Finding Refuge from War and Persecution in Connecticut’s Quiet Corner – UConn Today – University of Connecticut

Posted By on September 27, 2022

One only needs to watch the nightly news to see the destruction of war and its impact on the millions of civilians caught in the middle. There are daily images and stories of the horrors experienced by displaced persons fleeing violence and fighting to survive, from Ukraine, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, and other war-torn regions.

However, amid the destruction, its also possible to see people helping one another in extraordinary acts of compassion and solidarity. Connecticuts Quiet Corner holds one such story of coming together and rebuilding after war left so many with nothing.

Though the US has a checkered history regarding refugees, displaced persons, and immigrants, after World War II and much political back-and-forth, the US and allies created the International Refugee Organization in an effort to help resettle the massive population of those who had been displaced by the global conflict. Non-government organizations like the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and Jewish Agricultural Society (JAS) were instrumental in resettling those in need of refuge.

In the US, locations chosen for resettlement included the rural agricultural communities of northeastern Connecticut, and the story about how people forced to flee their homes were welcomed is an enduring story of hope.

Foundations of a Community

The family of Dora and Nathan Blumenthal, including their daughter Elsie Blumenthal Fetterman 49 (ED), 60 MS, 64 MA, 66 Ph.D., was the first Jewish family to move to the Quiet Corner town of Danielson in 1924, where they opened Blumenthals Hardware Store. The Blumenthals left a very strong Jewish community in Norwich, but wasted no time in establishing a new one, once other Jewish families joined them in Danielson.

For years, Blumenthals hosted worship, rituals, and meetings in their home with nine Jewish families who moved to the area. Blumenthal Fetterman says they arranged for deliveries of kosher meat to their town each week. They built connections with one another, but also within the non-Jewish members of the community.

I used to have to go and knock on doors to get 10 men together for worship, she says. We had a Torah in my home that my mother and father had brought from Norwich.

This handful of Jewish families living in the area prior to the war with just enough men for the minyan of 10 needed for worship would become the foundation of a growing Jewish community.

UConn Extension educator Bob Ricard grew up in Danielson as part of a French-Canadian Catholic family like many others in town, but also knew it as home to many Jewish families, especially following the liberation of Europe and the influx of new Jewish families to the area.

One would expect metropolitan areas like New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles to be at the top of the list for resettlement, says Ricard. The fact that small rural communities like Danielson, Moosup, and Brooklyn, Connecticut were also on the list may be a little surprising.

However, the Jewish Agricultural Society (JAS) worked to resettle families from metropolitan areas to the agricultural communities because they also offered many opportunities. One JAS agent began introducing families to the area, starting with one family, and then another, and eventually dozens of families found new beginnings. The Bermans were one of those families.

Waiting for a New Beginning in the USA

Norman Berman says the resettlement process was not a quick one. After losing everything and nearly everyone in their families, Bermans parents, Misha and Bluma, met, married, and started their family during their time at the Fhrenwald displaced persons camp near Munich, Germany, where he was born. He grew up listening to his mothers stories of her experiences.

My earliest memories were sitting around the table, and she would say, in Yiddish and later in English, I will tell you, and then launch into an anecdote about life in the camps or life in the ghetto, says Berman.

His mother described the displaced persons camp to him as a liminal space in which the residents couldnt go back to their homes, but didnt know where they would go next. They were somewhere in the middle, traumatized by the experience of the war and unsure of the future.

After four years in the camp, the Bermans traveled to the United States aboard a converted troop carrier, settling for a time in a tenement in the Bronx. His mother worked as a seamstress, his father worked in a factory, and both began learning English at night school.

The mission of JAS was essentially to get families out of the tenements and into the countryside, where they could make a new start. The Bermans were approached by an agent about relocation. After the long drive from New York City to the Quiet Corner, they were introduced to another family that had already settled so they could ask questions about relocation and the community. On arrival at what would become their farm, late on a cold, rainy fall day, Berman says his mother stepped out into the field, looked around, and wept.

She said, I dont know what Im doing, I dont know the language, we have no money, we only know one or two other people. How are we going to do this? This is a terrible mistake.

Berman says the experience in bustling New York City was in stark contrast with rural Connecticut, and he suspects the fields and forests may have served as reminders of the landscapes of the homes his parents were forced to leave in Eastern Europe. His fathers family was from Ukraine and his mothers family from Lithuania. There was familiarity in this new place, but that couldnt compete with the enormity of everything they had experienced and the daunting task of starting from scratch.

Remember, Berman says, None of these people knew anything about farming. They were children when they got caught up in the Holocaust.

He says the family also was suspicious and afraid because of their experience in Europe, where they were marginalized, vilified, and betrayed by neighbors. They did not expect to be welcomed.

Finding Welcome and Support in a Small Connecticut Town

Entering a new community in a new country can feel like moving into the abyss, but there was already a foundation for a strong and growing Jewish community in Danielson. It soon became apparent that they needed to build a synagogue to serve as a place for education, socializing, and prayer. The question was whether the small old Jewish community and new recently resettled community could raise the money needed to build it. Thats when the rest of Danielson got involved.

Everyone stepped up, says Blumenthal Fetterman. The community, the gentile community, was so open. For instance, someone auctioned off a calf to raise money. That was a significant part of that farmers income for the year. Other things added up; a member of the Baptist church loaned a farmer $500 to buy a dairy farm, and he didnt know him. He knew he was a Holocaust survivor and he knew that hed never had any experiences as a farmer, but he took the risk, and that was a lot of money for 1950.

