Peter Gordon

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This oral history interview is the second in a three-part series with Peter Gordon in Chapel Hill, North Carolina on December 7, 2018. Peter Gordon narrates the WWII migration story of his father, Samuel Chrabolowski Gordon (“Sam 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. This second interview covers Sam Gordon’s experiences in Mexico from 1943 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: Okay, I am here with Peter Gordon. My name is Hannah Gill. This is December 7, 2018 and we’re going to be continuing our interview about the migration story of Peter's father, Samuel Chrabolowski. Peter, let’s continue.
Peter Gordon: Thank you, Hannah. We left off last time with my father’s arrival with his first wife and their son in Veracruz. That was in April of 1942. There's a lot to try to understand about that and I don't understand all of it. I am learning more about it. One thing that I've learned that is very relevant is that my father was a Polish citizen. His Polish passport was issued in 1931 and was good for 10 years. It had expired in 1941 and he had no current passport. But of course Poland at that point had ceased to exist. The Nazis had invaded western Poland and had essentially annexed part of it and managed part of it. The Soviets invaded Eastern Poland and occupied it. Poland had not existed for 100 or so years in the 19th and early 20th century. It had only been recreated after WWI. So not having a valid passport was obviously problematic if you wanted to cross borders. Another fact that may or may not be relevant is that at the end of the Spanish Civil War, there were many people in the International Brigades, who were leaving Spain or trying to leave Spain. Many of them faced real problems of where they could go. The Prime Minister of the Spanish Republic at that point, Juan Negrin, promised all of the members of the International Brigades’ Spanish nationality. Now that was not something that he could deliver on because he was out of power and fled the country in a few months after that. But he made that promise and the Spanish government actually made good on it in the 1990’s by giving ex-combatants in the International Brigades an opportunity for a few years to claim Spanish citizenship. That point is relevant because Mexico was a strong supporter of the Spanish Republic. It's very clear that Mexico's policies, both official and actual, were to provide refuge to Spanish Republicans because they faced very severe, terrible reprisals in Spain. Many officials of the Republican Government were simply executed. Others were put into labor camps for many years. It was a very repressive situation politically.
Mexico, to my understanding, has always felt a strong connection both to Spain and to the Americas. It sees itself as a fusion of those two peoples and was happy to have people from Spain come to Mexico. It was not necessarily eager or willing to take other kinds of people. In reading about it it’s clear that people in Mexico had different opinions; many wanted to help refugees, but others didn't. There was actually a discussion about whether International-Brigade members who had not been born in Spain should be considered as acceptable refugees in Mexico. This went back and forth. In fact, there was a case of a doctor in the International Brigades, Liza Hollander, who had a child while she was in Spain. The Mexican consulate officials in France said that her child was Spanish. Since she and her husband were necessary companions to their child, they could all enter Mexico. That's documented. Now, my father did not have a child in Spain, but his immigration document to Mexico had the following information that was surprising to me. It has two places for information to be entered asking where you were from. It had a place where it said Pais de Nacimiento (country of birth), and this place was filled in “Polonia”. Then it asked for Nacionalidad Actual (actual nationality) and that place was filled in, “Española”. So, this document – this very official-looking document - says that my father had Spanish nationality and he was admitted for political asylum. That was the status that Mexico honored, they accepted political refugees providing them with asylum. At that point they hadn't developed policies for humanitarian refugees, for accepting refugees on humanitarian grounds. There are many documents within the large pile of official Mexican documents that I have that describe my father as being of Spanish nationality. Now, there is also-- and I just pulled this one out-- a form that he filled out partially, which was probably a draft that he didn't submit. He had to repeatedly renew his credentials for being in Mexico. In this form there is a statement “Soy victima en mi pais ______ de persecuciones politicas” and the blank is filled in España. This was at some level a fiction, but it was accepted by the Mexican officials and even suggested by the Mexican officials that my father comply with it.
Hannah Gill: Do you think that he would have filled this in? Or does that serve as his hand writing?
