In a Rush to Live
Harry Kaye’s Immigration from Eastern Europe during World War Two to Early 1960s Los Angeles
essay written by Lauren Kaye
To Harry Kaye, a Jew in Europe, World War II was a reality. Caught in between Fascist Germany and Communist Russia, Poland became the gruesome Eastern front of the war. Kaye fled with his family as a young boy to the Urals, the Western zone of Russia. Seeking immigration visas outside of Europe through family connections, the Kayes, then Krzepickis, made it to Canada via an American military vessel in 1951. Harry Kaye arrived in America in 1963, and he has lived in his “land of choices” ever since.
The most recent devastating combatant battle, World War Two introduced the twentieth century to new destructions of humanity, population, and humility, but also introduced the modern era to compassion, kindness and hope. This story is a testimony. Born in Warsaw, Poland in 1935, Henyek Krzepicki lived his early childhood years surrounded by building tensions. On September 1, 1939, German Nazi forces invaded the Poland; the weak Polish army was no match for the well-stocked German army led by Adolph Hitler. Europe entered a gruesome battle. As German Nazis swallowed Eastern Europe, they took hostage millions of Jews. Concerned with the Nazi takeover, Maurice Krzepicki (Henyek’s father) planned to evacuate his family East, away from German harm. So in 1940 at the age of five, Krzepicki fled with his family to a safer Soviet Russia. Throughout his harsh early life, Krzepicki resolved to “remain positive” and to seek that “things [will] turn out.”1 When coming to America, Henyek Krzepicki changed his name to Harry Kaye to assimilate himself into American culture more efficiently.
Recalling his earliest memory, Krzepicki remembers staring out into “the blackest sky [he’s] ever seen, with the most beautiful, beautiful stars in it.”2 The year was 1939, prior to Germany’s invasion. Living with his father, mother, older sister, and younger sister, Krzepicki grew up in the poorer parts of Warsaw. Later, his abandoned home would become part of the Warsaw Ghetto the Nazis used to singularly locate Jews in Poland. Anticipating future dangers for his family, Krzepicki Sr. rounded up his family to live in the more-Jewish tolerant Russia. As Kaye puts it, “my dad, for some reason, did not trust being within Nazi Occupation. Having to choose, he preferred Communism to Nazism, which turned out to be the right decision of course.”3 This decision led to the family’s survival during World War II. Any neighbors, family members, or friends who did not leave their homes, perished. Accounting for his extended family, Kaye solemnly states that all of his cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents—except his mother’s mother and mother’s sister’s family—were terminated by the Nazi attacks or Auschwitz, the infamous Nazi Concentration Camp responsible for the murdering of 1.1 million people. Having to choose between the conflicting theories of Hitler’s Fascism and Joseph Stalin’s Communism, Krzepicki Sr. moved ahead to work in cities as a skill-less laborer to send back money to his family so they could all reunite in Russia. Monstrous war had provided a new horrific symptom: torn families. But by 1940 Kaye’s close family had made it to Russia.
Since the Russian Revolution in 1917, Russia had become a powerful socialist state. Led by Lenin until 1924, Bolshevik Russia seemed a messy jungle filled with revolutionary peasants and greedy aristocrats. At the death of Lenin, a new leader took the reins of Communist Russia. Joseph Stalin converted the socialist itinerary to a more totalitarian civilization. Kaye remembers this kind of society. Trapped in between the havoc of the war to the west and isolated Russia to the east, Kaye and his family lived in the Urals. The Urals housed a mixture of ethnicities, most people looking to escape the warfronts. His family felt more assured in Russia due to the Non-Aggression Pact signed by Hitler and Stalin in 1938, where both parties promised to maintain peaceful relationships with each other. He attended school with his sisters, and both of his parents worked. Krzepicki Sr. worked in a metallurgical factory to supply the Russian troops on the battlefront. His mother, Kaye recalls, spent her days at the hospital as a menial worker. At school, Kaye encountered his first direct attack of anti-Semitism. “One of the kids came to school one day, I forgot what caused him to..., but he came up to me, and as I said he had his razor bland in his hand, and [then] he reached over my head and cut me...as he cut me with his razor blade he said ‘all Jews need to be cut’—cut down was what he meant. And he did his share obviously, by cutting the skin on my head.”4 The intolerant little boy conveyed the discriminatory tones most people inflicted on migrant families. In addition to ignorance, neighbors searched for any suspicious behaviors, much like during World War One in America under the Espionage Act. Such communist conduct fueled greater struggling discontents within Russia, and Kaye learned to watch what he said. In modern times, he eats at lightning speed. He explains that when he was growing up, people had to eat fast if people wanted to eat. Because of the war Russia concentrated all of its resources to the army and party members. Krzepicki was forced to beg for food with his grandmother, and then to share any morsels with other beggars. But any complaints remained mute people could not criticize the Russian totalitarian government “if you wanted to live.”5
The Krzepicki family lived in the Urals for seven years, from 1940 to 1946. They waited during the suffering in deprived Russia and watched in silence at the atrocities committed during World War Two. Around 1942-1943, Kaye remembers his parents discussing late one night with friends about the Concentration Camps. Still too young to completely understand the ideas of crematoria and gas chambers, Kaye did, however, identify the Germans as heartless and unnecessarily cruel. “We did know of Jews suffering, for no other reason then that they were Jew” Kaye acknowledges.6 But the reticent attitude towards the Germans might also have rooted from Russian propaganda promoting the war efforts. At the end of the war the Krzepickis began to move again, this time westwards, in search of their familiar home. But Poland stood ransacked and destroyed; it stood defeated, with a few bricks here and a small building there. During the war, Jews had rebelled in the Warsaw Ghetto, and it had taken the Nazis six to eight weeks to finally squash the uprising. The battle had left Warsaw decimated and bare. After the war, Krzepicki Sr. moved his family westwards, and they arrived in Poland, but not in Warsaw. The Russian military set out to ‘free’ Poland; further destruction, however, ensued. Krzepicki remembers his father’s concession about Poland— “it became clear to my dad that home was gone. Forget it. It doesn’t exist anymore... if we [stuck] around, we’ll probably end up under the same regime as we had been under in Russia, which he didn’t like that idea either.”7 One of the thousands of families to return to Poland following the war, the Krzepickis looked for means of escape.
