kicked by guards and prodded with rifles. Remember we’re talking about Belgian citizens and police, not Nazis.

Within a couple of days my uncle was sealed in an overcrowded cattle car without food or water. The train would travel for a bit and then sit on the tracks while the prisoners listened to the Luftwaffe dropping bombs. At some point the French took control of the train. Here’s what my uncle recalled:

For two whole days we remained in the cattle car; we could neither sit nor lie down, nor could we stand properly. It was terribly cramped. We were dehydrated from the burning sun, which during the day shone directly over the roof of the cattle car. There was absolutely nothing to drink or eat. When the train stopped, we pleaded for water. But the only response we received was the smack of a rifle butt on the cattle car door. Simply put, it was terrible. I don’t need to make any more precise remarks about the sanitary conditions. To describe this would be disgusting.

After several days, my uncle was removed from the train and placed in a temporary camp where he reported that as many as thirty men shared a single tin can in order to eat and drink. He said the latrine was an open ditch and the men tried to bathe in puddles. After six days they received some tin plates and utensils. For the first time in his life my uncle knew what it was to be hungry. By chance my uncle had a significant amount of money on him that he hadn’t had a chance to deposit on May 10th. He had the foresight to hide the money in the lining of his suit, so when the French confiscated all money, my uncle didn’t lose his cash (this cash became essential in the coming months). At this point Germans and Jews were separated, and after a few days later the prisoners were crammed into cattle cars.

Hungry, dehydrated and sun burnt, my uncle wound up at St. Cyprien, a concentration camp along the Mediterranean coast. My uncle was welcomed to the camp by a massive sandstorm and the knowledge that his mother and sister were now behind German lines. After the Germans conquered the northern part of France, the Vichy government released Germans, but not Jews from St. Cyprien. My uncle survived St. Cyrpien, Gurs, and work camps in the Alps before escaping to Switzerland.

My uncle’s story illustrates how quickly fear and prejudice can transform a life. Rather than enlist the Jews in the war against the Nazis, the Belgians and French immediately decided to dehumanize them.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Turned Back at the Border

On the evening of October 14, 1942, my mother slipped out of the basement of a chateau in France and began to walk through the forest with a small group of people toward the Swiss border.  As the United States government stops Muslim refugees at our airports this weekend, I am reminded of this story.  My mother and her family were refugees fleeing deportation orders issued by the Vichy government in France.  This was their second attempt to cross into Switzerland.  Two weeks earlier they’d been intercepted by the Swiss police and returned to France.
My mom's refugee paper in Vichy France.  It states that she can prove her status as a German
My mother, uncle, grandmother, and her husband (my grandfather was struck by car and killed in Belgium before the war) were stateless, having been stripped of their German citizenship.  My mom and her mother had been at Dunkirk as the British evacuated, hidden in a hotel filled with Nazi SS soldiers, and escaped into Free (Vichy) France.  After living in the small village of Thones for some time, a local gendarme in Annecy warned them that they were on the deportation list back to occupied France and then extermination.  A French doctor (who I met in the 1960s) drove them through French checkpoints toward the Swiss border.  My mother hid on the floor of his car and my grandmother pretended to be his wife.  My Uncle had been imprisoned in the Pyrenees as a German national (by the French) and then as a Jew (by the Vichy government) before being assigned to a work camp in the Alps.  As he was about to be deported, he managed to bribe a camp commandant and went underground eventually reuniting with my mother and grandmother near the Swiss border.

On their first attempt to escape, they walked several miles through the woods and crossed a creek into Switzerland.  Eventually they came upon a farmhouse where a Swiss beekeeper agreed to let them stay for the night.  The next morning they were found by the Swiss police, put in a truck, and driven back to the border where thirty other refugees had been rounded up.   A police officer told them they would be shot if they attempted to enter the country again, and they were marched to the French side of the border.  Before French immigration officials could begin processing them, my mother and her family slipped into the woods.  After wandering for hours, they returned to the Chateau and again hid in the basement.   They waited two weeks until members of the French resistance were ready to take them across the border again.

On their second attempt, they took a slightly different route in hopes of avoiding the Swiss police and once again crossed into Switzerland.  However, they’d miscalculated and were soon arrested by a member of the Swiss army.  They were taken to a military commander who informed them that they would be returned to France.  At that moment, my grandmother collapsed.  She’d had a serious operation about month earlier and was very weak.  A military officer ordered the deportation of everyone in my mother’s party, except my family.  My family was placed in truck and driven to a camp near Geneva.  They survived, but the rest of the party was never heard from again. 

Both my mother’s and father’s families repeatedly sought to immigrate to the United States during the years leading up to World War II.  They were rejected despite having sponsorships.  It was only though the compassion of strangers, who risked their lives that my dad’s family wound up in an Italian concentration camp and my mom’s family wound up in various Swiss camps.  In President Trump’s America, compassion and American values are being extinguished.  It’s up to ordinary people to prevent refugees from being turned back at our borders.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Muslims Saved My Family in the Holocaust

As the Trump Administration seeks to stop Muslim immigration, I remember that Muslims saved my family during the Holocaust.

