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As the train moved slowly away, Regina Dembo and her two sisters waved until the train station was a blur. It would be the last time they saw their mother and four-year-old brother, Erwin.
“It was August, 1939, and I was only 12,” Regina recalls. “Mother had taken us to the train station in Vienna, Austria. She pleaded with people standing in line, ‘Please watch out for them.’ But no one paid any attention to us at all. We didn’t want to leave without our mother and little brother. Erwin stayed in Austria with Mother because she felt we were too young to take care of him. Of course, I questioned if I would be able to take care of myself and my younger sisters. Even though we were on our way to safety in America, I felt very frightened and alone.”
Regina’s mother was unable to leave Austria because she was born in Poland and could not obtain a visa. Since the children were born in Vienna, they qualified for the Austrian quota. After Germany annexed Austria in March 1938, President Roosevelt suggested combining the German and Austrian quotas. The new annual quota allowed a maximum of 27,370 immigrants – far fewer than the hundreds of Jews searching for refuge from Hitler.
As the number of people fleeing persecution increased, more countries refused to accept those leaving Europe, and by 1939, the number of havens available dwindled. Switzerland feared that massive numbers of Jews would cross their borders, and the British government continued to restrict Jewish immigration to Palestine. By 1940, emigration from Nazi Germany became virtually impossible, and in October 1941, it was officially forbidden by the German government.
Just before Regina left Austria, the Nazis arrested her father and seized the family’s business and apartment. He was eventually released on the condition that he leave Austria. He returned to his native Poland where his family spoke with him twice and then never heard from him again.
“It was a horrendous time,” Regina says. “We never thought our separation would be permanent, but three years later, we found out Mother and Erwin had been gassed.”
The girls were met in New York City by a young bachelor uncle who soon discovered he could not take care of the three new additions to his household. They were sent to Pleasantville Cottage School in Pleasantville, New York, and then to foster homes.
As she grew into a young woman, Regina developed a love for learning and for teaching. Perhaps it was an antisemitic teacher in Austria who told Regina she was stupid, or it could have been her foster family who encouraged her to go to college, which led her to teach elementary school for 23 years. It was a career spent with children the age of her young sisters as they escaped Austria.
“I lost so much in the Holocaust: my mother, father, and brother,” Regina says. “One of the hardest things throughout life has been to do something well and not be able to share it with them.”