Long Island genealogist shares story of NY family who aided Jewish refugees during WWII a day after Pittsburgh shooting

By Sara Schabe and Andrea Keckley 

After years of seeking to uncover the story, of Herman Lehman, New York’s first Jewish Governor, whose family aided Jewish refugees during the holocaust from 1933-1945, Karen Franklin, a genealogist and Director of Family Research at the Leo Baeck Institute, stood before a small room of people within Plainview’s Jewish Genealogy Society of Long Island on Sunday to tell them what she found.

The Lehman family was able to bring over 89 refugees to the United States by 1942. Franklin started with the list of those 89 people, and from there, found 39 still in Europe. Seeking to find out what happened to them became the basis for much of her research. She used genealogical tools to track Jewish lineage and see how the descendents of people killed in concentration camps were doing today.

Standing besides a powerpoint projector, Franklin displayed documents, photos and stories she found from some of the families.  

“Within learning about our ancestors we learn about our values and who they were,” Franklin said. “And this helps us transmit these values to the next generation.”

In many ways, Sunday’s history lesson carried a heavy reminiscence to today’s world. This lecture took place just one day after a gunman murdered 11 people at the the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. The shooter was specifically targeting this synagogue for their work with HIAS, the global Jewish nonprofit that protects refugees.

“We are absolutely shocked at what happened this last Chabad in Pittsburgh,” Steven Franklin, Rabbi and husband of the main speaker, said. Franklin then led everyone in a prayer to honor those lost.

Beginning in 1933, the family of NY Governor Herbert Lehman assisted family members and distant relatives in coming to America to escape the tortures of the holocaust. At the time, Americans had to provide some sort of financial in order to bring over a family. The Lehman family was one of few capable of doing this, though due to limited resources and affidavits required to bring in refugees, Lehman limited those he helped to just people who could prove they were related in some capacity.

“He didn’t do this because he was governor, he did this as a person,” Marilyn Gotkin, secretary of the Jewish Genealogy Society of Long Island, said.

But before Franklin even began to present her findings, she pointed out how 67 percent of Americans in the 1930s wanted to keep the refugees out of the country, as mentioned by the exhibition Against the Odds.

“At that time there was a depression, now there’s not,” Franklin said. “Not that they should have been anti-refugee anytime, but it’s harder now to understand this strong attitude towards people fleeing for their lives anywhere.”

Seeing the faces of those affected in the 1930s and the comparisons with today’s political climate made the research hard, Franklin said.

“The emotional part was difficult,” Franklin said. “The issues of refugees now is very similar to what we went through in the 1930s.”

“I was very pleased that we were able to get Karen Franklin to speak,” Bonnie Birns, President of JGSLIm, said. “And I was very pleased at the turnout we had.”