A family’s wartime trek through Europe

A family’s wartime trek through Europe

Local writer recounts luck, survival, and a big secret in ‘My Sister’s Eyes’ 

Joan Arnay Halperin pulls out a copy of her book at the Hillsdale public library. (All photos courtesy Joan Arnay Halperin)
Joan Arnay Halperin pulls out a copy of her book at the Hillsdale public library. (All photos courtesy Joan Arnay Halperin)

“Yes, mine was the kind of family that keeps secrets,” said Joan Arnay Halperin of Hillsdale, author of “My Sister’s Eyes: A Family Chronicle of Rescue and Loss During World War II.” “They were the same skeletons that thousands of Holocaust survivors kept hidden in their New World closets.”

Ms. Halperin has presented her family’s story of love, hope, and courage in the face of crushing wartime odds to both live and virtual audiences. She has been featured at film festivals, on YouTube channels, and at seminars, and she is quoted in a variety of print media.

“My Sister’s Eyes,” published in 2017 with the cooperation of the Sousa Mendes Foundation, is appropriate for readers as young as sixth grade.

Ms. Halperin’s parents, Ignas Krakowiak of Warsaw and Halina “Hala” Kaplan of Lodz, met on a blind date, got married in Łódź in 1935, and moved from Poland to Brussels, believing Belgium was a country welcoming to Jews.

Ignas and Hala left Warsaw with “a large canvas bag and two small suitcases of necessary items.” They hoped to go back to Poland to collect their wedding gifts and other belongings — but they knew that it might not be possible.

“Even during their wedding reception, guests talked about the looming dangers,” Ms. Halperin’s mother told her daughter. “Her brother-in-law had read ‘Mein Kampf’ and knew of Hitler’s desire to create laws to curb the rights of Jewish citizens and boycott Jewish businesses in Germany to expand his power and conquer more land, but my great-grandfather waved him off.”

By the winter of 1936-1937, during a trip to Seefield, Austria, and Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, where the Olympics would be taking place, Ms. Halperin’s parents noted “giant swastikas, flying boldly from every flagpole flanking the entrance to the site of the Olympic venue,” as well as road signs reading “Jews Unwanted.”

“By the spring of 1938, many Poles gave in to the looming fear of an invasion by Germany,” Ms. Halperin said. “But my mother’s family insisted on going about their lives as usual.” In August 1939, just before the Nazi invasion of Poland, Ignas’s mother, Julia Krakowiak, was warned to stay in Belgium with her son and daughter-in-law and their new baby daughter, Yvonne, born in 1938.

“On Friday, May 10, 1940, those who believed they’d be protected in Brussels were stunned by the deafening noise of planes carrying German parachutists during the Blitzkrieg, or Lightning War,” Ms. Halperin wrote. Her mother, father, baby sister, grandmother, aunt and uncle crowded into her father’s Mercedes-Benz and drove to the nearest train station. Although they hoped that they’d be able to return in a week or two to withdraw money from bank accounts and gather clothing or household items, “there was no going back to Brussels,” Ms. Halperin said.

She noted that everyone who escaped from that city on May 10 said that same thing — “We were always one step ahead of the bombs.”

The family drove south to Portugal, arriving in late June.

When France fell to Nazi Germany the same month, the Krakowiak family was among the flood of refugees pouring out of France, Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg, heading to still-neutral Spain and Portugal. “Antonio Salazar, the president of Portugal, had issued Circular 14, a formal decree ordering Portuguese diplomats throughout Europe to deny visas to ‘undesirables,’” Ms. Halperin said. This included Jews expelled from their countries.

Hala and Ignas Krakowiak are at the Olympics in Germany in 1936.

When they arrived in Portugal, the Krakowiak family was exhausted, hungry, and despondent. No one had had a hot meal for six weeks, and Ignas and Hala’s baby, Yvonne, had been without milk. But the locals were kind, compassionate and welcoming — offering food, hot showers, beds to sleep in and clean clothing, Hala told her daughter.

The rest of their story unfolds in “My Sister’s Eyes.”

