“An Immigrant Refugee’s Journey from the Hell of the Holocaust” by Werner Gossels
An Immigrant Refugee’s Journey from the Hell of the Holocaust
to the Miracle of Freedom in this Great Country
I was born on July 23, 1933 in Berlin, Germany, the younger brother of Claus Peter Rolf Gossels, who was born on August 11, 1930, both to Charlotte Lewy Gossels and Max Gossels.
My parents divorced when I was 3 years old; my mother, Peter and I went to live in our grandmother’s apartment building (address then was: Berlin no. 55. Lippehnerstrasse 35.11).
In 1933, Hitler came to power in Germany and promptly enacted the Nuremberg Laws which forbade Jews to work in many venues and professions. My father was forced out of his job as Magistratsrat (a ranking municipal official) in the Berlin Government. Conditions for Jews in Berlin rapidly deteriorated: Jewish store owners had their windows marked; Jews were forced to wear yellow armbands; yellow park benches were the only place Jewish families could use in public parks. Kristallnacht in 1938 was the logical outcome of Hitler’s campaign to identify, persecute; and ultimately imprison and murder German Jews, in order to destroy Jewish culture and institutions.
My mother, in a heroic effort to save Peter and me from the persecution, found a way to include the two of us (Peter at 8 years old, and me at 5, almost 6) in a group of 40 “orphans” leaving Berlin for Paris on July 3, 1939.
On July 4, 1939, we were welcomed in France by Comte Hubert de Monbrison at the Chateau de Quincy sous Senart (located 30 km southeast of Paris). We started school and generally settled into a growing up routine from July 4, 1939 until June of 1940 when the German Wermacht captured Paris. Our counselors organized an effort to run away from the Chateau at Quincy before the advancing German army, but they overran us within a day or so, and we returned to the Chateau. The Chateau was commandeered by the German army as officers quarters and during the summer of 1940 we continued to be housed there alongside them.
By September of 1940, the 40 of us were transferred to the care of OSE (Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants), a Jewish social service agency, which arranged for us (in 3 groups) to be temporarily moved to holding accommodations elsewhere in the Paris area. Peter and I went to an orphanage at La Varenne outside Paris.
By January of 1941, OSE overcame local opposition and purchased large houses in a rural part of France under the control of Marshal Petain’s puppet government at Vichy. Somehow, OSE gathered us and other refugee children, including some from Internment Camps –with the help of the American Friends Service Committee (“Quakers”)– sneaked us across the border of occupied France and settled us at Chabannes in the province of La Creuse in rural France. In Chabannes, we resumed our schooling and daily routines in a wartime setting, with dangers and food shortages.
In August of 1941, Peter and I were fortunate to be included in a group of 200 children who, with visas obtained by the Quakers through the effort of Eleanor Roosevelt, were rescued from wartime France and the clutches of the Nazis. We traveled from Chabannes to Marseilles, and from Marseilles through Spain by train to Lisbon, Portugal. There we boarded the Serpa Pinto, (a ship that ferried many survivors from war-torn Europe to safety for a number of years), for New York harbor and safety.
I arrived in New York on September 27, 1941; spent two weeks on Ellis Island; then was driven to Boston where a wonderful family welcomed me. Israel Glaser & Ethel Glaser, their daughter Mary and son-in-law Louis Gordon and 2 ½ year old Robert Gordon became my family (younger brothers Clifford and Fred were born May 29, 1942 and March 10, 1945, respectively): we lived in South Brookline, Massachusetts, where I attended the Edith C. Baker Grammar School, graduating as Class President in 1948. Simultaneously with attending Public School, I went to the South Brookline Community Center Hebrew School, culminating in my Bar Mitzvah in 1946. By 1948, the South Brookline Community Center congregation built Temple Emeth. Israel Glaser and his family had been instrumental in the founding of the SBCC and ultimately in the construction of the Temple. His daughter, Mary Gordon, as President of the Sisterhood and I, as head of the Junior Congregation, both spoke at the cornerstone laying of the Temple.
I graduated from Brookline High School in 1952. Four years of conscientious academic effort, plus participation in student government, sports, year book, and other miscellaneous extra-curricular activities prepared me for college. When I applied to colleges, I expected to live at home and commute to a local university. I applied to and was admitted to Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Tufts and Northeastern University. Fortunately, Peter suggested that I apply to Yale. Daniel Tyler, a Brookline Selectman and Yale Graduate, interviewed me one night and somehow talked the admissions office into accepting me and granting me sufficient scholarship aid to allow me to live at college in New Haven. Part of the scholarship aid was a requirement that I work fourteen hours per week to earn $400 of the scholarship. Freshman year, I ran the milk machine for the lunch cafeteria line in Commons. The next two years, I helped two geology professors, and Senior year I worked in the University library.