End of war peace treaties had made Poland a Russian denomination. People began to plan escapes out of Europe. The Krzepickis illegally traveled to Czechoslovakia, which was neither dominated by Russia or America. In Czechoslovakia, they ran like “thieves in the night” since they did not have permission to leave Poland. Krzepicki had officially become a Jewish Polish refugee. Kaye compares his family’s escape to the present Pakistani runaways, except the Pakistani government protects its refugees. The Krzepickis, along with hundreds of thousands of other Eastern European Jews, were fleeing with less protection. By the end of 1946, Krzepicki and his family had reached Austria. At this time, in 1947, talk of a Jewish state had escalated in popularity, and many Jews looked to Palestine. Zionism attracted European Jewish refugees longing for a home. The pre-Israeli Defense Force, or the Haganah, traveled to European towns and cities filled with homeless Jews searching for a place in the world. An illegal association since the British expelled any individual militaries in its Empire, which included Palestine, the Haganah consisted of young martial fighters planning to gather and organize Jewish refugees. In Austria, Krzepicki survived with his family in the American zone. Ironically, they lived for a year in a previously used Concentration Camp, Epinzeh. At Epinzeh, the United Nations Relief Agency lent helpful hands to the refugees in forms of care packages. Kaye recollects that his family in New Jersey, who had immigrated to America long before the World Wars, sent his family some food and clothes.
After Austria, Krzepicki and his family moved on to Germany. At this time, people were scheming to emigrate as far away from Europe as possible. The mentality was “the further we can get away from Europe, and the healthier it will be for our lifestyle.” People applied for visas to America, Australia, Canada, South America, and of course Israel. By 1948, Krzepicki and his family had traveled westwards into France. France was not very welcoming to immigrants in general, not just Jews; it had its own problems, since it had been conquered and ruled by Germany during the war. At the age of 13, Krzepicki remembers playing football in the streets with friends behind the Notre Dame in Paris and attending French public schools unwillingly. His father joined the Jewish Workmen Circle, a socialist organization arranged to better Jewish families’ living conditions. The Jewish Workmen Circle also organized a home outside of the city of Paris, a place that aided undernourished children who just came through the war, and also gave parents the opportunity to establish themselves and find work before they had their children to look after as well. Krzepicki survived many painful immunizations at the home, and he jokes later, that his bottom was extremely sore by the end of his shots. But he has never been deathly ill for the rest of his life, so the pain was worth it, he concedes. He went to school to learn French, which was enforced by the home. “Talk about a nightmare” Harry later jokes. “I spoke Yiddish, I spoke Polish, I spoke Russian, and then all of a sudden I have to learn French; I remember crying like a baby.”10 At the age of 14, Henyek went to ORT— Organization for Rehabilitation for Trade. He learned about radio electronics, and worked with communication devices. In fact, at ORT Krzepicki met a friend he would have throughout his lifetime. The two now both live in southern California.
France was becoming a permanent home for Krzepicki, except when his aunt, uncle and cousin that had been traveling with the Krzepicki immediate family received a visa into Montreal, Canada. Through distant relatives, Henyek’s uncle acquired admittance, and soon they applied for Henyek and his family to join them in Montreal. The Krzepicki family at this time included Henyek’s father, mother, older and younger sisters, and a new baby brother who had been born in France. Although Krzepicki Sr. had applied for visa to America, “most of the eastern European people...wanted to come to America, and the waiting line lasted eight to ten years.” So in 1951, after Krzepicki’s aunt and uncle petitioned their immigration, the rest of the Krzepickis moved to Montreal. Traveling on an American military ship, Krzepicki and his family crossed over the Atlantic and landed in Halifax, Nova Scotia eight days later. From there, the family took a train to Montreal. Tearful reunions and exasperated relief swept through Henyek. Finally, he began to live a normal life.
