Peter Gordon

Basic Interview Metadata

Interview Text and Audio


This oral history interview is the first in a three-part series with Peter Gordon in Chapel Hill, North Carolina on October 12, 2018. Peter Gordon narrates the WWII migration story of his father, Samuel Chrabolowski Gordon, who was born to a Jewish family in Poland. Sam Gordon escaped Nazi persecution by migrating to Mexico, where he served as the doctor of a refugee camp in León, Guanajuato for three years before eventually settling in the United States. In the first interview, Peter Gordon begins his father’s story in the 1930s when Sam Gordon served in the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War and attended medical school in Montpellier, France. In 1942, as Nazi occupation threatened the lives of Jews living in France, Sam Gordon, his wife Beata Babad, and son Andre Chrabolowski escaped from Marseille by boat after securing an entrance visa to Mexico. The second interview covers Sam Gordon’s experiences in Mexico from 1942 through the summer of 1946, where he became the head doctor at a camp (Colonia Santa Rosa) for Polish refugees in León, Guanajuato, and where Beata Babad started a writing career in the Communist party. In the third interview, Peter Gordon narrates his father’s emigration and permanent settlement in the United States in Washington, D.C. Peter Gordon is Professor in the Cognitive Psychology Program within the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at UNC Chapel Hill. The interview was conducted in Davie Hall on the UNC campus by Hannah Gill, Associate Director of the Institute for the Study of the Americas and Principal Investigator of the New Roots/Nuevas Raíces Oral Histories.



Hannah Gill: All right, let’s get started.
Peter Gordon: Okay.
Hannah Gill: Thank you so much Peter for talking to me today. I’m really interested to learn more about this extraordinary story of your father and your own life as well, and how that’s impacted your life.
Peter Gordon: Happy to do it.
Hannah Gill: So, maybe we can just start with what do you know about your father’s migration story that you would like to share.
Peter Gordon: [00:30] Well, I’m mostly interested in telling the story, which involves his time in France, where he was completing medical school, also some time in Spain. Then his migration to Mexico, where he lived for almost four years until the summer of 1946. Then his migration to the US and the circumstances that created the desire and need for those migrations and the circumstances that made it possible. This is something I’ve become focused on as its clear that migration and treatment of refugees is now an extremely important, contentious and serious issue in the United States, in other countries in the western hemisphere as well and in the world in general. It seems to me that there are clear parallels between what happened in Europe in the 1930’s and 40’s and what’s happening now. That’s not a novel observation; others have made it, but it’s something I’ve become very focused on because I knew that there was this history in my own family, where migration and being granted refugee status was absolutely critical to survival. It seems to be important to understand the history in looking at the kinds of attitudes towards policies that exist now and perhaps trying to change them.
Hannah Gill: So, your father was born in Poland and he grew up in Poland. So how did he wind up in medical school in France?
Peter Gordon: [02:35] He was born in Poland in 1911. His father was a butcher and meat wholesaler and probably very successful. My father was the oldest of six children and his parents hadn’t been educated through a university, but they wanted their children to be educated. My father, after finishing high school, went to the University of Warsaw and graduated with a degree in math and from there he left to go to France to go to medical school. Now exactly why he went to France, I’m not certain, but I’ve heard that in part it was because in that period, this would have been around 1932, there were starting to be quotas at Polish universities on how many Jewish students were allowed to enroll, limits on them. So to seek education, many had to go abroad if they could, and I say his father must have been a successful butcher because they had enough resources to send, in fact, three of their children to Western Europe, to study.
Hannah Gill: Were they all in France?
Peter Gordon: [04:05] They were all in France, yes. My father went to France around 1931, he completed a one-year program with a certificate at Montpellier in the sciences and then enrolled in medical school there. He was in medical school, in residence, through part of 1936, and then he left France and went to Spain. He joined the International Brigades, which were fighting in the Spanish Civil War. According to my mother, he did that because it was a way of fighting fascism. The war was seen as a rehearsal for WWII and many people came to support the Spanish Republic against the rebellion by the conservative military that was largely aligned with fascist countries, particularly Italy and Germany, who provided substantial support in that rebellion. My father served in the International Brigades as a medical officer and did that for some time in ’36 (I don’t have the exact date) until the International Brigades were disbanded and left Spain in October of 1938. I have a lot of documents that are related to the end of his service in the International Brigades. Probably they also relate to the difficulty in arranging for the brigade members to get out of Spain. I don’t know when exactly he got out of Spain, but he was in Barcelona after the brigades were disbanded in October, he was certainly was there in November, and he may have been there in December. But ultimately he went back to France. He’d been a medical officer in Spain. He started out as a sub-lieutenant and was promoted to lieutenant at some point. I have the papers on that in 1937. He was clearly capable of practicing as a doctor, but he had not completed all his requirements for his degree in France. At that time, I don’t know about now, medical doctors had to write a thesis, so he returned to Montpellier and competed his thesis, which is about the health service and hygiene service in an infantry battalion in the Spanish War, 1936-1939.