Peter Gordon: I think it is. I would have to check more carefully if someone else had filled it in. It's not complete and I can't find the first two pages. I think he may have started to fill this one and kept it blank.
The date on that as I believe in ‘45 or ‘46 would have been well after the initial migration. It's also the case that there is a letter to my father from the Polish Legation in Mexico, verifying that he is a Polish citizen and so are a number of other people who were on the boat that they arrived in. I presume that he got this in part to satisfy Mexican officials of something, I don't know that for sure.
Hannah Gill: Okay.
Peter Gordon: The circumstances in which my father and his first wife, Beata, and my half-brother, Andre were in Mexico were unusual ones and it was primarily a decision that was political. They received asylum and it was primarily my father's association with the International Brigades who were on the political left. The government of Mexico from 1934-1940 was led by Lázaro Cárdenas who was strongly oriented toward socialist ideas, but not very doctrinaire. He famously allowed, at the request of Diego Rivera, refuge for Leon Trotsky, which the communists did not appreciate. Trotsky was the object of a tremendous amount of negative propaganda and also attacks. Ultimately, he was murdered by Soviet agents.
Being in Mexico of course presented a problem about how to live. The legislation in Mexico that allowed political asylum also allowed people to work in their profession. There were some restrictions, for example, I believe they could not work as waiters. There was general concern that immigrants were not wanted because they would compete with Mexicans for jobs. Of course, my father was a doctor, but establishing a medical practice requires a lot of things, including having your credentials accepted. There is a great deal of correspondence to my father from various officials in different departments in Mexico reviewing his credentials giving him provisional permission to practice medicine for 30 days or 60 days and then longer, translations of his diploma and record, and validation of his college record by the Polish Legation. The correspondence is interesting in many ways but quite repetitive. One interesting thing about it is what it says about the time. Over many signatures, there's a slogan, "Sufragio Effectivo. No Reeleccion" (effective suffrage and no reelection), that's very Mexican. No reelection was a cardinal principle of Mexican politics and I believe it still is. The reason being is that leaders who had attained the presidency would not give it up in the past and that became a principle of the organization of Mexican politics and that slogan is repeated on many of these letters.
Now, I don't really know how much my father was able to practice medicine or make a living practicing medicine at the start. He and his family left Veracruz and went to the town or city of Zacapoaxtla in Puebla and I don't know why they went there. I do know that at least initially the circumstances were very difficult. There are letters to my father from people in the United States and they are clearly responses to whether they could provide my father's family in Mexico with some help. The first one is from my father's great Uncle Phineas, who'd been the first member of the family to come to United States and had taken the name Gordon. My father had written to him in part because his mother had in the past said that Phineas might be able to send money. Uncle Phineas received the letter and wrote back. There's a translation my father did from the Yiddish saying that "it is difficult to be a greenhorn in a strange land", showing his Americanism. It also says that he has no money and his relatives have no money and they can't really help, but if they could, they would. They came to the United States without resources and did well and prospered to some degree, but they were probably wiped out by the Great Depression.
Hannah Gill: This was that letter that was in Yiddish that your father later translated into English, years later?
Peter Gordon: I presume it was years later. I could not find the original, but it's definitely my father's hand writing.
Hannah Gill: Your uncle, Phineas, did he spell his name with a F or PH?
Peter Gordon: PH. It was “Pinia” in Polish. There's another letter in Yiddish that I had translated. It was interesting. It is dated November 1942, so they had been in Mexico six or seven months. It says “Dear friend, a few days ago I received another letter from my cousin Dr. John Biezuner. He knows he has little hope of America because it's very difficult to take an immigrant over to America especially now that America severed relations with Vichy, France and Hitler is now in power there. My cousin is asking me to write to you and send you money, but unfortunately my family is very poor. I'm an elderly man over 70 and I still have to go to work." Then it goes back to his cousin-- and it says “Dear friend, for the love of gd”-- because that’s the name of the Lord-- “Try to do something to rescue them, there can be no greater mitzvah then to save three people from downfall. From me your unknown friend, H. Grodner." I think that it is a sign of desperation that he would think that my father, barely surviving in Mexico, could help the cousin and mutual friend. This made me very sad when I read it to think about that all. I had just skimmed over the name at the top when I first read the translation and when I looked at it again I said to myself that I know that name from my childhood. And if I knew the name from my childhood, they must have survived. And with the miracle of the internet I was able to find out about him. He died in the 1990s.