Banks, churches, community organizations, and others pitched in to help donate money, building materials, and expertise. Berman adds, Everyone said, Hey, well help you out. My parents were quite stunned by that. Suddenly, they had a place that felt safe.

Ricard notes that many who stepped up to help were combat veterans, like his father.

They saw and experienced first-hand the horrors and evil of World War Two, so they were very clear about what their new Jewish neighbors went through, he says.

Help came in other forms as well. The UConn College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources played a part by providing agricultural support for the new farmers. Berman has memories of traveling regularly with his father to Storrs with a cardboard box full of chickens in tow, so extension specialists at the University could give advice on matters such as feed supplements and vaccinations.

A New Temple, and a New Chapter

With funds raised, the construction of Temple Beth Israel, which was built during the 1950s and formally dedicated in 1961, was truly a grassroots, community-driven effort that culminated in building more than just a place of worship.

David Fetterman 76 (CLAS), Elsies son, says he felt the temple was always more about connection and that growing up in the temple, the sense of belonging was the glue that held the community together.

Families put down roots and settled in, and Fetterman and Berman reflect fondly on their childhood experiences, growing up with a lot of good friends, having fun, and being kids.

Fetterman has many memories of the services and lessons at the temple, but one memory stands out. He recalls catching a glimpse of a mans tattoo as he reached for the prayer book. It was a tattoo issued in a concentration camp.

Curious, I asked my father and he gently told me about where they are from and what happened, Fetterman says. It was not a traumatic way to find out. I just learned that this is another part of who our community is.

Growing up in the Quiet Corner as part of a small but tight-knit Jewish community, many aspects of life just felt normal, says Berman. The children went about their business of coming of age, socializing, and eventually going off to college.

Ricard also moved on, and was reminded of the communitys uniqueness in 2020 when his local newspaper in Massachusetts, the Amherst Bulletin, ran a story about a high school history department chair who was creating a Holocaust curriculum with a local resident who sounded very familiar. It was Elsie Blumenthal Fetterman, and he was moved to contact her after so many years.

Reconnecting has been a reminder of the importance of community, Ricard says, especially during the pandemic. Coincidentally, both he and Blumenthal Fetterman are both now current residents of Amherst living about a mile apart and both have also been UConn Extension employees. While reminiscing with Blumenthal Fetterman, Ricard learned his aunt was a bookkeeper for Blumenthals father, and that his uncle had worked at the Blumenthal familys hardware store.

Blumenthal Fetterman became something of a trailblazer, graduating from high school in 1949 and eventually earning her Ph.D. at UConn, which was not typical for women at the time. Blumenthal Fetterman remained at UConn as an Extension educator, teaching and championing consumer education, before leaving in 1979 to continue her work at the University of Massachusetts, where she stayed until her retirement in 1992.

Keeping a Powerful Story Alive

Many members of the community have left the Danielson area, or have passed away, so that by 2009 Temple Beth Israel was on the verge of being sold and repurposed. Despite many original members of the synagogue no longer living in the area, a group of children of the community founders took action to save the place of worship. They realized that more than a building was at stake.

The community, including children and grandchildren of the relocated families, are now working to keep the temple open, says Berman, who, along with around 35 others across the United States and Israel, are working to keep the story alive. Blumenthal Fetterman, who had served as the first President of the Temple Sisterhood in 1950, secured funding from the Daughters of the American Revolution that was used to produce a documentary film, A House Built by Hope, detailing the story of the community and the building of the synagogue. Fetterman and his wife matched those funds to produce the film.

With the synagogue listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 2013, the Temple Beth Israel Preservation Society continues the work to ensure the synagogues future, to tell the story of how it came to be, and to keep alive the lessons of the Holocaust with the aim of inspiring hope in new generations.

We have a newfound appreciation of the difference in how our youth was not normal, that this was not a normal place in many respects, because of what our parents had experienced, Berman says. If you were one of the immigrants, then certainly this was the beginning of a new chapter in your life. I think all of us kids that are involved in the Preservation Society have a newfound understanding about who we are.

Fetterman cites the Jewish concept of Tikkum Olam, which can be interpreted as heal the world, and how that has shaped his and others lives and pursuits. He credits this trajectory as starting in the synagogue and his experiences as a member of the community. In addition to teaching at Stanford University for 25 years, he has devoted his career to promoting equity and social justice in communities around the world.

In the context of current conflicts and seeing displaced persons in the news, Fetterman says this story of resettlement and community is one that needs to be told.

We must remind ourselves to speak up for social justice; we have an obligation, he says. The synagogue represents that call and serves as a beacon, representing the best of what social justice is.

Berman is carrying on his mothers tradition of sharing and honoring her experiences of survival, by speaking to school groups around the state. He tells his parents story of resilience, the dangers of indifference to suffering, and how vital it is to look for connections and build community.

I think there was about a 40-year pause, it was like survivors needed to feel safe enough to share the story, he says. It was almost secret; people didnt speak about it usually. I was among the very fortunate, because my mother was willing to tell her story and to share it any opportunity she had. She was in three different forced labor camps. She was in the Vilna Ghetto, endured every form of abuse you can imagine, and somehow survived. She told me all of it.

People opened their doors to us and that is a huge lesson, Berman says. This is a story about immigrants, about giving people a chance, about generosity. Look for the connections that go across communities.

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Finding Refuge from War and Persecution in Connecticut's Quiet Corner - UConn Today - University of Connecticut

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