From Generation to Generation

My Fortuitous Escape from the Holocaust and My Life Thereafter

Sonia Pressman Fuentes
 

 
Photo Courtesy of Gideon Lewin Studio

My parents were both born in the 1890s in a Polish shtetl called Piltz, an hourís ride by car from Cracow. My father had, however, left Piltz for Germany as a teenager and after his marriage to my mother in Poland in 1913, they lived in Germany. My father began as a tailor and by January 1933 he rented and ran a menís clothing store and factory in Berlin, where my mother and brother helped out. In addition, he had recently bought a 40-apartment 4-store building for investment purposes. The family consisted of my parents, my brother, Hermann, who was 14 years my senior and I.

On January 30, 1933, President von Hindenburg appointed Hitler Reichs Chancellor of Germany. A year earlier, my brother, Hermann, had become concerned about the growing power of Hitler and the Nazis. After Hitlerís accession to the Reichs Chancellorship, Hermann became increasingly aware of the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis against Jews, and urged my parents to leave Berlin. They initially scoffed at this suggestion, believing that Hitler would soon blow over. In May of 1933, my brother left Berlin on his own for Antwerp, Belgium. Subsequently, concerned that my brother was alone in a foreign country, my parents agreed to follow him. My father met with a small group of Nazis and agreed to turn his store, factory and apartment building over to them for a fraction of their value, and they agreed to let us go.

My parents and I, then five years old, arrived in Antwerp in July 1933. Thereafter, my father spent many fruitless months exploring getting into various businesses in Antwerp, Paris, Czechoslovakia, Palestine, and even returning to Berlin. Nothing worked out and he blamed Hermann for taking us out of Germany. Then my father happened to read an article in a Yiddish newspaper about ships leaving for the United States and decided the family would emigrate to the United States. On April 20, 1934, we boarded the Red Star Lineís S.S. Westernland in Antwerp bound for New York City.

We arrived in New York City on May 1,1934. Neither of my parents had any education to speak of and, except for Hermann, none of us knew a word of English. My mother was 42 years old, my father 40, Hermann was 19, and I was 5. We knew no one except some cousins in Brooklyn. But we did not arrive destitute as my father had sent money ahead.

Initially, we rented an apartment in the Bronx, and my father returned to the business he knew; he opened a menís clothing store in Manhattan with a partner. But he could not take the pace of life in New York City and after a summer vacation in the Catskill Mountains of New York State, my father decided the family would move to the Catskills and go into a business he knew nothing about, the summer resort business.

In 1936, we moved to Woodridge, New York, a village one square mile in area with a population of about 700 people, where my parents rented and ran a rooming house, or kokhaleyn, during the summer season.

After five years of that, my parents bought 50 acres of land in the nearby town of Monticello, New York, where they built a 25-bungalow colony with a swimming pool, handball court and home for us.

I learned English in the Bronx and began kindergarten there. Then I continued my schooling in Woodridge and Monticello.

From childhood on, I felt different from my classmates. My parents were older than my classmatesí parents since I was born when my mother was 36 years old; my parents were European and so was I. Furthermore, I felt I wasnít free as other girls were to pursue marriage, family and personal happiness. Three factors in my life led me to believe that I had been born and my life saved so that I could make some contribution to the world: I had been born only because my motherís favorite abortionist was temporarily out of the country, I had escaped the Holocaust and I was bright.

I graduated as valedictorian of my high school class in 1946 and Phi Beta Kappa from Cornell University in 1950. I then worked for about four years as a secretary for several companies in Manhattan. (By that time, my parents had sold the bungalow colony and moved to Long Beach, Long Island, New York, where my brother and his family lived.) But the idea that there was something I needed to do in the world never left me, so in September 1954, I enrolled at the University of Miami (Florida) School of Law.

In 1957, I graduated first in my class and moved to Washington, D.C., to begin work as an attorney in the Department of Justice. After 1Ĺ years there, I transferred to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and worked for that agency in Washington, D.C., Pittsburgh, PA; and Los Angeles, CA. Then, still looking for that job where I could make a contribution to society, in October of 1965, I joined a three-month old agency, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), as the first woman attorney in its Office of the General Counsel. And that was the place where I was supposed to be.