It’s important to stress that the family would not have survived had it not been for Aristides de Sousa Mendes, a devout Catholic, champion of human rights, and man of moral decency who, as Portuguese consul general in Bordeaux at the time, defied his government’s orders and issued nearly 30,000 transit visas, a third of which went to Polish-Jewish refugees.

“Sousa Mendes was willing to act on behalf of those in need, at whatever cost to his wife, his 12 children, his respected and successful career, and his life,” Ms. Halperin said. Although the story of his heroism was buried until 1987, now he is known as the “Angel of Bordeaux.”

On October 2, 1943, the former Ignas and Helena Rose Krakowiak — newly renamed Robert I. and Henrietta Arnay — arrived in the United States and moved to a third-floor walk-up apartment in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn.

“When I was just 1, in 1946, my father went back to Brussels to locate their possessions and see if there might be suitable work for his family,” Ms. Halperin said. He had a hard time finding work in New York. “With little command of the English language, he was stacking heavy boxes in a Soho warehouse,” she said.

Mr. Arnay returned from Brussels with several items from his wife’s dowry and gifts from their wedding, including a silver sugar cube box, silver service for six, and a crystal candy dish. Their former landlord had kept all of it safe. “Even during the occupation, there were good people who cared about their Jewish neighbors,” Ms. Halperin said.

When he returned to Brooklyn, Mr. Arnay learned to speak English at night school. Then he got a job representing a jewelry supply firm. “Diamond merchants from Belgium — many of whom received visas from Sousa Mendes— were setting up businesses in New York,” Ms. Halperin said. “My father had attended a school for watch repair in Besancon, France. In New York, he started his own business — Robert I. Arnay, Balances of Precision, Scales for Weighing Diamonds and Gold — on 47th Street in Manhattan.

“My mother learned to speak English from me and her wonderful friends in Sheepshead Bay,” Ms. Halperin said. “My native language was Polish.” In 1951, when Ms. Halperin was in kindergarten, the Arnays moved to Valley Stream on Long Island. Her brother, Richard, was born in 1956. That was when Ms. Halperin learned she had a sister.

In 1960, Poland reached a $40 million settlement with the United States to satisfy the property claims of Polish-Jewish émigrés. The Arnay family engaged a New York lawyer, Milton Kestenberg, who had escaped Poland just before the war. “He was able to obtain the ownership papers for two buildings that had been owned by my great-grandfather. The buildings included 120 apartments,” Ms. Halperin said. “Sometime in 1962-63, the result of the compensation for the property was $1,500.”

After graduating from the University of Wisconsin at Madison and earning a master’s degree at Adelphi University in Garden City, Ms. Halperin moved to Israel in 1972; that same year she met and married Itzhak Halperin in Jerusalem. They moved back to the United States and settled in Great Neck in 1973 with their three children, Guy, Coren, and Roney.

Robert Arnay died in 1983. “My father blessed the country that gave him a new start and the American people who welcomed them with open arms,” Ms. Halperin said.

Hala and Ignas Krakowiak stand with their daughter Yvonne in Portugal.

In 1989, 44 years after her parents arrived in the United States, Ms. Halperin asked her mother if she’d be willing to record an interview where she’d tell her life story, and her mother agreed.

Ms. Arnay talked about her family’s once-vibrant life in Lodz and Warsaw and Brussels, and even in Portugal. She talked about the occasional postcards she’d get from her family, imprisoned in the Warsaw Ghetto, asking for food. She talked about learning that her parents had been shipped to concentration camps. But she didn’t talk about Ms. Halperin’s sister, Yvonne. “I can’t,” she said.

Henrietta (Helena/Hala) Arnay died in 1999. Ms. Halperin and her family moved to Hillsdale in 2013.

“In 2014, inspired to write my parents’ story, I joined a workshop offered by the Writers Circle in Ridgewood,” Ms. Halperin said. “I received creative guidance and thoughtful critiquing of my writing. Friendships developed that continue until this day.