Hannah Gill: Wow.
Peter Gordon: [07:53] My French is not great, but I’ve read a lot of dissertations and it’s not much. Well that’s not fair, my mother said that my father had said that at that point they would take anything [laughs]- - if you had all you medical training, they wanted to give their students degrees and get them out in the world. But, the thesis a first-hand account of some of his experiences, beginning with the fall of ’36 when as he says he was assigned to a group of militias. They were very unorganized to start with and he recounts the degree of disorganization there. Then it became a bit more organized as they realized, the Spanish Republic realized, that simply arming anarchists to try to fight the organized military of the rebelling conservatives wasn’t going to work. They needed more of a standard military organization. The thesis is not very long, it’s all firsthand, there are no references, no citations, and it ends by saying that no one would want to model a modern military medical service after what happened in Spain. But they were doing what they could, given what they had, and that under the circumstances, many people did very brave work and very good work, but it was a very difficult situation. It’s very hard to trace where he was in Spain because the brigades and the battalions all get renamed and talked about in different ways. I’m not a military historian, I’m a lab scientist. I’m used to much better records. I know that he was affiliated with the Garibaldi Brigade, which was an Italian brigade. Exactly why or how, I don’t know. He was also in a French-Belgian brigade, even though he was Polish.
Hannah Gill: Do you know if he would have spoken Spanish or learned Spanish in Spain, before or during?
Peter Gordon: [10:35] That is a good question, and certainly one of the issues for the International Brigades was they had trouble communicating. I know that my father grew up speaking Polish, Russian, Yiddish, and Hebrew. His family was from Eastern Poland and in fact, when he was born in 1911, it was part of Russia. He must have learned some French by the time he went to medical school in France, certainly he wrote his thesis in French. I think it is fair to say he was a gifted polyglot. It’s something that embarrasses me, given my own limitations. How quickly he learned Spanish, I don’t know, but I know that he obviously picked up languages quickly and certainly was fluent in Spanish by the time he was working in Mexico.
Hannah Gill: Well, you certainly have continued this work in language. In a different way, but..
Peter Gordon: [12:00] In a different way, and language, not languages.
Hannah Gill: Well, understanding the neuroscience of language, acquiring language, or speaking?
Peter Gordon: [12:12] Well, acquiring and using language.
Hannah Gill: Yeah.
Peter Gordon: [12:18] I do have a document here that is dated the 5th of January 1938 that I would like to mention. It’s in Spanish and it’s the Order of the Day from the 14th International Brigade. The first item cites my father for bravery in battle. It says that he has served as an example of an antifascist doctor dedicated to the common cause [reads the phrase in Spanish “Es el ejemplo de lo que debe ser un medico antifascista adicto a la causa comun.”
Hannah Gill: He made his way back to France and finished medical school?
Peter Gordon: [13:14] He finished his thesis. He got married to a Polish woman, who was also in France, Beata Babad [he spells the name out]. They had a son, Andre, who was born in June of 1940. I have a fair number of documents from that time. Basically, they were considered refugees. WWII started in August in 1939 with the invasion of Poland. Poland as a country ceased to exist for a while. The Nazis occupied western Poland and through the pact with the Soviet Union, the Soviet Union occupied eastern Poland, including the part of Poland where my father was from, the town of Bielsk-Podlaski [he spells it out]. There was no way, even if they wanted to, to go back to their country of origin. I read a fair bit about this now. There were many people in that situation in France and the French government’s policies towards them changed radically over time, depending on who was in office. There was tremendous anti-refugee feeling in a huge part of the French population, certainly not all, but a huge part. The kinds of attitudes that you read about then are the same kinds of attitudes that you read about today. It was thought that the refugees didn’t fit in socially, they would take jobs from French people, they were “criminals”, and that they were possibly “agents of foreign governments who would undermine the French government”. All those things. Their situation was not easy. My father had to complete an internship at a hospital in Nîmes, still part of southern France. The situation changed a great deal in June of 1940, when the Germans very quickly defeated the French and occupied the northern and western part of France, essentially, everything along the English Channel, between Belgium and the Spanish border, Paris too. That was their front with England. There was a puppet government, the Vichy government, in southern France, which was a very reactionary government that was collaborating with the Nazis. That was the part of France they were in. It was better to be there than in the north, but it was still not very good. Just to go back a bit, my father enlisted in -- I believe around March of 1940 -- in a unit of the Polish army, which was reforming in France. The Polish army had been defeated fairly quickly. In part they’d also been undercut by the Soviet Invasion from the East. Many Polish soldiers managed to get out of Poland. There was also a substantial Polish population in France. Many of the Polish generals escaped and they created an army in France to aid the French in fighting the Nazis. My father joined that army in March of 1946 and basically those groups were disbanded.
