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Apr 22

More Voices from the Past

When I was thinking about my blog post for April, I had several ideas. But one gripped me and wouldn’t let go. It came from other letters I’d read and copied when I was in California last month. This time they were from my mother’s side of the family.

In Europe in the late 1930s and early 1940s, Hitler was annihilating the Jews as fast as he could. Grandma’s oldest brother, Abram Bonomi, was Jewish, born in Romania but an Italian citizen. He been knighted by the king of Italy and now he was stuck in Beirut without papers, and trying desperately to get to his family in the United States.

Grandma and Papa were doing everything they could think of to get him a visa to come to America. They weren’t having much luck. My parents were dating at the time and my father offered to help.

The letters are so frustrating. Apparently my father had written to his senator, Hiram Johnson from California, asking for help and saying that he and my grandparents would be financially responsible for Abram when came to the United States.

On February 5, 1941, Leslie Reed, the American Consul in Athens, Greece, writes back that “The records … show that on two occasions during … 1940 Mr. Bonomi called at the Consulate General requested a visitor’s visa to proceed to the United States for the purpose of travel and for visiting his sister Mrs. Clara Wein, 1855 Pacific Avenue, San Francisco. In the course of these interviews it was established that Mr. Bonomi had no fixed domicile in Greece and no occupation or interests which would require his return to this country or to Roumania, where he had formerly been in business, and that as a retired businessman with near relatives in the United States the inducements would be rather toward strengthing his ties in the United States and prolonging his sojourn there. Accordingly it was decided that Mr. Bonomi could not qualify under the regulations for non-immigrant visas.”

From reading the letter, I get the impression that the American Consul thinks he has all the time in the world. It doesn’t seem to faze him that there’s a world war going on, Greece is falling to the Nazis, and this man, as well as others, desperately needs to get out.

On June 10, 1941, four months later, never having been contacted by Leslie Reed, Abram writes from Beirut “My Clara dear, my dear Josephine (my mother), my dear Julius” that “the Palestine Government refused me the entrance visa, as there arrived a disposition from the Foreign Office, not to accept any Rumanian, who left after February 15th.”

He says he cabled my grandparents in San Francisco on June 2 but received no answer back. He “cannot continue to remain here, as my means are very anemic and I am not allowed to accept a position because I am a stranger. Besides, I am continually asked to leave the country, as they do not want us.”

He goes on to say that “The Mexican Counsul over here cannot understand why you did not succeed yet. If I get an engagement over there with a Company which needs me as specialist, the immigration visa is quickly granted. In case one wants to go there as a tourist for six months, he must have over there a deposit of 200 pesos for his monthly expenses (that means about 40 per month, total 240) and the visa is quickly given. If somebody goes there for six months, he easily can arrange to remain more. All other ways are difficult – he says.

Well! I’m sure you know quite well what can be done. Otherwise nothing new. I hope you are all well.

With best wishes,

Abram”

After that there are more letters to the person in charge of visas in Beirut, to the representative from California, etc., etc., etc.– all very bureaucratic and proper documenting the fact that they were doing nothing.

I keep thinking, what must it have been like for him, older, in his sixties, running out of money, not allowed to work, knowing he had family in the U.S. that wanted him and would take care of him and no one, no one would give him the paperwork he needed?

Only when they were prodded by Washington, would they do something. But only if Abram would come them. How was he to know that if he came back a third time, he might actually get the precious papers? They never looked for him, assuming he was no longer there. But he was for four more months at least, February through June and maybe even longer.

During this time, Grandma and Papa were frequently writing letters to Abram in Beirut, to the Red Cross and sending telegrams.

The saddest letter is the last one, written to Abram in care of the “Hotel Diana, Ekali (Athens), Greece, Europe”. My mother writes how much she misses him and of her coming marriage in August. My grandmother writes how they haven’t gotten any mail from him in a long time and “are very anxious to hear from you.” My grandfather’s ends with “We haven’t heard from you lately and hope to receive good news from you real soon.”

Stamped on the envelope is the message, “Return to Sender    Service Suspended.”

15 comments

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  1. Gena

    Thank you, I’d like to keep receiving these, love

    1. Claire Murray

      Come back on June 21 for the next episode. 🙂

  2. dagan mccarthy

    Great piece! I want to know more

    1. Claire Murray

      Thanks, Dagan. Tune in next month. 🙂

  3. Kelly Bixby

    You have such a precious part of your family’s history, but it leaves so much unanswered. Like Sue, I want to think there was a happy ending for Abram. From his letters and knowing that he had been knighted, I see him as being very resourceful, not one to give up. However, the fact that his letters to loved ones stopped coming is discouraging. I wonder if you’ll ever be able to find out what happened to him.

    1. Claire Murray

      Thanks, Kelly. I appreciate the feedback. I was thinking of writing about something more cheerful next time but now I’m considering writing about what happened next.

  4. Claire Murray

    Hopefully. But bureaucrats are still bureaucrats.

  5. Phil Rosette

    I read this and can’t help but think, hope, we’ve come a long way since then.

  6. Claire Murray

    Yes, very sad. Thanks.

  7. John McCarthy

    Abram seemed determined, and yet those with the responsibility for taking care of people, turned a blind eye. Sad.

  8. Claire Murray

    That’s nice to hear.

  9. Sue Remisiewicz

    I find myself wanting to write happy endings for Abram. What a spark this story is for the creative process.

  10. Claire Murray

    Thanks!

  11. dwhirsch

    Wow. Heartbreaking. Gripping. Unanswered. So much power in that post.

  12. Yibbity

    The letter was interesting. Wanted to know more.

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