Former Angel Island refugee recalls journey to America

While reading j. last July, Lotte Loebl Frank thought her heart might stop.

Poring over a story about European Jewish refugees who made their way in 1940 to San Francisco’s Angel Island, Frank found herself reading her own life story.

Lotte Loebl Frank

Like those in the article, the Austrian-born Frank and her family escaped the Nazi noose, making their way east through Russia, China and Japan. They, too, boarded the steam ship Rakuyo Maru, crossing the ocean to America and to freedom.

But before freedom came Angel Island.

“On Angel Island, we were treated nicely, but like prisoners,” says Frank. “They had wire gates there, and when we went for meals a guard went with us.”

Called the Ellis Island of the West, the Angel Island Immigrant Station served as a gateway for immigrants –– mostly Chinese, Russian, Mexican and Japanese –– from 1910 until 1940, when a fire  destroyed it.

Today its legacy is tended by the nonprofit Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation. This year marks the immigration station’s centennial.

Foundation director Eddie Wong, a historian and documentary filmmaker, is compiling information on scores of former Angel Island internees, including 60 Jewish refugees like Frank.

She and her family were interned there only a few weeks before being freed to launch a new life in San Francisco. “We went on this long journey to come here,” she says. “But believe me, it was worth it.”

Frank’s story begins in Lackenbach, Austria, a few hours’ drive from Vienna. Frank recalls a happy Orthodox girlhood, during which the town’s Jews got along with their non-Jewish neighbors.

“My father [Ludwig Loebl] had a wonderful business,” she remembers. “He was a professional tailor, and had several people working for him. In the back they had a factory and several people there.”

That all changed overnight following the Nazi invasion in 1938.

Lotte (left) and her older sister Herta Loebl as children

Over the subsequent two years, the Loebl family, like all Austrian Jews, experienced a descent into hell, stripped of their livelihoods, citizenship, valuables and, for many, their lives.

“Most of [the people] that worked for us all of a sudden came with Nazi uniforms,” Frank recalls, “and knocked at our door and window and said in German, ‘Jew, get out of here. I’m taking over now.’ And they made us leave overnight.”

Suddenly homeless, the family (which included Frank’s mother and sister) knew getting out of Europe was their only hope.

With relatives in the United States, the family was able to secure immigration papers. They made their way east by train through Russia to Harbin, China, and eventually to the Japanese port city of Yokohama.

“It was very, very hard,” Frank says of the journey across the ocean. “It was almost four weeks. We slept on straw cots — men, women and children together on the floor.”

Once they arrived at Angel Island on Aug. 28, 1940, the Frank women were separated from Frank’s father. Lotte still remembers the tables in the outdoor yard that were set up for meals. She also recalls that there were many other internees, mostly Chinese and Japanese.

After a few weeks the Hebrew Imm-igrant Aid Society stepped in to help the family, placing them with Jewish families in San Francisco. A few months later, they got an apartment of their own.

In time, her father found work as a tailor at the Presidio military base. She attended high school. A few years later, her parents opened a dry cleaning store.

“They worked until 10 at night,” she says. “I was able to cook and bring them food. I walked with pots and pans in a bag, because we lived not too far from the store.”

The family prospered, buying a house in the Sunset district. Unfortunately, all of their relatives back in Europe perished at the hands of the Nazis.

After a few years at college, Frank got a job at Bond’s Clothing Store in the credit department, then later had government jobs with the Army Corps of  Engineers and the IRS. She met her husband, Alan Frank, on a blind date. The couple had three children, and ran a grocery store in Mill Valley.

They were members of Congregation Rodef Sholom for many decades. Eventually they sold their commercial property when, as Frank puts it, they “got an offer we couldn’t refuse.”

Frank’s husband died 13 years ago. She looks back on a life of good fortune, tempered by the sorrow of knowing how many of her fellow European Jews died so needlessly.

But she’s grateful to her adopted homeland, and even more grateful a long-forgotten immigration center on Angel Island was there to take her in.

“Thank God I’m here in America,” she says, “and was very fortunate to have my parents for a long time. We were very lucky to be a happy family.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.