Hannah Gill: March of ’46?
Peter Gordon: [18:53] I’m sorry-- ’40. Not ’46. Those groups were disbanded in June-July-August of 1940 after an armistice was signed. I don’t believe he ever saw battle there. I had trouble tracing that, but from what I read at the time, there were four Polish divisions formed, two of them saw substantial fighting. Two of them were sufficiently late in forming and, given the very difficult issues of supply and organization, never actually went into combat. My guess is that he was in one of those. He then went back to Montpellier. From some correspondence, I believe that they survived because he was able to get some work in a company that -- I don’t know exactly what they did -- but it was something related to the wine industry. There are letters from the head of the company in Montpellier, [Zimotechnique], saying that their doctor, who had been assessing for quality or purity, their regular doctor, had left for some reason, therefore they were employing my father. I gather he was not able to work as a doctor. So, they were in France then. I’ve now read several things, including a couple very wonderful books, that provide compelling descriptions about that time. There were many desperate people who were trying to get out of Europe. They all converged on Marseilles, which was a large port on the Mediterranean. My father was at Montpellier, which was not too far from Marseilles. I don’t know exactly when they started working on trying to get out, but it probably was very early. One very curious thing that I just figured out from documents (and I don’t know exactly how the mail worked back then), but there is a lot of personal correspondence from Poland to my father in Montpellier. There was none before the fall of 1940. What I assume is that the Soviet Union was allied with the Germans with whom the French were at war so there was no postal service. Once France capitulated and the Vichy government was collaborating, you could get postal service from Soviet occupied Poland to Montpellier. There are many post cards because of the censors. It was cheaper to send postcards, but censors looked at everything so you didn’t have to worry about them tearing it open because it was already open. They are horribly striking. If you look at them, you can see the post cards are essentially in Russian, the framing of them. They are embossed with the hammer and sickle, and then there is a postal mark with an eagle and swastika on it, meaning that it at least gone through Nazi hands. Those were emblems that to me existed in movies. Most of these are in Polish and it’s on my agenda to have them translated. I don’t speak any Polish. There are some in French and I can barely make out what they say. The curious thing that is evident in some of them is that they are more concerned about my father being in defeated France then about themselves being in Soviet-controlled Poland. They were writing to the Soviet government to see if they would allow my father to come back to Poland. I don’t know whether he thought that was a good idea. I know that one of his brothers, his younger brother, Menasha, had been studying in France and had gone back to Poland after the war started. I’m not sure how exactly one did that, but presumably through the Mediterranean and up through the south, through the Soviet Union. My mother had said that my father had asked his brother not to return, that he thought it was a mistake. This was before France had fallen, but my father thought it was a mistake.
Hannah Gill: Your father thought it was a mistake for Menasha to go back.
Peter Gordon: [25:29] Yes. Menasha has fairly neat handwriting and wrote in French sometimes so I can make some sense of his writing. But then there start to be documents related to—well let me just read one part of his letters. This is dated January 2, 1941: “La mère dit que on a pasée une guerre y on va passer celle-ci aussi.” Mother said they survived one war and they would survive this one as well. This part of Poland had seen many battles in WWI, so that was her reference. There start to be documents related to my father’s efforts to leave France. These are things that I tried to piece together. This is a “pass of safe conduct”. A safe conduct was needed for any foreigner in France who was traveling outside the area of his or her residence, so a foreigner had to have a piece of paper, a safe conduct, allowing them to go. That one, that first one there, is from, I don’t recall the date. It’s on there you can see it. It’s January 1941 and the purpose is to visit the US consulate. I gather that nothing practical, no practical aid, came of that. At that point, it was extremely hard to get a visa to enter the United States as a refugee. There were people in South of France who did get them. They tended to be famous people. People who had groups lobbying on their behalf in the United States. But he was not able to apparently get a visa, but he did seek that first.
Hannah Gill: Your father’s last name?
Peter Gordon: Chrabolowski.
