Historic records document orphan’s journey from Poland to America
Many of the details he can no longer remember. But what he cannot forget brings tears to Michael Pupa’s eyes.
It’s the first time the Orange resident has told his family what he recalls from when he was 3 or 4 years old and the Nazis came to his small Polish town of Manyevitch (Manewiecz), now a part of Ukraine.
“My recollection is they rounded up the (Jewish) people and were shooting them, as simple as that,” says Pupa, sitting at his dining room table with this reporter. “My mother – and I had a sister – they were shot.”
His mother’s name was Yochevet. Pupa no longer remembers the name of his sister. Asked the age of his sister, Pupa starts to reply but stops. Overcome with emotion, he leaves the room.
“He’s never talked about this before,” says his wife Anita. “This is all new to us. But he’s decided he’s ready. It’s just going to be hard.”
In a few minutes, a composed Pupa returns and continues. “OK, so they rounded everyone up. We were in the house, hiding out, and we knew we couldn’t escape because of my baby sister. So my mother decided to stay behind with her.”
Pupa, 73, remembers how he, his uncle Leib, and his father Moishe fled to the forest surrounding the town to hide from the Nazis. It was 1942.
The three of them survived the remainder of the war on the run in the countryside. But Pupa does not recall exactly how the trio, perhaps with one or two other Jewish refugees, managed to find shelter and food.
It’s a history, Pupa, a genial, short man with slicked-back silvery hair and a sunburnt complexion, a man quick to laugh at himself, has previously been unable to tell. But by a quirk of fate, his story was among 31 randomly selected from millions of immigration case files at the National Archives to showcase during an exhibit this summer in Washington, D.C.
Of this select group of American immigrants who entered the United States from 1880 through the aftermath of World War II, Pupa is the only one still alive.
Survival in the woods was possible because Leib had developed business contacts with local Poles who remained friendly during the Nazi regime, Pupa recalls. “We may have stayed in houses or barns. We were scrounging around for food. We found out if the locals were pro-German or not. The locals were either very good people or were very anti-Semitic. Some were worse than the Germans.”
One time, his father ran across an open field, while his uncle screamed at him to stop, Pupa says. Machine gun fire rang out as his father raced past, but the bullets missed him.
When the war in Europe ended in 1945, Pupa, then 6, and his father and uncle tried to make a living buying and selling goods. “One day, my father went out to get stuff for us, and he did not come back,” he says. “We presumed he was killed.”
Shortly afterward, his uncle and some others “paid someone off, and we were put in a furniture truck and smuggled into Germany,” says Pupa. He was hidden under some drawers. For six years, he was shuttled from one DP camp to another in Germany.
In one camp, Leib changed his surname to Kaplan, taking the identity of a dead person because he trusted no one, Pupa says. In a DP camp, Leib also met and married Krejna, who already had a child, Bronja Meniuk, from a previous relationship.
In 1950, Krejna died in the DP camp, leaving behind Leib, their infant daughter Rivka and Bronja. Rivka now goes by Rebecca and lives in Israel.
While Pupa no longer remembers all the circumstances of his life in hiding or the chaotic period after the war, parts of his story are not forever lost.
Paper trail recovers past
Documents in the National Archives have helped Pupa recover some of his past, said Miriam Kleiman, a National Archives public affairs specialist and a former Clevelander.
When National Archives senior curator Bruce Bustard, also a Cleveland native, called in Kleiman to enlist her help in publicizing the exhibit, he started to tell her about one of the 31 immigrants’ files. He began with a court document about a boy named Michael Pupa and was incredulous when Kleiman cut him short, revealing she knew the family. Coincidentally, she was an old friend of Michael and Anita’s daughter Jill.
“The paper trail on Michael Pupa and his family – while erratic and incomplete – grew from a short legal summary to over 100 detailed pages of documentation,” said Kleiman in an article for a National Archives publication.
For the first time, Pupa’s wife and children saw a photo of him as a 12-year-old, the image attached to his naturalization file, Kleiman said. In fact, that photo, enlarged many times life size along with images of other immigrants, will greet visitors to the exhibit on three-story-high banners on the National Archives building.
The information gleaned from those historic papers also has helped reconnect the Pupa clan, as they reached out to one another to fit together more pieces of their shattered family history.