He and his family got out in 1944 on a boat. They had first gone to Spain which was an interesting place in that if you were on politically on the wrong side you were in very bad trouble, but Franco's government did not persecute Jews, did not hand them over to other parties. They were able to live in Spain for some time before ultimately getting transit through the United States to Canada where Biezuner reestablished his medical practice. The photos I have of my father in 1932 in Montpellier, these three all show John Biezuner. They were Polish students, Jewish Poles, who had gone to Medical School. I was able to find John Biezuner’s daughter and she knew me immediately. She remembered me quite well. And that was a very happy twist to what had seemed like a very sad story.
Hannah Gill: Did this happen in between the last time we talked?
Peter Gordon: Yes.
Hannah Gill: Did she explain if your father was able to help them?
Peter Gordon: Well, once I knew the name Biezuner, I knew I could find something. I found a posting at one of the immigration museums in Canada, their regional museums with virtual in addition to the physical collections and I was able to find a summary by John Biezuner’s granddaughter of her grandfather's journey. Fran, the second daughter, was actually born in Spain and was named Francesca after Francisco Franco because Spain had provided them a haven. I talked to Fran who definitely remembered me. She said they would come from Canada and visit us all the time, but things fell off after my father died. My father's medical school thesis was dedicated to many people, the dedications consumed a lot of pages, and one of them is John Biezuner. But Fran said that her parents never really talked about their escape from Europe. They wanted to move on. But I will ask her to look for any correspondence from my father to her father. I also have a card from John Biezuner to my father from Toronto dated some time in 1944, so they had reestablished contact by then. My father must have been very happy. An issue in terms of survival --and the Biezuner family reminds me of this-- is that I still don’t know how my father found out about his family that was still in Europe. In fact, the letter from Biezuner is hard to read, his handwriting is challenging. His daughter concurred that she could not read her father's handwriting. She was actually a French teacher and he wrote in French, but she could not read his French. His card mentions the name Cadoret, and Cadoret is the name of the man my father's oldest sister, Maria known as Masha, was married to. She was completing her medical studies at the University of Paris and she married a Breton, Cadoret. They had a son, my cousin Maturin, born in 1940. Masha, of course had some advantages being married to a French man and some disadvantages being in occupied France rather than Vichy France, but ultimately she escaped to Spain as well. I was told she climbed over the Pyrenees with her baby. And then from Spain made her way first to Casablanca then ultimately to Algeria where she passed the war before returning to France. She survived and it’s clear that that card from John Biezuner was informing my father in part about his sister’s status.
I don’t know when he heard about the rest of his family. This is a family photo taken in Bielsk in 1933.
My father did return to Bielsk at least once and maybe twice after starting studies in France, and you can see my father, he's in the back row with glasses and his mother, Rachel and his father, Hillel. This is Masha and this then is the next brother, Menasha, Jakob, Mina and Rebeka. The first child, my father, was born in 1911 and the last was born in 1923. I don’t know how this was known, but it’s reported that Menasha was almost immediately shot once Germans had taken over Eastern Poland. He had in fact gone back to Poland after the Partition and I have a lot of his correspondence to my father. According to my mother, my father begged him not to go back. He was shot immediately after the Germans took over. The rest of the family, as far as can be known, was deported to Treblinka sometime in the fall of 1942 and killed there. My grandfather would have been 60 years old, my grandmother 55 or 56. My youngest aunt would have been 19. I don't know when my father found out about that. I have heard the story from my mother, that when my father found out he cried for two days. I don't know how he found out. There is a letter here in Polish to my father that almost certainly I now believe he received after having known his family died. This was from June of 1945 and it’s from a man named Theodore Parnicki, who was a fairly prominent Polish novelist. He was in Mexico as part of the Polish Legation.