Hannah Gill: Okay, not Gordon.
Peter Gordon: [28:59] C-H-R-A-B-O-L-O-W-S-K-I. My name is Peter Chrabolowski Gordon. Gordon was a name taken by the first Chrabolowski who came to the United States in the late 19th Century, my father’s great uncle Phineas. Subsequent members of that family who came to the US also took that name. There was substantial migration from Poland to the US in the late 19th century and the very early 20th part of the century, immigration was shut down to a very large extent from areas like that in the 1920s. That’s my understanding. Then we have a letter here that is dated the 28th of May 1941. At this point the French government has been defeated for almost a year and things are obviously not good. This letter addressed to my father is from the Consulate General of Mexico and signed by a man named Gilberto Bosques Saldívar.
Hannah Gill: They want more documents from him?
Peter Gordon: Yes, they want more documents.
Hannah Gill: Can you read it out?
Peter Gordon: [31:07] [He reads in French]. It begins by saying we’ve received authorization for you to enter Mexico. Then it says that they need four photographs of him in profile and eleven full face photographs. This is for various documents, I guess. Then we have another sauf conduit, safe conduct, and this one is dated 4th of June, 1941, to visit the Mexican Consulate in Marseilles. Presumably that’s where he went with the photographs. Then there is a final letter from Gilberto Bosques and this one is in Spanish. I’ll let you read that.
Hannah Gill: En respuesta a su escrito citado en la referencia manifiesta a usted que cuando nuestra delegación en Vichy nos remita la tarjeta de identidad viaje corrrespondiente a la documentación que dice a ver su escrito procederemos a expedirle el visado correspondiente su internación en México. In response to your written citation in the reference shows that. . . . Okay, we are going to precede with expediting the visa, the corresponding visa, for your arrival. I can’t translate that exactly, but it says that they are expediting the process of admitting him. They had received his information.
Peter Gordon: We have a photocopy of the visa and so there’s my father. There is his first wife, Beata, the baby, my half-brother.
Hannah Gill: Your brother?
Peter Gordon: Andre.
Hannah Gill: Andre.
Peter Gordon: It says here.
Hannah Gill: Okay.
Peter Gordon: [34:19] It was approved by the Mexican Minister in Vichy, Francisco Aguilar. It was issued by Gilberto Bosques. It states here that my father was an ex-combatant in the International Brigades and his country of origin was Poland. Now this is one of the things I began to research when I was trying to understand how my father ended up in Mexico and what I’ve been told by my mother was that the Mexican government was very sympathetic to the Spanish Republicans. That’s why he was able to get into Mexico because he fought for the Spanish Republic. What was part of his death sentence if caught by the Nazis was part of what would allow him to escape because it played a role in Mexico taking him. I’ve done research on this and Mexican immigration policy during that time was a complicated subject. I’ve learned something about it and clearly there are different views. There is now a fair amount of attention being given to Gilberto Bosques. In brief outline, it is clear that Bosques had a strong association to Lázaro Cárdenas who was President of Mexico from 1934-1940. Cárdenas was very sympathetic to the Spanish Republic. Cárdenas was very sympathetic to socialism. He was considered a socialist. For better or worse he nationalized the Mexican oil companies and created Pemex. He sent Bosques to France as Consulate General with instructions to help refugees from the Spanish Republic. Bosques first went to Paris and when the French were defeated then relocated to Marseilles. There are popular accounts of this that say he rescued a huge number of people. The more scholarly accounts are a bit skeptical of the stated numbers. There is no doubt he rescued a lot. He was the general counsel in Marseilles. He was reported to have rented castles in Southern France and stated they were part of Mexican national property because he was the consulate and allowed refugees to stay there. Partially there are problems knowing exactly what happened because in the fall of 1942, the Germans occupied all of France and Bosques burned his records because they would have information about people. Bosques, his wife and children and twenty members of the Mexican consulate were jailed by the Gestapo and were held in prison for a year until apparently the Mexican government arrested a number of German nationals and traded them. Bosques was able to get out. He went on to work in the foreign service in Mexico, was ambassador to Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis and in 1998 died at the age of 102.
Hannah Gill: Extraordinary.
