Jon Hilsenrath: What America Gave My Father—and What He Gave Back

From a Wall Street Journal story by Jon Hilsenrath headlined “What America Gave My Father—and What He Gave Back”:

In a poignant moment in the Ken Burns documentary “The U.S. and the Holocaust,” Joseph Hilsenrath breaks into tears describing his first encounter with the Statue of Liberty. It was a foggy September morning in 1941 when he approached Ellis Island on the deck of a boat called the Serpa Pinto. An 11-year-old Jewish refugee separated from his parents, he had spent two years shuttling through French orphanages in flight from the Nazis. Remembering the sight of the statue 80 years later, he was still stirred by his first enchanted vision of freedom.

Mr. Burns’s film raises disturbing questions about America’s treatment of immigrants. The country has a long history of conflict over newcomers that is at odds with its image of itself as a welcoming melting pot. “The U.S. and the Holocaust” recounts exhaustively the migration barriers and public bigotry that plagued desperate Jewish people seeking refuge in the U.S. in the 1930s and 1940s.

Some perspective on this tension can be found in the story of what happened to Joseph Hilsenrath after he got off the boat 80 years ago. That isn’t explored in the three-part series, co-produced by Mr. Burns with Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein, but it is familiar to this reporter because Joseph Hilsenrath is my father.

His experience affirms Mr. Burns’s central point that the U.S. didn’t make things easy for Jewish immigrants, particularly at that first step of getting in. Once Joseph Hilsenrath was given a chance, however, America proved good to him and he to America—a case with broader significance.

In September 1939, Israel Hilsenrath and his wife Anna arranged for their two older children, Joseph and his 10-year-old sister Susan, to be smuggled out of Nazi Germany by train and sent to Paris to live with a distant cousin. Israel then managed to get to the U.S. with the help of another cousin. From there he pleaded with U.S. officials to allow his wife Anna and their baby Ernest to follow. Alone in menacing places, Anna found her way by train to Genoa, Italy, in February 1940, boarded the SS Manhattan, and escaped with her infant child. When the Nazis invaded Paris in May 1940, Joseph and Susan became stranded orphans, the family now splintered and disconnected.

Living in Washington, D.C., Israel searched for them with the help of private relief agencies. What followed was a catalog of near misses and narrow escapes, including frightening encounters by the children with Nazi soldiers, desperate cables by the parents to the State Department for help, and Joseph’s discovery the night before one failed attempt to leave that his ticket had been stolen.

“I do not receive any mail from you,” Susan wrote her parents at one point. “Are you not doing well?” She expressed gratitude in the letter that her French teacher didn’t hit girls.

When they were reunited in September 1941, the Hilsenrath family looked on paper like a serious risk to become wards of the state. Joseph remembered leaving behind a vivacious and loving mother who sang him German lullabies and filled the kitchen with the warm aroma of fresh-baked bread on Friday evenings. When they met two years later she had changed. Anna was often catatonic and at other times experienced fits of violent rage. She had saved her children, then spent much of the rest of her life in St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, D.C., a public hospital for people with severe mental illness.

Israel Hilsenrath spoke no English at first and had only an eighth-grade education. In Germany he had owned a small linen business in a quaint Rhineland town called Bad Kreuznach. It was shut down by Nazis. He started in America with no money, a wife in dire need of help, and three children to raise on his own. At first he made a living selling eggs out of the trunk of his car. After long nights inspecting eggs for blood and other defects, he prepared fresh-squeezed orange juice for his children to start each new day.

As a boy, Joseph sold newspapers on street corners before school. He saved enough nickels to buy a bicycle, allowing him to deliver morning papers directly to homes. The rest of the nickels went to support the family. Joseph once stashed away some of the money he had earned to buy himself a baseball glove, a telling act of assimilation. His father was outraged about the waste of money.

Joseph and Israel had other battles. Joseph wanted to run track for his high school team, but Israel wouldn’t let him because Saturday track meets conflicted with the Jewish Sabbath. Joseph had trouble accepting religion after what his family had been through; for Israel belief in God was a source of strength and resilience that held his family together.

Joseph helped his father start a small grocery store, working during the day to put himself through George Washington University at night. It took him six years to graduate. He was driven in part by a fear that if he didn’t get an education he’d end up a chicken farmer in rural Maryland, like the ones who sold eggs to his father. While in school and managing the store, he also volunteered to be a U.S. Army reservist, and later served in the Coast Guard reserve.