Hannah Gill: Can you clarify what the Polish Legation exactly was?
Peter Gordon: The Polish Legation was officials of the Polish government who were operating in another country, essentially they were associated with the ambassador’s office. They would have the kind of functions you would see in the correspondence with my father, verifying citizenship, helping their citizens. The issue was that Poland didn’t exist anymore though there was a Polish government in exile that was in London that represented a continuation of the Polish government. These officials were part of that continued Polish government. I’ve deciphered a bit of this letter even though it’s a long, handwritten letter in Polish. And it begins “Dear doctor. . .”, which seems a little formal compared to some other letters, and I wonder if they had known each other, but I've decided they must have. The letter has repetitions that look similar to verses. I figured out the first sentence, which says that he’s sending my father a poem by Julian Tuwim, a very prominent Polish poet, and I believe the poem is April Flowers, which is a very long poem about what was happening in Poland. I suspect that this was a letter about dealing with grief. That's jumping ahead a bit chronologically. It’s consistent with the idea that there were many refugees in Mexico that were associated with literary efforts or artistic efforts.
My father and his first wife were divorced. Their divorce was finalized in the year after they arrived in Mexico. Beata had also received medical education in Montpellier, which is presumably where my father had met her. She was Polish. She never as far as I know practiced medicine, but I read that she along with Liza Hollander, who I mentioned previously, who’s discussed in some books, formed something called the Polish Mexican Union. I presume this was to provide some sort of Polish group, similar to a kind of club. One thing I've read about is that when Bosques returned to Mexico, the club had a celebratory dinner for him. Bosques had been the general counsel as I said in France. When the Germans occupied Vichy France, they arrested Bosques, his wife, their children and all the members of the very large Mexican delegation. They were held by the Gestapo for a year and were finally released as part of a prisoner exchange with Mexico. Bosques' return to Mexico is something that was celebrated.
There’s a letter from Beata in May of 1943 to my father saying that she was thankful for the 100 pesos and that she had two things to make him aware of: the first was that he had to retrieve his official documents that he had sent in order to establish his credentials, the second was that a Polish doctor who had come to Mexico earlier to escape from what was happening – he was a prominent physician and had developed a test for abdominal problems -- was working with the Polish Legation to look for a doctor for a refugee camp. Beata said that my father should be careful about how he presented himself, and say that he was like a Republican (he had been in the Polish Army) and a Democrat (he had been in the Spanish Army). This is how my father was introduced to the position that he took ultimately. There’s correspondence asking for my father to come and talk to the Polish doctor and that he’ll be reimbursed for his travel expenses. There are at least two letters dated on the same day, indicating that the process happened quickly.
The refugees were from Eastern Poland. When the Soviets took over Eastern Poland they deported a large number of residents to inhospitable places. These refugees were primarily deported to Siberia and the reasons were varying. Deportations would happen suddenly and troops would say that they had to leave. They were transported in terrible conditions and many died on the way. Some ended up in camps where there were quotas of physical labor that had to be completed each day. If you completed it, you received your ration of food and if you didn’t you wouldn’t receive your ration of food. Many died of malnutrition.
After the Germans invaded the Soviet Union there was an alliance between the Soviet Union and Britain.
