By Cynthia Graae
Reminiscences of a Motley Youth
By Josef Eisinger
In 2017, when the number of refugees—half of them children—is at its highest level worldwide since World War II, and when Western nations are closing their borders to people fleeing life-threatening violence, destruction, and poverty, Josef Eisinger’s book, Flight and Refuge, is thought-provoking.
Eisinger tells the story of a boy whose study in a prestigious Viennese gymnasium is interrupted by the Nazi occupation. His parents send him on a Kindertransport to England. He should be safe there—the Jewish community has sponsored refugees for years. However, after the Anschluss, the influx of refugees from Nazi persecution overburdens the community’s resources. Therefore, when Eisinger arrives in England in 1939, he is on his own—without family or sponsor. He is only 15.
Eisinger supports himself as a farmhand in Yorkshire and later by washing dishes in a Brighton hotel. But, because he is Austrian and therefore registered as an “enemy alien” after France falls in 1940, he is interned on the Isle of Man and then in Canada. He and other young “enemies” become friends and prepare for university entrance examinations in an informal school at the internment camp. Then, in 1942, a family concerned about the dilemma of Jewish refugees in Canadian camps sponsors several boys, including Eisinger. He enrolls in honors courses at the University of Toronto; his internment is over.
This memoir focuses on gains, not lost opportunities. Eisinger writes, “…internment taught me the value of adaptability…and let me feel at home with a wide range of humanity…We had time to talk, to read, to acquire new skills, and to make [friends].” Two years out of internment he interrupts his undergraduate studies to join the Canadian Army.
Eisinger writes in rich detail about his experiences as a farm hand, lumberjack, carpenter, infantry instructor, prospector, magnetic field surveyor, and tramp-steamer seaman. The story is enhanced by informative footnotes, photographs of people and documents, and appendices that are stories in themselves.
One appendix relays the history of Moravian Jews. Another covers a little-known Danube riverboat route used by thousands of Jews, including Eisinger’s parents, to escape to Palestine. The final appendix describes Eisinger’s scientific life after he received a PhD at MIT for his study of the internal structure of atomic nuclei.
Following a 30-year career in basic science research at Bell Telephone Laboratories, he joined the Mount Sinai School of Medicine as a professor emeritus. He has contributed greatly to the understanding of lead poisoning. He is the author of more than 150 articles in professional journals and two recent books, Einstein on the Road and Einstein at Home. His friends from internment, one a Nobel Prize winner, have also gone on to lead highly productive lives.
The achievements of these former “enemy aliens” deemed unworthy of freedom, testifies to their adaptability and resourcefulness in difficult times. Their achievements also underscore the role of luck, and make one think about the human potential—then and now—lost to xenophobic and shortsighted immigration policies.
Josef Eisinger and his wife Styra Avins are long-time residents of Greenwich Village. Eisinger enjoys speaking to book clubs and other local groups. Cynthia Graae is a writer who lives in Manhattan. Her work has appeared in the Huffington Post and literary journals.