The EEOC administered Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a law that had become effective July 2, 1965, which prohibited discrimination in employment by covered employers, employment agencies and labor unions based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin. (Later, discrimination based on age and physical or mental handicap were added.)

That law was passed in response to the civil rights movement, and, accordingly, most of the 100 employees then at the EEOC were there to fight discrimination in employment based on race or color. They did not want the Commissionís time and resources diverted to sex discrimination. I, however, felt that the prohibitions against sex discrimination had to be implemented just as all the other provisions of the law had to be implemented. I became the staff member who stood for aggressive enforcement of the sex discrimination prohibitions of the Act, and this caused me no end of grief.

One day a writer came to the EEOC to interview the General Counsel and his deputy for a book she planned to write. Her name was Betty Friedan and she had become famous through writing The Feminine Mystique, which had been published in 1963. When she saw me, a woman, in the office, she asked me what the conflicts and problems were at the EEOC. As a government employee, I was fearful of leveling with her, so I told her everything was fine. But when she came again, it was on a day that I was feeling particularly frustrated with the Commissionís inaction with regard to sex discrimination, and I invited her into the privacy of my office. There I told her that what this country needed was an organization to fight for womenís rights like the NAACP fought for the rights of Negroes (the term then in vogue).

Thereafter, in June 1966, at a conference of Commissions on the Status of Women in Washington, D.C., 28 of the attendees formed an organization that subsequently became NOW (National Organization for Women). They were joined by 26 additional founders, of whom I was one, at an organizational conference at the end of October 1966 in Washington, D.C., where we adopted a statement of purpose and skeletal bylaws. (NOW today has 500,000 members.)

NOW then embarked upon a campaign to get the EEOC to enforce Title VII for women. It filed lawsuits, petitioned the EEOC for public hearings, picketed the EEOC and the White House and generally mobilized public opinion. As a result, the EEOC began to take seriously its mandate to eliminate sex discrimination in employment.

In October 1970, I married and in 1972, when I was 43 1/2 years old, I gave birth to my daughter, Zia.

I left the EEOC in June of 1973 and subsequently worked as an attorney and an executive at the headquarters of two multinational corporations, GTE Service Corporation in Stamford, CT, and TRW Inc., in Cleveland, OH. I was the highest-paid woman employee at both those locations.

In 1986, I returned to Washington, D.C., as an attorney in the Office of the General Counsel at HUD (U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development), from which position I retired in May of 1993.

Upon retirement, I floundered around for about a year and then began writing my memoir, Eat First--You Donít Know What Theyíll Give You, The Adventures of an Immigrant Family and Their Feminist Daughter. The book was published at the end of November 1999, and the rewards have been beyond my wildest expectations. I embarked on new careers as a writer and public speaker. A wonderful Web designer, Danne Polk, offered to create a Web site for me, did so and maintains it to this day at http://www.erraticimpact.com/fuentes.

The book has gotten rave reviews, and I have been the subject of many interviews and the recipient of numerous awards. In 2000, I was inducted into the Maryland Womenís Hall of Fame and returned to speak to two classes at my alma mater, Cornell University, 50 years after the date of my graduation.

In September 2005, I was included in an online exhibit of the Jewish Womenís Archive, consisting of 74 Jewish women who contributed to womenís rights in the U.S. (http://www.jwa.org/feminism). I am also among those featured in a documentary to be released in December of 2006 called The Second Wave, about the second wave of the womenís movement.

In 1995, I began visiting Sarasota, FL, during the winters and now divide my time between my homes there and in Potomac, MD.

My retirement began with confusion as to what to do with the rest of my life but has thus far turned into the richest period of my life.

Copyright 2006 Sonia Pressman Fuentes.


This article is published here with the permission of Sonia Pressman Fuentes. Please explore her Web site at: http://www.erraticimpact.com/fuentes.
 

© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2006.
All rights reserved.