In 1954, when I turned 21, I became eligible and obtained my United States citizenship. This was a very significant event in my life because of my pride in becoming a citizen of this wonderful country and because the Nazis had stripped Jews of our citizenship leading to the death of so many who could not prove their identity when they were fleeing for their lives in war-torn Europe.
In 1956, as I was about to graduate from the school of Engineering with my Bachelor of Science degree in Industrial Administration, Yale decided to begin a Masters Program in Industrial Administration. The Department Chairman, Thomas Holme, invited us to apply for admission to the new program. I applied and was accepted and awarded a fellowship that paid for my tuition for the next two years, leading to my Masters degree in Industrial Administration from the School of Engineering in 1958. From the beginning, we thought of our Industrial Administration Graduate Program as Yale University’s first business school class.
Elaine Furman and I dated throughout my college years and married on June 14, 1956, three days after Yale graduation. Elaine commuted from New Haven to Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts during her Senior year, graduating with honors in 1957.
Our first child, Jeffrey Howard Charles Gossels, was born on May 21, 1957, in Boston. Unfortunately, he died on August 3, 1957 of sudden crib death while we were visiting with Elaine’s parents in Newton.
Stuart Daniel Gossels was born in Cincinnati, Ohio on October 24, 1958. Jonathan Gordon Gossels was born in Syracuse, New York, on March 7, 1960. Bonnie Lynne Gossels was born in Syracuse, New York, on March 14, 1962. Warren Joseph Gossels was born in Boston on August 23, 1963, and Elizabeth Louise Gossels was born in Boston on May 30, 1967.
A month before graduating from Yale with my MIA, I received a job offer from General Electric Company to join their 3-year Manufacturing Training Program with my initial assignment in Evendale, Ohio (outside Cincinnati). Two 6-month assignments (plus after-hours classes) in Jet Engine Manufacturing were followed by two 6-month assignments in Semi-Conductor Manufacturing at electronics Park in Syracuse,New York, and one 6-month assignment renovating the old factory building housing the Watt Hour Meter Department in Somersworth, New Hampshire. My next and final assignment in the Instrument Department in West Lynn, Massachusetts was cut short by an invitation to return to Syracuse to join eleven other young manufacturing engineering people from within GE Company to study diffusion technology for Semi-Conductor Manufacturing full-time for three months. I graduated from that program and the Manufacturing Training Program simultaneously in June of 1961.
Because the enormous advance in technology of semi-conductor manufacture resulted in dramatic price reductions in products being sold, the Semi-Conductor Product Department declared a 2-year freeze on salary increases. In the spring of 1962, Elaine and I decided that we should return to the Boston area. I accepted a job with Transitron Semi-Conductor Corporation and worked there (in Melrose, Wakefield and East Boston) for three years until 1965.
In June of 1965, I accepted a job offer from Dr. An Wang, Founder and Owner of Wang Laboratories, Inc. in Tewksbury, Massachusetts, to head up their manufacturing operation. When Wang Laboratories went public in August 0f 1967, I was named Vice President of Manufacturing. In November of 1970, I was named Vice President of all United States Sales/Marketing: during these seven years (1965-1972), I participated in the transformation of Wang Laboratories from a successful small, high-technology company making custom digital equipment primarily sold under other company’s names, into a successful middle-size company selling innovative digital technological products (programmable calculators and small computers) under its own name; through its own sales force; servicing its own products with its own technicians, throughout the entire United States. When I started, there were 72 employees and when I left in 1972, there were over 1,400 employees; dollar output grew from $1.8 million in fiscal year 1965 to $40 million in fiscal 1972; productivity improved 75%; costs of products and services sold declined from 60.6% to 39.6% over the 5.5 year period I ran Manufacturing. Productivity per salesman increased 16.4% and cost of sales declined during the 2-year period I was in charge of marketing and sales. During my two years as Vice President of U.S. Sales and Marketing, Wang Laboratories continued its remarkable series of digital technology innovations in the field of small computers that could be used directly by non-technical people. Wang revolutionized the office word-processing world of Fortune 500 companies by producing user-friendly, keyboard-operated desktop machines that freed secretaries from re-typing letters and memoranda to correct errors or make revisions. Development of this series of products added enormous growth potential to scientific and educational markets that the company had already been servicing. In order to service this growing market, we began the formidable task of adding downtown offices and sales people familiar with that market. The groundwork we did during that period eventually catapulted the company sales into the billion dollar range and national and international recognition in the office machine market.
