On December 24, 1945, refugees at the Bad Gastein Displaced Persons Camp in Austria gifted Marguerite Pohek, an American social worker, an album of drawings. The refugees credited Ms. Pohek for the excellent living conditions at Bad Gastein, a vast improvement over the conditions at other DP camps. Bad Gastein provided education for refugees, at all levels – elementary school, high school, university, and religious education – as well as vocational training in trades such as carpentry, tailoring, and shoe making. In addition to educational opportunities, refugees could take advantage of theater groups and sports.
Born in Kansas in 1903, Marguerite Pohek attended Cornell University and Boston University, becoming a psychiatric social worker with a focus on child therapy. Marguerite came to know Dr. Marion Kenworthy, a psychiatrist working at Columbia University. Dr. Kenworthy, a supporter of the 1939 Wagner-Rogers Bill, hoped to send three people to Europe to help persecuted children and aid in the immigration process. The Wagner-Rogers Bill would have allowed for the admittance of 20,000 refugee children in the German Reich to the United States outside of established immigration quotas. Marguerite was sent to Austria by Dr. Kenworthy and, despite the failure of the Bill to pass, decided to stay in Europe and help children for as long as she could.
Facing constant harassment from the Gestapo, Marguerite worked in an office of about thirty other people in Vienna. In August 1939, her office was warned by the American Embassy in Berlin that war was imminent. With this information, Marguerite rushed to help get people on trains out of Austria. When the war began she was urged to leave Europe, but she remained in Austria until November 1939, witnessing desecration of synagogues and other atrocities. As conditions worsened and became more dangerous, Marguerite returned to the United States and worked for the Community Service Society of New York.
In 1944, she joined the Red Cross and was sent to England to provide aid. Finally, in 1945, Marguerite returned to Austria for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA). The UNRRA was a relief agency, later absorbed into the newly-established UN in 1945, and was responsible for providing aid for victims of World War II. Marguerite was initially sent to work with refugees in two DP camps, in Hart and Haag, Austria.
Conditions in these camps were very poor and Marguerite was disturbed by what she saw. She immediately set to work to help these refugees, assisting them with organizing protests and establishing a camp council. Due to her efforts, she was accused of being both a “rabble-rouser” and a Communist and was called to Vienna for investigation. While there, she described the poor living conditions to officials and threatened to resign from the UNRRA and pursue action if conditions were not improved. Due to her efforts, the UNRRA moved refugees from these DP camps to the new camp at Bad Gastein. Between 1945 and 1946, Marguerite worked with colleagues to continue to improve conditions at Bad Gastein, helping to establish the schools there and even having friends in the United States send supplies for a beauty shop.
On a routine visit to Bad Gastein, Marguerite was greeted by a parade and was presented with the two albums that are now in the Museum’s collection. The “Merry X-Mas” album, with wooden covers, contains ink drawings by the artist Herman Margulies and notes from appreciative students in Yiddish, Hebrew, Polish, and German.
The second album, a photo album, contains photographs of daily life in Bad Gastein, as well as photographs of Marguerite’s visit.
A dedication at the end of the photo album reads in part: “The pictures are taken from our life and represent it in some respects. Let them be a memory to your immense share in our activities, to your unforgettable efforts to improve and normalize both our shattered physical and mental conditions. You were heart and soul in the centre of our troubles and hopes.”
In 1946, Marguerite was reassigned to Vienna to work on the creation of a child welfare program. She continued to work for the UN, holding positions that included Senior Advisor to the Government of Austria, as well as working in Geneva to oversee the UN work in 17 countries. In 1954, Marguerite returned to the United States and worked in social work education and remained in touch with many of the people that she helped in Austria.
In 1990, Marguerite began the process of donating her two albums to the Museum of Jewish Heritage. Her neighbors, Frank and Emily Ullman, both Holocaust survivors, assisted her with the donation. Marguerite passed away on December 5, 1990, having lived a full life of service to others. Emily Ullman wrote, “She was, for us, simply Marguerite, and we became friends during the later years of her life … These two albums were always around her on a small table, to be felt by her and her friends.”