Ellis Island of the West: From 1910 to 1940, many Jews gateway to U.S. was Angel Island

When Eva Schott Berek turned 19 years old, she didn’t have a birthday cake.

But she did have her freedom.

After seven weeks of traveling by train across Eastern Europe and Asia, and then by ship across the Pacific Ocean to escape the terror of Nazi Germany, Berek and her parents arrived at the Angel Island Immigration Station on Aug. 28, 1940 — one week before Eva’s 19th birthday on Sept. 4.

“My father even gave me a present — two oranges. It was the biggest deal you can imagine,” said the 88-year-old Berek, who now lives in Concord.

Berek next month celebrates the 70th anniversary of her arrival in the United States. She was one of about 500 Jewish European refugees to travel to San Francisco from Shanghai and Yokohama in 1939 and 1940, according to an assessment of ship passenger lists and Border Security and Immigration registries.

The story of Chinese immigrants being detained at Angel Island, sometimes for as long as two years, has been well documented.

But “the story of Jewish refugees has largely been untold,” said Eddie Wong, a historian and documentary filmmaker.

Wong is director of the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation, through which he hopes to embark on a large-scale research project about Jewish refugees who immigrated to the United States through Angel Island, which operated as a West Coast immigration station from 1910 until 1940.

Eva Schott Berek reads from her father’s travel diary, which recorded the details of her family’s trip from Berlin to San Francisco. photo/stacey palevsky

The Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the immigration station and its history, has organized a centennial anniversary celebration for Saturday, July 31. The event, on the 740-acre island in the middle of San Francisco Bay, will feature live music and speeches from immigrants, historians and authors.

“As we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the immigration station, we want to share the diverse stories of Chinese, Japanese, Russian, Jewish and Mexican immigrants — who all spent time on Angel Island,” Wong said.

He also has applied for grant funding to support what he knows will be a time-consuming historical research project: finding surviving Jewish refugees and their relatives, then documenting and chronicling  their personal histories.

“How do you find these people now, 70 years later, when many have scattered [across the country]?” Wong asked. “There’s a lot of detective work to be done.”

Based on his foundation’s work digging through the National Archives in San Bruno and conducting oral histories with a handful of surviving refugees, Wong has case files and brief thumbnail sketches for about 60 Jewish immigrants. He has been in contact with two Jewish immigrants (Berek in Concord and a woman who lives in Florida) and the daughter of  Alice Edelstein Steiner, a third refugee who lived in Oakland until her death two years ago.

During its 30 years of operation, the Angel Island Immigration Station received 500,000 immigrants representing 80 ethnic groups.

Jews immigrated through Angel Island primarily in two waves: in the 1920s from Russia to escape the Bolshevik revolution, and between 1938 and 1940, when German and Austrian Jews crossed Asia to flee the Nazis.

A 1940 fire destroyed the Angel Island administration building. Thereafter, the immigration station was abandoned and new arrivals have since been processed in San Francisco.

In some ways, Angel Island was the Ellis Island of the West. But because of the politics and laws of its time, unlike Ellis Island, many immigrants were detained on Angel Island for weeks or months at a time, particularly Chinese and other Asian immigrants.

Jewish immigrants had it better. Judy Yung, a retired professor at U.C. Santa Cruz and co-author of a new book about Angel Island’s history, points out that the average stay for Russians and Jews on Angel Island was two to three days, and less than 2 percent were deported.

“This compares favorably to all other nationalities with the exception of the Japanese,” Yung writes in her book, “Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America,” due out in September.

“Overall, the Russian and Jewish experiences on Angel Island were very similar if not better than those of their counterparts on Ellis Island, where their rejection rate was almost twice as high,” she writes.

“For the overwhelming majority who were coming to escape religious or political persecution, Angel Island was truly a gateway to the promised land of freedom and opportunity.”

However, it wasn’t an easy gateway to pass through. Many immigrants — including Jews — were detained. In some instances, representatives from Jewish and Hebrew benevolent societies felt compelled to come to Angel Island to testify on behalf of Jewish detainees.

In 1915, for example, one such representative spoke to immigration officials, telling them that “we always take steps to see that Jewish boys obtain work and do not become beggars.” After this, officials released eight Jewish detainees, according to Yung’s book.

The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society also stepped in to help, opening a Pacific Coast branch in San Francisco in May 1915 mainly to advocate for the increased number of Jews coming through Angel Island.

In 1916, for example, when 17 Jews refused to eat the food served to them in the Angel Island dining hall during Passover, HIAS provided the immigrants with matzah and kosher-for-Passover food they could eat in their rooms.

And in 1933, when a 54-year-old widower traveling with his two sons was detained on the island because officials thought he was “emaciated and frail looking,” HIAS offered a hand. HIAS helped round up $1,000 from other family members, and the father, who spent two months on Angel Island, was finally released.

In another instance, a shoe-store owner from Vienna and his wife were held overnight because they were suspected of being an LPC, a “likely public charge,” meaning they would need government support to get by. They had come from Shanghai with just $22 to their name.