In late 1972, a conversation with Peter convinced me to try developing my own business instead of joining another high technology business. When I left Wang to start our own real estate business, Elaine and I had five children and a mortgage on our home. Stuart, our oldest son was a high school freshman, meaning that we were only a few years away from significant college tuition demands. It was a time for the entire family to pitch in to do our best to make it all work out. Fortunately, we had a few things going for us: First, Elaine’s parents matched our wedding gifts (approximately $6,000) and invested the money in several small properties in the Boston area. Second, Dr. Wang continued to pay me half of my previous salary until the end of June 1973 in recognition of my service to the company. Third, Elaine’s father, Jack Furman, helped us to evaluate potential properties; introduced us to his banking connection; and most importantly, helped us to negotiate purchase of properties. Fourth, just before the company went public, Dr. Wang had given eight key employees stock options. I exercised those options when they became available and sold the Wang shares, once they became available for capital gains tax treatment, over three years to provide the capital for our own real estate business.
At our request, Elaine’s parents sold us their half of our joint property investment trust, payable by a 15-year promissory note. I identified properties worth purchasing and Jack Furman helped me negotiate the purchases. Elaine’s parents and our family worked together to organize the book-keeping, leasing, renovations, maintenance and repairing of our initial small number of properties. Once we had invested our entire savings, we worked hard to accumulate sufficient earnings from operations to look for and purchase the next property.
Growing a real estate portfolio is very slow going because it is a capital intensive business and the return on investment is small compared with the return on manufacturing or retail businesses. Although the interval between purchase of properties was of necessity a matter of years, we were able to grow the business sufficiently to pay our bills and somehow rise to the challenge of tuition payments for our children as they were accepted to the colleges of their choice. Altogether we earned enough money from our small business to pay for more than 30 years of tuition for our five children without any of them having to apply for scholarship help or college loans.
Elaine and I have benefited enormously from the decision to establish our own business. We have been able to settle in and remain in our home in Wayland for more than 50 years. We have been able to participate in the lives of our children and grandchildren while also being involved in our immediate neighborhood and volunteered for town groups over those years. It has made our lives rich in experiences and friends and associations that would have been impossible if we had been required to continue moving around the country to earn a living in industry.
Beginning in the late 1980’s we began to think about preserving the business we had built and possibly passing it on to our children, who, in turn, could possibly pass it on to their children. Each of our children has had the opportunity to pursue the career of his or her choice. Stability of a business is measured over time. This is especially true of a business that is as capital intensive as the purchase and operation of commercial properties. We have weathered the very difficult periods of the oil crisis in the late 1970’s; the savings and loan and banking crisis of the late 1980’s and early 1990’s; and the financial meltdown of 2008. Our business has continued to grow slowly but steadily despite these external forces during the 46 years since we began. The favorable inheritance laws of recent years have enabled Elaine and me to transfer significant portions of ownership to our children so they are receiving a stable family business with minimal debt. This is as it should be because Bonnie, Warren and Elizabeth are contributing significantly to daily operations and important decision-making. We hope that they in turn will pass it on to the generation that follows them. It is significant that our children are experienced in their roles and have the formal education to continue to provide professional management.
The financial success of our business has enabled Elaine and me to pay back, in a meaningful way, a number of organizations that have been important in our lives. We have established the following endowment funds: The Gossels Family Fund for Academic Excellence in the Wayland Public Schools; the Gossels Fund for Human Dignity at the Wayland Public Library and in the Wayland Public Schools; Gossels scholarships at Yale University; Gossels funds at Brookline Public Schools that supports English as a second language; Gossels fund at OSE (Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants); at the American Joint Distribution Committee; HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society); American Friends Service Committee (“Quakers”); and the Anti-Defamation League.
In addition to growing our business, I have served as a volunteer in many Wayland activities: I helped coach our childrens’ teams in football, baseball and track. I served on the Joint Wayland-Sudbury Septage Treatment Facility Operations Review Committee for seven years. I served on Wayland’s Planning Board and on the Zoning By-Law Study Committee. I helped found and served on the Wayland Beautification Committee for almost 20 years. I served on the Board of Directors of the Wayland Business Association for approximately 25 years. I have been elected to Wayland’s Democratic Town Committee for decades. My own athletic activities include tennis, biking and playing in the Eastern Mass Senior Softball league.
Elaine and I have had the blessing of participating in the evolution of our family as Jonathan married Jamie and raised Benjamin, Jennifer and Daniel; Warren married Robin and raised Andrea and Leanne; Stuart married Maria and raised Eric, Peter and Nicholas; Liz married Neil and raised Jane, Michael and Matthew. When Warren and Robin divorced, we were fortunate enough to add Lisa to our family without losing Robin. Most recently, our family has welcomed Andrea’s husband, Patrick Maguire, and Daniel’s fiance, Alexandra Luciani.
We are fortunate to be participating in and involved in the lives of our immediate and extended family. We are “living the good life”.
Werner Franz Julian Gossels
Note: much more detail available by reading Letters From Our Mother by C. Peter R. Gossels (my brother) available from Amazon and by viewing Emmy-award winning documentary The Children of Chabannes by my niece Lisa Gossels available from Good Egg Productions