What did we know and when did we know it?

What did we know and when did we know it?

The new administration’s executive order affecting travel to the United States by individuals from a select group of countries, its “universalized” statement on Holocaust Remembrance Day and its earlier proclamations regarding the undocumented in our midst conjure up memories for me of my father Michael Rieger’s personal story.

In 1924, as a 17-year-old boy, my dad was desperate to come here despite being the youngest of six children in a prosperous family living in what had until recently been the solid Jewish community of Kolosvar, Hungary, but was then Cluj, Romania. He knew what was in store for him if he had to go into the Romanian army, because he still remembered the lyrics to the song the Romanian soldiers sang while goose-stepping into town on Dec. 24, 1918, as they took over the city at the end of World War I. He sang that song to me many times when I was a child: “Up with the Romanians, down with the Hungarians, out with the Jews.”

Little did he know that he would get caught up in the after-effects of the Immigration Act of 1924, the law that our country used to virtually slam the door shut on most everyone who saw the handwriting on the wall years before disaster struck, from the Holocaust up to the 1960s.

My dad tested the new law almost immediately. Traveling to Prague with one of his brothers he applied for a visa at the U.S. Embassy and was promptly turned down. In 1925, Dad took matters into his own hands. Traveling to Rotterdam, Holland, he signed on as a steward on the SS Nieuw Amsterdam of the Holland America Line, landing in Hoboken, N.J., in September. He immediately took off his uniform, entered the country illegally and was undocumented for the next decade.

The rest of the story is a familiar one to Jews. Nineteen years after leaving the gathering storm in Europe, in May 1944, the extended Rieger-Steinmetz family was deported to Auschwitz by the Hungarians who had recently retaken the town. They all went up in smoke.

My brother and I were the beneficiaries of the actions of a brave young man who broke multiple American laws. Jerry became a career-long top civil service professional at the Social Security Administration, helping to secure a part of our social safety net. I was fortunate to serve as the director of operations at the Cleveland Jewish Federation, and subsequently president/CEO of both the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and the Jewish Federations of North America, where among so many other things, I was able to help resettle Jewish refugees here at home and in Israel, but also Bosnian Serbs, Vietnamese boat people and so many others.  

Michael Rieger’s 21st yahrtzeit will be marked later this month on the Jewish calendar. A few days later we will mark my mother, Goldie Rieger’s third yahrtzeit. What would they be thinking and doing if they knew about the road that we may be traveling down? Will we someday have to ask ourselves what we knew and when we knew it? I hope not!

In our synagogues every Shabbat we pray for the success of the elected officials of the diaspora countries we may happen to find ourselves in at the time. We want our new administration to be successful. May they honor the principles upon which this land that we love aspired to in its founding documents.

Our past leaders have not always lived up to those values. We pray that our current ones will!

Howard M. Rieger served as president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh from 1981 to 2004.