“The first thing I did before beginning to write was a Google search for Portugal, 1940,” she said. “Immediately, the Sousa Mendes Foundation popped up.” Ms. Halperin was thrilled to learn that the foundation was organizing a 10-day trip from Bordeaux to Lisbon. “I asked a foundation member to locate my parents’ friend, Alberto Malafaia,” she said. “In addition to the trip itself, which was offered to visa recipients, their descendants, teachers, students, or those who had an interest in upstanders, I was determined to make contact with the man who was a steadfast friend to my family.”

“The trip changed my life,” Ms. Halperin said. “Not only did I learn more about Aristides de Sousa Mendes, who saved the lives of my family and thousands of Jewish refugees, but I had the opportunity to meet other visa recipients who had traveled the same journey to freedom that my parents had.”

Ms. Halperin, who is now on the board of the Sousa Mendes Foundation as the director of educational initiatives, has taken what she’s described as four extremely emotional trips to Portugal. The connections she’s made with second- and third-generation visa recipients have inspired her to carry the message to fourth-generation descendants, including her four grandchildren.

“In 2018, I went back for the opening of the Fronteira da Paz or Frontier of Peace Museum, a place to pay tribute to Aristides de Sousa Mendes and the refugees of 1940,” she said.

Often, the Journey on the Road to Freedom trip ended with a reception hosted by Portugal’s president, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, in his official residence at the presidential palace. “Other than the reception at the palace, every part of the trip is like walking in my parents’ footsteps,” Ms. Halperin said. “We’ve walked across the Hendaye Freedom Bridge, linking France to Spain, that my parents walked over. We’ve stood at the Portuguese consulate where Sousa Mendes wrote visas. We’ve surveyed the Parc des Quinconces, where thousands of refugees camped out in the open air, waiting their turn. In Lisbon, we visited the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to view the Sousa Mendes registry book, in whose pages Sousa Mendes and his staff listed the names of visa recipients in May and June of 1940. We’ve concluded the trip at the port where the Portuguese liner Serpa Pinto weighed anchor in Lisbon, to carry thousands of refugees on their journeys to freedom.

“In my parents’ case, the ship departing Lisbon took them to Kingston, Jamaica,” she added.

In October 1940, when the Portuguese government dismissed Sousa Mendes from his position in the Foreign Ministry and left him destitute and unable to support his large family, he explained his actions: “If thousands of Jews are suffering because of one Christian [Hitler], surely one Christian may suffer for so many Jews.” On October 18, 1966, Yad Vashem recognized Aristides de Sousa Mendes as Righteous Among the Nations.

“Most people are risk-averse,” Olivia Mattis said. “Sousa Mendes wasn’t.” The diplomat rescued her father.

Dr. Mattis, a Stanford-educated, award-winning scholar and lecturer, is the president of the Sousa Mendes Foundation. She has spearheaded countless multimedia programs and films for those who want to learn more about the man, his family, and his sacrifice.

Ms. Halperin believes that her family’s story is one of many that must be told. “Everyone in the Kaplan family of Łódź who remained in Poland perished during the Holocaust,” she said. “But my mother, my father, and the Krakowiak family of Warsaw survived because of Aristides de Sousa Mendes.” In a personal inscription of her book, she writes: “Honor the upstanders — combat the deniers.”

To learn more about Aristides de Sousa Mendes, go to www.sousamendesfoundation.org.

To watch a documentary film about Jewish Holocaust refugees hoping to be allowed in the U.S. after escaping the Nazi German invasion of Europe, go to www.nobodywantsus.com.

To learn more about Joan Arnay Halperin and her family’s story, go to Ms. Halperin’s website, www.mysisterseyes.com; her book is posted there as a flipbook. Copies are also available at local Bergen County libraries.

Ms. Halperin will talk about her book to teachers and students at St. Elizabeth’s College on Zoom on January 29. Learn more and get the Zoom link at www.steu.edu/meet-seu/centers/hge/upcoming-eventsor go to https://www.steu.edu and type “Joan Halperin” in the search box.

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