While the documents now in the National Archives tell a compelling story, not all the information matches Pupa’s memory. This is common in historic documents, in part because of mistakes by overwhelmed bureaucrats during times of upheaval, Kleiman said.
For the six years following the end of World War II, Pupa was in four camps, including a United Nations International Refugee Organization children’s village. In one 1950 document, Leib asked that Bronja Meniuk and Michael Pupa be put under IRO care and gave permission for them to immigrate to the U.S. without him.
After six months in the IRO village, Pupa and Meniuk, 12 and 10 respectively, were granted permission to resettle in the U.S. They arrived in New York in May 1951.
Their documents state that the two children should be kept together. Pupa was given a choice of cities to relocate to, as he was not allowed to remain in New York. He chose Cleveland, which he was told was a jobs-rich industrial city where his uncle could follow him and find work.
Indeed, the documents show that Leib Kaplan and his daughter Rivka flew from Munich to New York in October 1951 and then traveled on to Cleveland. There, Kaplan changed his first name to Louis.
A new home in Cleveland
Arriving in Cleveland in late 1951, Michael and Bronja were placed in different foster homes under the auspices of the Jewish Children’s Bureau, now Bellefaire JCB, Pupa says. Initially, he went to Patrick Henry Junior High and attended special English classes on Cleveland’s East Side.
Later, he lived in Cleveland Heights. When he was about 15, he had a disagreement with his foster parents, who disapproved of some of his friends. He left their house and moved to the downtown YMCA, living there about six months.
“This was kind of illegal, as I was a minor,” says Pupa, chuckling, clearly relishing his juvenile misdeeds. “My choice was to get another home or be deported.”
He was placed with new foster parents, Bernice and Edward Rosenthal, who also resided in Cleveland Heights with their two young daughters, Allyne and Cheryl. In 1957, Pupa became a U.S. citizen. He lived with the Rosenthals about a decade “until they threw me out at 26,” he says with a grin.
“We consider them family,” says Jill Pupa of the Rosenthals. “They are my grandparents.” The elder Rosenthals died a few years ago.
After earning his diploma from Cleveland Heights High School, Pupa attended The Ohio State University for two years. He graduated from John Carroll University with a degree in Eastern European history and business and worked at State Savings & Loan before starting his own successful home mortgage brokerage. In 1964, he married Anita, and later the couple had Jill and then son Marc.
As for Leib “Louis” Kaplan, he ran the fish concession at Altman’s Kosher Meats and later had his own fish business, Pupa said. Rivka went to visit Israel around the time of the Six-Day War and decided to stay. In 1968, her father joined her there. Kaplan died in 1985 in his mid-80s.
“He always stressed education,” says Pupa. “He told me, ‘They can take everything you have but your education.’”
Reuniting the family
After Kleiman stunned the Pupas last fall with her phone call about the immigration case file, she said Jill Pupa emailed her a heartfelt reply. “You have pulled the thread on the sweater that unravels it all … My dad started talking, and it is truly a gift.”
The Pupa family will have a reunion at the press preview for the June opening of the exhibit “Attachments: Faces and Stories from America’s Gates” at the National Archives. Bronja, now called Brenda, who lives in Philadelphia and is reluctant to discuss her past, and Rivka have said they’ll be there, as will Pupa’s foster sister Cheryl, who is coming from Boston.
“The exhibit shows old government documents in storage for years (do) matter and have meaning and can change someone’s life,” said Kleiman.
Certainly, the unveiling of his history came at the right time for Michael Pupa.
“I was ready to start talking,” he says. “I’m thinking of talking to youngsters” through educational Holocaust programs in Cleveland. While he’s in Washington, D.C., he plans to record an oral history at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
The exhibit gives an indication of what “this country is all about,” Pupa says. “I don’t think there’s another nation in the world like this one, with all the races, religions and different people coming here. ‘Only in America,’ as they say. The opportunities here are tremendous. I’m glad my story is out.”
WHAT: “Attachments: Faces and Stories from America’s Gates” free exhibit of photos and documents from 31 individual immigrants’ case files
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., Friday, June 15, through Tuesday, September 4
WHERE: National Archives, National Mall on Constitution Avenue at 9th Street NW