In April 1941 as the Nazi’s invaded Yugoslavia, my father’s family, German-Jews, had taken refuge in a farmhouse outside Mostar. In an account written in 1959 my grandmother Elli Silton remembered, “there was intense fighting between the Croats and the Serbs and the machine-gun bullets flew through our kitchen, where we were lying on our stomachs on the floor (with a flour sack at our heads for protection) eating our soup. And finally the Germans marched in. A whole regiment.”

Fortunately, the Germans did not occupy the small village and my family remained in hiding. As my grandmother wrote and my father still remembers, their safety was entirely dependent on a Muslim police official. One day the Muslim police officer sent his young daughter with a message warning my family to prepare to evacuate immediately, as deportations were about to commence. Having sold their furniture, my family entrusted a few rugs and the family silver to the police officer. He issued them travel permits to go on “vacation” in Italian-occupied territory. The family dressed as if they were going on a brief holiday, and muslim farmers hid their suitcases under hay in order to deliver the suitcases to the train. The police officer’s wife, a teacher, told my grandmother to take off her jewelry because it would draw unwarranted attention. The Muslim teacher promised to ferry the valuables across the demarcation line and return the jewelry when my family was safely in the Italian zone.

When my family boarded the train, their luggage was waiting for them, along with enough food to tide them over for a couple of weeks. When the train reached the first station on the Italian side, the teacher appeared and handed my grandmother her jewelry.

My family survived the war, and in the early 1960s my grandmother returned to Dubrovnik, Yugoslavia for a visit. She decided to telephone Mostar to see if she could locate and thank the Muslim policeman. When the police officer finally came to the phone, he expressed joy that my family had survived and told my grandmother he’d been hoping she would contact him so he could return the family silver and rugs. My grandmother took a bus to Mostar to retrieve the silver and gave the Muslim police officer the rugs.

We celebrate this story every Thanksgiving by using the silver, which is depicted in the painting.

Friday, January 27, 2017

An encouraging start by North Carolina’s State Treasurer, Dale Folwell

An encouraging start by North Carolina’s State Treasurer, Dale Folwell

North Carolina’s new Treasurer, Dale Folwell, seems to have a realistic and constructive view of the financial challenges facing the State’s defined benefit pension plan and its health insurance fund.  While the pension plan is relatively well funded, it is not fully funded.  As I’ve written in the past, the financial gap is manageable, and Treasurer Folwell said as much in a recent interview on Raleigh’s WTVD.[1] 

On the investment front, Treasurer Folwell is headed in the right direction.  He is expressing a healthy skepticism about the use and cost of alternative investments (e.g., hedge funds and private equity).  I’ve spent a considerable amount of time on this blog and on the pages of the News & Observer criticizing the state’s foray into alternative investments. He recognizes that shifting investment policy and reducing fees will take several years.  Alternative investments tend to be relatively illiquid and contractually restricted.  It appears that our new treasurer understands the challenge of changing direction.

However, I was most encouraged by the Treasurer’s admission that proper funding of the pension and insurance plan (which has a large and rising deficit) will require increased taxes over the long run.  Many politicians acknowledge the importance of pensions and health insurance in retaining and attracting public servants.  Mr. Folwell has taken the rare step of telling the public and the legislature that these vital programs aren’t free.  With a Democratic governor and a Republican treasurer, I’m hoping that our state’s pension and insurance fund will be dealt with as non-partisan issues.


Thursday, January 12, 2017

Politics instead of pension reform in South Carolina

Politics instead of pension reform in South Carolina

The South Carolina is poised to remove the State Treasurer from the Retirement System Investment Commission.[1]  The legislature created a Joint Committee On Pension Systems Review, and one of the Committee’s recommendations is squarely aimed at Treasurer Curtis Loftis, a Republican and reformer.  The Investment Commission sets investment policy and makes investment on behalf of the South Carolina Retirement System. 

Several years ago I wrote a series of posts about the sorry state of the South Carolina’s pension investments, and the singular efforts of Treasurer Loftis to identify and fix the problems.  Under pressure from the Treasurer, South Carolina has made great strides in restructuring the portfolio and making proper disclosures.  For his efforts, the Treasurer’s fellow Republicans are trying to strip Mr. him of his seat on the Commission.  Under the Joint Committee’s proposal, the Treasurer would be able to appoint someone to the Commission.  The Joint Committee has also proposed stripping the Treasurer of the power to hire a custodian for the pension’s assets.[2],[3]

Instead of attacking Treasurer Loftis, the South Carolina legislature should make the State Treasurer, chairmen of the Investment Commission. A statewide elected official should have direct oversight over the critical investment decisions made by the Investment Commission on behalf of the state’s public pension.  Mr. Loftis seems highly qualified for this role.

Prior posts:

South Carolina Investment Commission Airs Some Dirty Laundry

Write of Mandamus:  The SC Commission Sues the Treasurer

The Ongoing Saga of the SC Retirement System

South Carolina Retirement System: At It Again

[2] Treasurer Loftis was involved in a controversy with the South Carolina Ethics Commission over the hiring of a lawyer to help negotiate a settlement with South Carolina’s custodian, Bank of New York.  As it turned out the lawyer was a friend of the Treasurer, and the relationship was not properly disclosed.  The Ethics Commission found this failure to be an ethical violation.
[3] The ethical violation aside, I have some sympathy for this proposal.  The awarding of the pension’s custody should probably be subject to some type of broader review by the Investment Commission.  However, day-to-day oversight of the pension’s custody relationship should remain under the Treasurer’s aegis.