The British made it a condition of alliance that the Soviets release these Polish prisoners and the Soviets explicitly granted them all what they called "amnesty". Then they were provided with some help, but not a lot, to get out of the places where they were. They all migrated south with a first goal being a stopover in Iran. There they felt that the Iranian people were nice and accommodating. Iran was controlled by the British for whom the primary goal was to form the released prisoners into a Polish army to help fight the Germans. There was also a humanitarian aspect to this because there were men who had been wounded and women and children who would not be suitable for the army. The question arose as to how to provide for these people. Iran was too close to the military action. They looked for places for these people to go and some went to Mexico. It was an arrangement made by the United States, Polish, British, and Mexican governments. The agreement was that the Mexican government would allow up to 20,000 Polish refugees to be settled in Mexico, but there were conditions that they would be supported entirely without funds from Mexico, so entirely by the sponsoring governments. Most of the money came from the United States Government. They would also not be able to work so they wouldn’t compete with Mexicans for jobs and that after the war, they’d leave. They’d also have to be in camps. In some levels it was generous, but in others, it was still a harsh set of conditions to live by. The refugees came to live in Mexico by first going to Iran from India, then in two groups were transported by US navy boats around the Pacific to San Diego -- where they were guarded to make sure they didn't try to escape into the United States -- then by train to a place called Hacienda Santa Rosa outside of Leon. The Hacienda Santa Rosa, became known as "the colony". According to most accounts the site was selected because it was remote. The concern was the British and the US officials did not want to antagonize Stalin. They did not want Polish refugees to be taking to the press and creating bad publicity that might be a source of antagonism.
The refugees were in terrible shape and you can know that about reading about the time. I have a photo here of it. It shows children not looking so good, in this top photo. Their hair is very short, probably to deal with lice and they just look very unhappy. By all accounts they had reason to be, all they could do is survive. They do look better as you go along. There has been a lot written about the colony of Santa Rosa.
The first academic work on the colony was published in 1945 as a master’s thesis by two students, Fay Calkins and Laurama Page. The title was is Santa Rosa: A Present Fact and a Future Problem. All colleges had trouble staying in business because their clientele was young men and the young men were in the military. They began to admit women and Haverford College took Calkins and Page into a masters program. Their thesis has a good description of the colony. They separated their evaluations from their detailed fact-oriented descriptions. They described how the people there had suffered so badly and that the adults were in a situation where they weren’t free. The children had suffered badly too, but they received education and had activities to do. They also note that my father was the chief doctor and part of the reason was because even though two other doctors had come over with the refugees, they could not legally practice medicine in Mexico. They did care for the refugees but this had to be done under my father's supervision and authority.
The camp was organized by the US government from July to November ’43. It was under the supervision of the US government that my father was hired. The Polish government then took over the camp from November ’43 – July of 1945. The funding was from the US government, it covered supplies and any construction that had to be done. There were multiple organizations, including the Polish War Relief, which was an organization within the United States, provided money for education, medical health, and clothing. The National Catholic Welfare Conference also provided funds and staff.
The first group of refugees arrived in August of 1943, the second group arrived in November of 1943.
The first account written by a staff member, Mary D'Arc published in the 1960s, said that proper housing was not available until November of 1944. Mary D'Arc represented an additional group, she was a Felician nun from Chicago. That organization had a strong Polish heritage, and the nuns were all bilingual in Polish and English. The people in Mexico were not ready for the kinds of refugees who came. There were 270 orphans and they had no facilities for dealing with them. So, the Felician Sisters sent six nuns to Mexico to care for the orphans. Mary D'Arc was the head Sister, she supervised them. It's interesting that at that time the Mexican Constitution banned wearing of religious garb, so these women who had probably lived for many years in their habits had to go around in ordinary clothes. D'Arc wrote that one of the major problems facing the administration was to provide medical care. She said, "In spite of the lack of proper quarters, equipment, or pharmacy, Dr. Samuel Chrabolowski, the head of the staff, with superhuman efforts on his part, managed to cope with the difficult situation." Eileen Egan, who was with the National Catholic Welfare Conference, is perhaps the most prominent person associated with the camp. She wrote a book called For Whom there is No Room about refugees during World War II that was published in the 1990s. She also discusses Santa Rosa and the terrible problems, psychological and moral problems faced by the refugees.
I have a picture of the medical facilities -- that does take you back. There’s a chair for minor surgery.