Along the way, Joseph got the idea that he’d like to be a doctor. One problem was that many U.S. medical schools in the 1950s had quotas that limited Jewish admissions; another was that he had no money. Joseph was accepted into the first graduating class at Yeshiva University’s new Albert Einstein College of Medicine. He was older than most of the other students when he arrived. He avoided taking public buses to save pocket change.

It wasn’t until 1957, 16 years after his arrival in the U.S., that it occurred to my father that he had a bright future. He had made it through his first year of medical school with good grades and had started dating a pretty young woman named Elaine, who worked in the medical school’s admissions office. For their first date, he took her for a ride on the Staten Island Ferry to see the Statue of Liberty. They shared a hot dog.

My father married Elaine and went on to become a cardiologist, building a career at the cutting edge of a revolution in medicine. He discovered ways to use new imaging technology, arterial bypass techniques and stent devices to save thousands of lives from heart disease.

His sister Susan, also featured in the Burns documentary, went on to become a Maryland schoolteacher, who covered English among other subjects. After her retirement, she served as a guide at the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. and is now, at 93, a part of its speakers bureau. Ernest became a NASA climate scientist who studied the ozone. When the Space Shuttle Columbia flew its final, fateful mission in 2003, Ernest Hilsenrath had a project on it.

Israel and Anna Hilsenrath—poor, uneducated and damaged by the atrocities of war and genocide—had 10 grandchildren, each college-educated. Those grandchildren had 23 children of their own. The descendants include four doctors, two dancers, two writers, two Peace Corps volunteers, a grade school teacher, a soldier, a climate scientist, a neuroscientist, an environmental engineer, a computer programmer, six college athletes, and others involved in the fields of health, finance, business management, technology and security. Matthew Robinson, Susan’s grandson, is an infectious disease specialist who worked on the front lines fighting Covid at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

Combined they have paid tens of millions of dollars in taxes. They come in every political stripe, including gun-owning conservatives and placard-toting progressives. What binds them is family and a shared devotion to making good on the promise Israel Hilsenrath first made with his new country to live a purposeful life in peace.

“I have to be so thankful,” Joseph says of his father in the Burns documentary. “Without him we would never have made it.”

What is remarkable about this family story is that it actually isn’t remarkable at all. It fits closely with broad, long-running immigration patterns that still seem to be at work in America today.

In their 2022 book “Streets of Gold: America’s Untold Story of Immigrant Success,” Stanford University economics professor Ran Abramitzky and Princeton University economics professor Leah Boustan examined millions of family histories through They found that the children of poor immigrants were more likely to jump from the bottom quartile of the national income distribution to the middle class than were native-born poor of any race. Immigrants were less prone to commit crime than native-born Americans and their children were quick to assimilate.

Profs. Abramitzky and Boustan examined two major waves of immigration, one from Europe in the late 1800s through the early 1900s, the other from Latin America and Asia since the 1970s. Both followed these same economic and social patterns. Yet with each wave, native resistance to immigration grew as the foreign-born population approached 14% of the overall population. It was as if the nation’s tolerance for newcomers became saturated when they reached the level of one person in seven.

Their research suggests that today’s new immigrants include many people like Israel and Anna Hilsenrath and their progeny.

My father is now 92 years old. He recently recovered from a bout of Covid that made his bones ache and his chest hurt. He lives by himself in lower Manhattan, with expansive bedroom views of the Hudson River and the Statue of Liberty. He wakes every morning, looks out at this lady, standing stout on her sea-washed island, and counts his blessings. Sometimes he also whispers a word to my mother Elaine, who died 15 years ago from breast cancer.

He walks slowly to the kitchen every morning and makes himself a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice. Then he reads his morning paper, The Wall Street Journal, and moves to his computer, where his day is consumed trading stocks, an occupation he took up after retiring from medicine two decades ago. He likes to play the options markets. It’s risky, but he can handle risk, and it keeps his mind sharp.

Joseph Hilsenrath didn’t come to this country to sit idly, and at 92, he still doesn’t.

Jon Hilsenrath writes about economics and finance for The Wall Street Journal. His first book, “Yellen: The Trailblazing Economist Who Navigated an Era of Upheaval,” will be published by HarperCollins on Nov. 1.


  1. Great story. A fine reminder of the contributions immigrants have made and make in our country every day. Also, a reminder that we did not act decisively or quick enough to save many more of our Jewish brothers and sisters during the most vulnerable period of their existence as a people. We cannot go back but we can sure do better now. I think more stories like this help. Never forget.

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