He is getting lovable, learning to hug and kiss, and actually laughing. We had been afraid that he never would laugh, as I am certain that he did not for his first two years. Now he actually laughs with abandon like all the kids at home do who are loved and wanted.”
So Ruth and David Orkow wrote home to their family and friends in America in their “Newsletter Number II” of January 1948. The lead article, indeed the only article, was the joyous description of their new baby, Alex, a two-year-old they had adopted from an orphanage in Austria.
When Ruth and David Orkow, a New York City couple unable to have children, learned of the enormous loss of Jewish life in the Holocaust, they decided to go to Europe to adopt two orphaned children. Although the outcome of the journey they launched themselves on in 1947 would turn out to be fulfilling and wonderful, the process would be anything but easy.
The Orkows were, by nature and choice of occupation, helpers: David Orkow was trained as a doctor and his wife as a teacher of homebound New York City children. They were well traveled, having been to Europe a half dozen times in the 1930s. They spent wartime years working as civilian employees of the United States Corps of Engineers in the Bahamas and later in Alaska. When they read about the organizing efforts to aid Holocaust survivors in Europe, the Orkows thought they would be ideal employees of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (known as “the Joint”). The Joint was the American Jewish community’s overseas relief and rehabilitation agency, which was then engaged in extensive work among the two hundred thousand Jews living in Displaced Persons (DP) camps in postwar Germany, Austria, and Italy.
The Orkows applied for positions with the Joint. During the interviews, they were also candid about their other primary objective: to go to Europe in order to locate orphaned children to bring back as their own to the United States. This struck a responsive chord with the Joint, and the Orkows went overseas in the summer of 1947. Both went to work in the American-occupied zone of Germany, Ruth in the financial department and her husband as the chief emigration officer for Bavaria.
The Orkows were having little success finding young, orphaned children. Almost no children under the age of six had survived the concentration camps. The young Jewish children who had survived the war—and who were now being brought from the DP camps and other locations to homes such as Burgl Gut children’s home in Austria—had been hidden in Christian homes or in convents and monasteries; many had been hidden in the countryside by underground Jewish organizations
By the fall of 1947, most of the children at Burgl Gut and other similar homes were over the age of ten. There were, however, some youngsters born to survivors who had died in the last months of the war or after liberation- or who were in circumstances so difficult that the child had to be given up. Alex Klein was one of these children. (To this day, nothing is known of Alex’s life before Burgl Gut, except that those who left him there explicitly requested that he should never be told about his origins.)
Christmas Eve of 1947 found the Orkows at a party at the United States Army’s Officers’ Club in Munich. A social worker, who knew of their unsuccessful efforts to find young children, rushed up to them in great excitement. She knew of a two-year-old boy who was available at an orphanage near Salzburg! But they’d have to leave immediately and, after meeting the child, decide on the spot whether or not they wanted him. And their decision would have to be final; tomorrow all the children were being taken to Israel.
Optimistic, Ruth and David agreed that David would make the drive to Austria, while Ruth would return to their apartment to get it ready for the boy. David managed to arrange for a car and driver, and in the middle of a snowy December night, he crossed the border from Germany into Austria. The administrators of Burgl Gut who greeted David when he arrived in the wee hours of the morning awoke Alex and brought him to meet David.
“I’ve got to be crazy!” David thought, but “I’ll take him” is what he said. So within minutes, Alex found himself turned over to a complete stranger, who bundled him into a car and drove off with him in the middle of the night. He was terrified, He began wailing; he soiled his pants; the air in the car got oppressive. As the car approached the border crossing, David thought, “How do I explain this? I’ve got a screaming child, no papers for him, and it’s the middle of the night.” The guards at the border crossing were the same U.S. soldiers who had passed him through only hours before. When David rolled down the window and they saw the bawling child and got a whiff of the air, they said, “You’ve got enough trouble!” and waved the car through.
Alex began his life with the Orkows in Munich. They assembled recommendations on their suitability as parents— including letters from the Joint—and the adoptions of Alex and a younger sister, whom they named Linda Ann, were completed. In Munich, the Orkows joyfully set up their new family, hiring cooks and nursemaids to assist them. “We needed a stroller (a Sportswagon) and since they are not to be had, Ruth traded one of her dresses for one, so that Alex can now be taken for a stroll and not have to be lugged about. He is too heavy to carry any longer.” The children thrived and so did their parents. “You would not know me, as I have changed and everybody has told us both that we have become different and nicer.”
Then a major setback. Although they were now adopted, the children were still subject to the United States immigration quotas and would not be allowed entry into the United States in the near future. David’s position as a top immigration officer for the Joint allowed him to meet with congressional aides who were doing research for what would become the Displaced Persons Act of 1948. David explained their dilemma: How could they not bring their adopted children , who were also displaced persons, home to America? The aides said that they would see what could be done, and when the Displaced Persons Act of 1948 became law, Section 3 (b) provided that 3,000 “eligible displaced orphans may be issued special nonquota immigration visas …” Alex and Linda Ann were issued visas number one and two. (Subsequent immigration acts extended this provision. Thus, the resolution of the special difficulties originally faced by the Orkows has made it significantly easier for thousands of children to become part of American families.)
The Orkows returned to New York in 1948, and the children continued to bring enormous joy and satisfaction into their lives. This was threatened, however, in the immediate years after their return, when Jewish welfare agencies began to question the Orkows about irregularities in the adoption procedures. When the Orkows sensed that there was a possibility their children might be taken away, they knew that whatever the “irregularities” were that had occurred under the frenzied postwar conditions, they could not allow Alex and Linda Ann to be uprooted again and certainly not taken from loving parents.
An attorney relative of the Orkows suggested that if they moved out of New York to the Midwest, the agencies there would be far more sympathetic to the family’s concerns. As it turned out, within days David Orkow was offered a job in
Omaha, Nebraska. Sensing the fates at work, the family soon relocated there. He became the director of the local Jewish home for the aged, and Ruth Orkow taught junior high school. Alex grew up to be an architect and businessman. His sister, Linda Ann, remained in Omaha, where she raised five sons.