There’s a lab bench with a microscope, so the physicians did their own blood test. This is a picture of my father first wife, Beata and my half-brother, Andre. This is almost certainly in France and this one is certainly in Mexico with the palm trees. And here is Andre, a little older and there’s a picture of my father with Lazaro Cardenas. According to the historical accounts, Cardenas showed up one day at the colony to check on improvements to the road to Leon. That is not a very glorious job for a former president, but it was said that he constantly would travel the country to meet people. That personal generosity is noted in all accounts of him. My father looked serious, everyone looks serious in all official photos of the time, but he also looks pleased. I think that he must have been.
There are a lot of people who wrote about Santa Rosa and tried to come away with the significance of it.
Certainly, I can't help thinking about it and try to do that myself. There were a lot of terrible problems there. They had their basis in part by the terrible conditions under which the refugees had lived for many years, they were devastated. It had to do with the lack of resources to take care of them. It also had to do with the fact that the people running of the place had different backgrounds and different priorities. For example, the Polish administrator for the main period of the camp had previously been the representative of the Polish government to Francisco Franco's regime during the Spanish Civil War. So that is an odd mix. You had my father, who was hired first by the Americans, and who was a veteran of the International Brigades working with a man who presumably was sympathetic to the Nationalists in Spain.
Also, Poland was a very Catholic country and emphasizes that a great deal. Part of the Spanish Civil War was about religion and the Catholic Church in general was anti-Spanish Republic. Then you have a country – Mexico -- that had recently, maybe 10 years earlier, finished a war about the practice of religion and that still prohibited people from going in public with their religious clothing. Then you had multiple funding sources, and every funding source has its own agenda. You had a very small number of Jewish refugees. There was lots of concern about antisemitism among the other refugees, it's hard to assess the magnitude of that. Even among the US-supported charities you had very different backgrounds and goals.
It’s clear that my father got along very well with the Felician Sisters, that's a compliment to say that your efforts were superhuman, I didn't even know that that word was used back then. He also got along well with the people from the National Catholic Welfare Conference, but in other cases not so well.
This is correspondence to my father from a woman who spent time in Santa Rosa and who was part of the National Catholic Welfare Conference. You can see here that it is on letterhead and the address is 350 Fifth Avenue, New York – the Empire State Building. She refers to the problems at the colony. She says that she wants to hear about a visit by a person from the Polish charities. “I was told that all of you quarreled and that you would not permit him into the hospital”. She was sympathetic to my father but tells him there are not going to be changes in the staff. She's in contact with people in the National Catholic Welfare Conference and with the Polish Legation in the US and that they are not going to make changes. Then she says that she writing to him in English because her Polish is too formal – that of course helps me. She says that she has become well acquainted with his handwriting and whether he writes in Spanish, French or Polish, she'll manage to understand it but that she’d prefer if he wrote to her in Polish because she knows practically no Spanish and her French is just as poor. So, apparently he wrote letters in whatever language suited him at the moment. She then goes on that she received his postcards and that he appears to be enjoying himself. She agrees with his statement that the war will be over before they find a location for the new group of refugees. So, they were expecting more refugees and they were looking for another location. She reproaches him and says that to us it appears that they were having a wonderful time and neglecting their duties. [Peter shares several photos with Hannah and they have a brief exchange not included in the transcription]It does look like, certainly from this photo, people taking a trip and having all too good a time according to this woman back in New York.
Then she writes that she thought she might be going to Africa, but unfortunately she’ll have to remain in New York at her desk. Whether or not she will be able to go to Poland later on – assuming that there is a Poland to go to – she has no way of knowing. Clearly, she is committed to refugee work. I've looked up this woman and this gets to issues of different social groups. She received a Bachelor’s from Barnard College and a Masters in the mid-1930s from NYU with a thesis on Polish immigrants in New York. She goes on to say that she does not know if he has heard officially from Eileen Eigan, that she has been back around two months. She has been very busy reporting on her work abroad and has been speaking about the work that she has done in Mexico and Spain. She doesn't see much of Eigan at the office and then each of us has her work to do – that implies they were friends. She says that she believes that Eigan does a lot of her research in the evening, but that she herself spends her time at the Ballet Russe or seeing some play or going to the symphony. She's afraid that she is the frivolous type, but she has fun and will not change. Becoming more serious, she says that in thinking about Santa Rosa, couldn't they just forget their differences and work effectively together. These letters are very interesting…she also asked about my father’s son, my half-brother.