As an older teenager in Montreal, Krzepicki lived life to the fullest. Without cars, cell phones, and laptops, Krzepicki entertained himself by going out on the town with friends. His happy life was funded by many UNRA—United Nations Relief Agency— givers that paid for the immigration costs and new life-starts that the refugees faced when moving to a new country. Harry agrees: “That’s one thing American and Canadian Jews did quite well. That is, contributing money that made it possible for many refugees to immigrate after enduring Hitler.” Krzepicki finally arrived in America by heading on a road trip to Boston with some friends. From there, Krzepicki and his friends made the trip a cross-country trek, and journeyed to Los Angeles. There, Henyek stayed with his older sister and her husband, who had immigrated to America earlier because he was Romanian and not Polish. To gain the right to remain in America, Kaye volunteered for the Reserves. He admits however, that he disliked being told what to do, which reminded him of his time in Eastern Europe where other people decided what type of life he was going to have. After serving in the military for three years as a training troop’s transporter, Harry Kaye acquired American citizenship.
Before even setting foot on American soil, Kaye had dreamed of America. His parents planned to escape Europe from the time they lived in Russia. But to Kaye, America was an unattainable dream, a magical word that was the key to a different, unimaginable world. Yet his unreachable dream came true. At first, however, Harry was a little disappointed. He was confused because his “attitude was: with what you locals have; you could be so much more. Why are you content with adequacy when you could have so much more?” Also, school seemed unappealing. His entire life, he has only received three years of formal schooling with a few night courses. His father forced him to have an education in Montreal, so he could do something with his life. “My dad kept insisting that I keep studying. He even quoted good old Lenin and used to say ‘Learn, learn, and once again, learn.’” He discovered later in life that schooling is important. Kaye encourages all of his grandkids to pursue professions so they never have to worry about livelihood. Finally, after many years, Kaye understood the sanctity of America. He learned to appreciate the freedom people have when they can move wherever they want without being regulated. “You are your own person” in America, Harry proudly announces and values his life here because he was given the opportunity to get a job, raise his kids, and live freely.
Working as an accountant in a mortgage company in Los Angeles at the age of 29, Kaye met his wife Yetty. His family, living in Montreal, received her with approval. “They all loved her. My mother and father loved her to no end. Eh, she was a nice Yiddish Shemedeleh (sweetheart), ‘I did well’ they said.” They married after a crazy trip involving Guatemala, Costa Rica—where Yetty is from—Miami, and eventually Montreal. Such an event full of chutzpah (madness) foreshadowed their lives; crazy weddings, births, and B’nai mitzvahs became notorious Kaye family gatherings.
Comparing Kaye’s Bar Mitzvah in France to his grandson’s recent ceremony revealed that the Jewish culture has not been lost. Like Kaye 60 years earlier, the grandson was called to the Torah and received his blessings as a man in the Jewish community. Unlike Kaye’s ceremony, however, the grandson was surrounded by extended family from around the world. Kaye was called up to the front of the gathering, with only his father as a witness. Unlike Kaye’s ceremony, Richard’s parents hosted an insane party that included much dancing and delicious food. Kaye’s parents hosted a small party for a few family members and friends with little fanfare. “There’s no comparison” Harry admits. At Richard’s Bar Mitzvah Kaye proudly watched his family celebrate and recited many prayers and danced the Horah.
Looking back on his life, Kaye concludes that although some parts were disheartening, his happy life now outweighs the bad times. Forced to endure discrimination and totalitarian rule in his early life, Harry learned to be grateful for the “land of choices”—America. He does hope however, that his grandchildren “never have to go through with what [he] did” and that they learn to appreciate life. About 10 years ago, Kaye was planning to go to an Angel’s baseball game. He was running late, so he began to rush. Suddenly, he stopped in his tracks. “Here I am, so many years, so many thousands of miles, so much behind, the little kid that had barely survived by escaping into Russia, the most important thing for me is to make sure I’m not late?” Throughout his life, Harry Kaye has achieved accomplishments such as escaping the Nazis during World War Two, learning many languages assimilating into different cultures, raising his family, and being a good grandfather.
1. Kaye, Harry. Personal Interview. 17 May 2009. 18.
2. Kaye, 17 May 2009, 1.
3. Kaye, 17 May 2009, 1, 2.
4. Kaye, 17 May 2009, 3, 4.
5. Kaye, 17 May 2009, 6.
6. Kaye, 17 May 2009, 6.
7. Kaye, 17 May 2009, 7.
8. Kaye, 17 May 2009, 7.
9. Kaye, 17 May 2009, 8.
10. Kaye, 17 May 2009, 9.
11. Kaye, 17 May 2009, 10.
12. Kaye, 17 May 2009, 11.
13. Kaye, 17 May 2009, 10.
14. Kaye, 17 May 2009, 12.
15. Kaye, 17 May 2009, 17.
16. Kaye, 17, May 2009, 16.
17. Kaye, 17 May 2009, 9.
18. Kaye, 17 May 2009, 17.
19. Kaye, 17 May 2009, 17.
20. Kaye, 17 May 2009, 10.