Peter Gordon: [39:13] Yeah. In accounts of the time, people talked about how, people drove around to every consulate imaginable trying to get something. They talked about how the Mexican Consulate, Gilberto Bosques’ offices, were the only ones that treated them like human beings. At many of them, they weren’t treated that way. It was just like “there’s nothing they could do”. He clearly was an extraordinary person and exactly what or how much he did is not so clear. To get out, you needed a minimum of three things. You needed an entrance visa to a country that would take you. That my father got first from Mexico. Then you needed an exit visa and that was also hard to get. I have a copy of the exit visa, I don’t have it right here. I think that was the next thing he got. I believe from family stories that this was gotten in part with forged documents stating my father was in bad health and this was potentially a reason to give him an exit visa. My father thought that the official who accepted the documentation must have been an idiot because it was so blatantly forged. Later he realized that he must have been sympathetic. That he could just file it and no one would ever look at it again. That he could help someone. Then you needed a boat ticket. You needed money for that. You needed a boat and there weren’t that many boats. The money for the ticket was raised by my father’s family in the states.
Hannah Gill: His uncle?
Peter Gordon: [41:49] His uncle and other relatives. The uncle was not the only one at that point. It was terribly complicated to arrange these kinds of financial transactions, but there were organizations of various sorts, including Jewish organizations, that would take care of receiving money and arranging the tickets. We find in this letter here from the joint Jewish immigration organization, on the 15th of February 1942, saying that various types of money had been received.
Hannah Gill: Okay
Peter Gordon: [42:49] And that they’ll let him know about the boat. One of the big problems was that you have to have all of the documents and everything available at once and sometimes you’d get an entrance visa and it would be time limited. By the time you got other documents, it would expire, or they would expire while you were waiting for a boat. The boats in general had to be neutral from neutral countries so they’d have to be Portuguese. To get to Portugal you had to go through Spain. In some cases, you’d have to get an additional visa, a transit visa, to pass through Spain to Portugal. That was another obstacle, but if you were someone like my father that was out of the question, he could not go back to Spain. He and his family got a boat from Marseilles to Casablanca. The Lipari—I found the boat. From there, they embarked on the San Tomé Portuguese liner from Casablanca to Veracruz leaving on 22nd of March 1942.
Hannah Gill: To Veracruz?
Peter Gordon: [44:50] To Veracruz. This is a period about which a great deal has been written. If you have a few facts like the boat and the date, you can find out more. That’s how I was able to find out about the Lipari because there are people who’ve recorded their histories or the family histories who were on the San Tomé. They went from Marseilles to Casablanca on the Lipari. I infer that must have been what happened here. Apparently, the San Tomé was a fairly nice boat. It had food. They had been very hungry in France, everything was rationed. I have ration coupons that are left over that are in my father’s papers and if you read the books of this time, food of course was a horrible issue because the Nazis were basically expropriating the resources of the countries they conquered. Here is a picture of my father. It’s probably one of the photos for the documents, but you can see clearly that he looks as thin as a rail. The San Tomé docked in Veracruz, I believe around the middle of April. It then continued, I believe, to Havana. There were, according to the sources I’ve read, around 120 passengers for Veracruz. Most of them were allowed immediately off the boat, but there were around 30 of them that were not allowed to debark—weren’t allowed to enter Mexico. Those were the ones that were associated with the International Brigades; so I assume that included my father and his family. The boat was delayed in Veracruz for a week or ten days, while this issue was resolved. One of the things that happened, very horribly, was that sometimes people would escape Europe and spend a month on a boat getting to a destination and then be denied entry. In some cases, when the boat went back to Europe, they were on it and that was their fate. What I read was that eventually money changed hands and that they were allowed to enter Mexico. In general, in what I’ve read about that time in Mexican immigration policy was that you had the same set of conflicting attitudes about refugees, some sympathy, some antipathy of various sorts, but you also had a bureaucratic system, where decisions depended on who happened to be right there. There was a reasonable level of corruption in Mexico and so the idea that local officials demanded money was not entirely surprising. Some books cite FBI reports particularly about corruption in Veracruz and essentially making money off of refugees, which continues today in various guises and in various places. The other thing about this in part relates to whether Bosques’ actions should be seen as a general humanitarian response or a more narrow response. Mexico at the time recognized political asylum and in fact took some pride in being associated with political asylum. Most famously, Trotsky received asylum in Mexico, undoubtedly because of Cárdenas. In general, they did not accept racial refugees -- Jews were considered racial refugees -- and there was a distinction there between people who needed asylum because of political reasons and people who needed asylum because of persecution due to their ethnic or religious characteristics; the term “racial” was used then. It is pretty clear that my father was considered a political refugee, that his fighting in the International Brigades, which was listed on his visa, was the basis for being granted a visa in Mexico. It wasn’t a general humanitarian refugee policy, it was one particularly aimed at political refugees and that’s how he got into Mexico.Can we take a break for just a minute?
Hannah Gill: Of course. END OF TAPE [51:50]