In July of 1945 a US military plane on a routine trip from Massachusetts to Newark got lost in fog and smashed into the Empire State Building. It smashed directly into the floor where the offices of the National Catholic Welfare Conference were. Everyone on the plane was killed and eleven people in the building were killed, including this woman. I don't know about their relationship, I do know that I was told by my mother that there was a woman whom my father was very close to who was killed in this way.
At the end of the war in 1945, you would think that people would have been happy, but even beginning a year earlier, the Soviet Union had reoccupied all of Eastern Poland and made it clear that they would have a very large say as to what the Polish government would be. It’s reported that the divisions within the exile community became more apparent as it became clear that the war was ending. For the refugees it was not clear what was going to happen, they did not want to go back to Poland. The vast majority of them did not. According to Mary D'Arc, about a third of the refugees went to the US. Only 50 out of 1500 returned to Poland. Twenty-five young women married Canadians of Polish descent whom they’d met through correspondence. The remainder decided to stay in Mexico, which they were allowed to do despite the agreement that all the refugees would leave Mexico after the war ended.
The Mexican government officially recognized the new, communist Polish government in the summer of 1945. That left the administration of the colony up in the air. The American consulate took over the administration of the camp. They had done it in the beginning and at the end. There were a difficult set of circumstances. There are a number of documents of interest, one is a newspaper article from my father’s papers. This is a Polish language newspaper published in the United States in March of 1946. It is an instance of what you can find of extreme rhetoric, and attacked my father and his reputation. It is very clear that extreme rhetoric went in every direction. It said that my father was now the dictator of the colony and that he decided who would work and who would go to the US. It said that he had been expelled from Poland and that he took his orders directly from Moscow. It must have been hurtful. It happened after he decided to leave the colony and they decided to vilify him, but he had his own life to live. It’s also relevant that the divisions in the Polish community were coming out and the Polish Mexican Democratic Union openly declared collaboration and alliance with the USSR. The new Polish representatives from the communist government, sought out someone to be the head of an organization called "Pol Press", which was to establish Polish press in Mexico. The person who they put in that job was my father’s first wife, Beata Babad.
Hannah Gill: Where was she living at that time? While he was living in the colony?
Peter Gordon: I think that she was mostly still in Zacapoaxtla, but she may have been in Mexico City.
My mother told me that my father had never been a communist and that he wanted to fight the fascists.
My brother said that one of our relatives said that he had been an anarchist. I was told that Beata became a communist once she came to Mexico, that she was moving in these very ideological circles and that she became a communist then. Certainly, there was some association between my father and these organizations. There are a variety of papers that are near the end of my father’s time that came from Mexican officials that testify to his good character. It’s not clear to me why he had these, but I believe they were part of renewing his status in Mexico and they were related to his being able to defend his reputation if he needed to. He had them from the head of police in Leon, from the inspector, and president of the administrative junta, just all sorts of people. There were also documents from family in the US stating that they could support my father if he came to the US. With that my father was apparently able to get entrance into the US and I was told that he took the greyhound bus to Chicago. I have evidence of his crossing the border in Laredo in the summer of 1946, in June. That’s also in his passport.
Hannah Gill: And the terms of which he could immigrate to the US?
Peter Gordon: I don’t know.
Hannah Gill: If you had a sponsor, that was all you needed?
Peter Gordon: I don’t know, I read that after WWII ended there were some people in the US who wanted to be very generous to refugees, but that politically that was not acceptable, that Congress refused to do it.
So, President Truman said that immigration would continue to be determined by quotas, but that he would give priority to refugees within those quotas. I suspect it wasn’t just having someone willing to commit to supporting you, you had to fit within the quota. My father was clearly a refugee, and I expect that it was that priority combined with support that allowed him to immigrate.
Hannah Gill: Thank you, so much.