Then and Now: S.F. embraced war refugees of all stripes

On July 30 — the day after the somber Jewish holiday of Tisha B’Av — the last survivor from a rare 1942 escape from Auschwitz passed away in Poland. Sixty years after his getaway, August Kowalczyk died at age 90, after serving as vice president of the board of the Society for the Protection of Auschwitz.

Jewish refugees arrive in San Francisco from Shanghai, China, on the USS General M.C. Meigs, 1949. photo/courtesy of bancroft library, university of california, berkeley

Kowalczyk wasn’t Jewish. But the story of Jewish partisans and escapees from concentration camps has become a more public part of the Holocaust story in recent years, thanks to local organizations like the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation, and to individuals such as Marin businessman Joseph Pell, whose 2004 memoir “Taking Risks,” about fighting Nazis in the Ukrainian forests, told a new kind of story about the Jewish experience during World War II.

In 1945, just after the war ended, San Francisco became a major port of entry for European refugees, as well as for Jews who had escaped to Shanghai. Building on the work of the Jewish F­ederation’s Committee for Service to Emigrés, begun in 1936, the community mobilized to take everyone in.

Mount Zion Hospital provided free checkups; JCCs and synagogues provided ritual, social and recreational activities; the Pacific Hebrew Orphan Asylum placed children in foster care; and the Jewish Family Service Agency (forerunner to today’s JFCS) helped refugees find work.

This column is provided to j. by Daniel Schifrin, writer-in-residence at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, where stories of local Jewish life are explored in “California Dreaming: Jewish Life in the Bay Area from the Gold Rush to the Present.”