Seventy five years ago, a German Jewish teenager who had been sent to safety in England in 1939 on the Kindertransport arrived in New York where she was reunited with her parents. After a brief stay in New York, the three of them travelled by bus to Scattergood, Iowa, where the American Friends Service Committee had turned a school into a hostel for European refugees. As the Nazi terror spread through Europe, the members of a Disciples of Christ Church in tiny Eureka, Ill, decided to go beyond reading newspaper headlines and praying and offered to adopt the family. The teenager and her parents moved into a fully furnished apartment on the edge of the Eureka College campus and were welcomed into a community that had known few Jews, let along foreign-born Jews. The father got a job auditing municipal books in small Illinois towns. The mother got a job in the college kitchen. And the teenage girl got a free college education there. Her brother interned in England – he was considered an enemy alien even though he was a Jewish refugee – eventually joined his family in the U.S.
That teenager was our mother, Irmgard Rosenzweig Wessel, who died last year at the age of 88. After earning her master’s at Smith School of Social Work, she moved to New Haven in 1952 when she married our father, pediatrician Morris Wessel. For nearly 40 years, she practiced clinical social work in New Haven. With our dad, she raised the four of us here. Irm Wessel never forgot the fear and desperation of the refugee and the strains on the newcomer and was a lifelong advocate for those who came to American after she did.
We grew up hearing stories from her and from our grandparent about the painful end of their pleasant life in Germany and the beginning of their new and eventually prosperous life in the U.S. So we were particularly proud of our hometown when New Haven welcomed the Syrian refugee family who had been turned away from Indianapolis.
When our dad retired in 1993, his former patients established a donor-advised fund at the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven that has since become the Morris and Irmgard Wessel Fund. The Fund recognizes an organization that is making life better for people in New Haven with its Unsung Heroes Award. Integrated Refugee and Immigration Services, which resettles about 200 refugees in our community every year, is not exactly “unsung,” but it is doing for a new generation of immigrants what others did for Irm Wessel 75 years ago. So the Wessel family is pleased to honor it with the 2015 Unsung Heroes Award.
But we also want to celebrate the entire New Haven community – its elected leadership and its people – for welcoming of this new generation of immigrants and offering them what others offered our mom so long ago. To us, this is truly the American way.