But because they had the foresight to leave Germany with two fur coats worth over $2,000 — the Nazis allowed them to take goods but not money — they were able to convince the officials of their financial stability.

“I was really struck by the resourcefulness of the Jewish immigrants,” Yung said during a phone interview.

Berek remembered her time on Angel Island as being filled with a feeling of uncertainty. But, like she did during her family’s arduous journey, she stayed hopefully reminding herself that she was traveling to freedom.

That positive attitude isn’t just a distant memory, either. Decades after she sent dozens of postcards about her journey to America to a pen pal in Austria, the woman sent them back to her so she would have a chronicle of her intercontinental trip.

“I have read them all, and in every single postcard, I wrote, ‘It’s so wonderful to be free,’ ” Berek said. A few years ago, she donated the postcards to the Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley.

Berek, who grew up in a Catholic neighborhood in Berlin, was 12 years old when the Nazis came to power. “That’s when life changed,” she recalled.

It took her family, the Schotts, two years to secure an affidavit from Ernst’s cousin in upstate New York that made possible their departure from Germany. In July 1940, they boarded a train for Lithuania and then headed to Moscow. They then spent seven days on the Siberia Express.

“Russian soldiers were on the train and brought us trays of food,” Berek said. “Nobody had been nice to us for a very long time, and we were in tears [of joy]. Having Russian bread and butter — we hadn’t seen these things in years.”

In Manchuria, a region in northeast China, they boarded the Japan Express. During an overnight stop in Harbin, China, the Jewish community there prepared a kosher dinner for the Austrian and German refugees on board.

After a four-day stay in Kobe, Japan, the Schotts boarded the ship Rakuyo Maru. The family spent three weeks on board. They slept in bunk beds in a room at the bottom of the ship that accommodated 150 passengers.

Berek’s passport listed her occupation as photographer — from age 15 to 17 she worked in a photography studio in Berlin — and as such, she was allowed to bring a camera aboard (otherwise, Russian officials may have suspected her of being a spy).

The black and white photographs from her boat trip are preserved in a scrapbook. In the pictures, passengers exercise on board and smile from the ship’s railings, the ocean stretching for miles in the background.

“A lot of people got sea sick,” Berek said. Luckily, she did not.

When the Rakuyo Maru sailed through the Golden Gate and arrived at Angel Island on Aug. 28, Berek’s father was sent to the wooden men’s barracks, and Berek and her mother were directed to the women’s housing.

“We weren’t prisoners,” Berek recalled. “The guards were polite. They fed us well. Everything was clean.”

They were detained on Angel Island because they didn’t have much money and officials were worried they would end up on the government dole.

On the day of Berek’s 19th birthday, her father begged the guard to let him see his daughter — and for one hour they sat on a park bench on Angel Island, enjoying the oranges he had brought for her.

The following day, immigration officials interrogated Hedwig, Ernst and Eva. By the end of the meeting, the Schotts had been admitted to the United States of America.

Like Berek, Alice Edelstein Steiner sailed to America as a child on the Rakuyo Maru.

During an oral history interview in 2004, four years before she died, the longtime Oakland resident remembered how the officials on Angel Island forced her to eat, because she had lost 20 pounds during her sea journey. “All my clothes hung on me,” she said.

But Steiner was allergic to milk, and every morning the children were served oatmeal cooked with milk. “They tried to tell me I had to eat. Absolutely horrible,” she said. “Angel Island was really a very nice place except for the milk.”

Steiner spent three days on Angel Island with her mother (her father had traveled before them and ended up in the Dominican Republic). Officials wouldn’t clear them until their sponsor, a family in Wisconsin, sent them funds — which eventually did arrive via the Council of Jewish Women in San Francisco.

Steiner’s story will live on in Yung’s book and in her oral history, which is available online from the U.C. Davis Pacific Regional Humanities Center (www.tinyurl.com/2bs9sco).

Berek is grateful she can still share her story.  But she will never return to Angel Island.

“It’s just too painful for me. I cannot go back there,” she said.

Berek’s story is one of hundreds of Jewish stories that Wong hopes will eventually emerge from his research.

Both Wong’s parents and Yung’s parents immigrated through Angel Island. For both, their personal family history makes the stories of Jewish and non-Jewish refugees symbolic of America’s past and its future.

“Angel Island offers a unique opportunity to see that America is a nation of immigrants, has been a nation of immigrants and continues to be a nation of immigrants,” Yung said. “Angel Island is a place of both exclusion and inclusion. It shows the best and worst of our immigration policy.”

Angel Island Immigration Station Centennial Celebration, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, July 31, Angel Island. For Tiburon and San Francisco ferry information, check www.aiisf.org.

Authors Judy Yung and Erika Lee will read from “Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America,” 1:30 to 4 p.m.

Aug. 7, Fort Mason Building A, Golden Gate Room, San Francisco.

To submit stories of Jewish refugees who immigrated  through Angel Island, contact Eddie Wong at [email protected] or (415) 262-4430.

Cover design by cathleen maclearie.

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.