War Orphan in San Francisco
by Phyllis H. Mattson

Reviews

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Praise from:   

"War Orphan in San Francisco tells a remarkable story. To find haven in San Francisco after the horrors of the Holocaust, represents an important contribution to the literature of the period. This story is compelling, powerful and an inspiration." —  John Rothmann, Talk Show Host "The John Rothmann Program" KGO NewsTalk AM 810, San Francisco, CA

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"Sent across the ocean by their parents and taken in by foster parents and distant relatives, approximately 1,000 children, ranging in age from fourteen months to sixteen years, landed in the United States and out of Hitler's reach between 1934 and 1945.  One of the fortunate children brought to America and out of harm's way was Phyllis Finkel Mattson. Leaving her parents behind, she arrived in the United States in the spring of 1940. Though separated by an ocean and unspeakable perils, her parents continued to communicate by letter. Today, those letters, and Phyllis' own recounting of those times are contained in an exceptional book entitled, War Orphan San Francisco." —  Iris Posner, author (read the entire review)

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The following review was published in Association of Jewish Libraries Newsletter, Sept/Oct 2005 issue, p. 48:

"Phyllis Helene Mattson is one of roughly 1,000 Jewish children from Europe sent to the United States, via “Kindertransports,” between the years 1933 and 1945. Fleeing Nazi persecution, most of these children left behind parents unable to emigrate, to live with relatives in the States. Mattson’s recollections of her “war orphan” experience in San Francisco first appeared in the anthology Don’t Wave Goodbye: The Children’s Flight From Nazi Persecution to American Freedom (see Chaim Seymour’s review in AJL Newsletter, Feb./Mar., 2005, p. 16-17). Expanded here beyond the two chapters contributed to the 2004 anthology, Mattson provides a vivid, honest, and, at times painful, account of her uncommon adolescence and young adulthood. Born Felicitas Finkel in Austria in 1929, she describes her early life in Vienna, summers visiting relatives in Poland, her journey to the United States, and her life in San Francisco, which included a series of foster homes and orphanages. The story of her life is most poignantly relayed through correspondence with her parents, beginning in 1940, when Mattson arrives in the United States, and ending in 1946, when her father finally comes to San Francisco after being held as a prisoner of war in Australia. Her mother is killed at Maly Trostinec in May 1942 after spending much of the war in German labor camps. Mattson, who teaches anthropology and health science in California, offers a valuable and very personal narrative of a childhood devastated by war and separation. Recommended for public and synagogue libraries." —  Sheila L. Darrow, Central State University, Wilberforce, OH

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"A poignant autobiography utilizing family letters as a means of transposing external historical events with internal development, Mattson was but 10 years old when she left Vienna to find refuge in a distant relative's home in San Francisco..." —  review in November 2005 issue of Together: American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors

Click here to read the entire text of this review, plus a review of another book containing one of Phyllis's stories.

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The following review was published in the Los Altos Town Crier, December, 2005

"Save your letters! That's the moral of "War Orphan in San Francisco" by Cupertino author Phyllis Helene Mattson (Stephens Creek Press, 2005). Mattson taught anthropology at DeAnza College until her recent retirement. Her book is a collection of letters that she had the foresight to save as a child..." —  Pam Walatka, special to the Town Crier

Click here to read the entire text of this review online.

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"I loved reading Phyllis's story; it provoked every emotion in me. She tells her story of separation from her family and living in a strange country with strange people in a very insightful manner with perceptions very mature for a young girl. Throughout her ordeal she grows through life's stages well adjusted and content despite experiencing dire circumstances. The love that stretched across the miles held her steady to refute bitter scars and rebellion. The thoughtful retelling of her youth made me laugh as I had recalled similar attitudes growing up but in much different circumstances. Her spunk as a teen in San Francisco is high spirited and joyful. The written teasing with her father, so many miles away, is truly endearing and inspiring. Her deep love and longing for family back in Europe emanates from the pages. And the answers to her life long questions made me sob. Phyllis writes her wonderful story of courage and inspiration. Young and adult readers will enjoy her heartfelt story. — Janice Brady

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"A TRIBUTE TO THE HUMAN SPIRIT —  Imagine yourself in an old attic. A dusty trunk beckons from the corner and you crawl over to it, aware that the attic and the trunk don't belong to you. But your curiosity overpowers your propriety and you open it to discover it brimming with intimate letters and photographs of a family from a time and place foreign to your own. Such is the wealth of experience awaiting you in Phyllis Mattson's memoir of her childhood surviving the Nazi holocaust. 

"She sets the scene - Vienna just before Nazi takeover - and introduces us to her humble, but proud Jewish family. As a child she witnesses the march of Nazis into Vienna and hears the "Christkiller" chants. A dark cloud of fear settles over her family and friends as parents begin desperate efforts to get their children out of Austria on a Kindertransport - to the safety of Britain or the US. Through letters and photographs, we wake with Phyllis to the terrors of Kristallnacht, as her family is dragged from their apartment by Hitler's SS. When her father is taken to prison the real horror starts. Her mother frantically pleads with relatives in San Francisco to take Phyllis in and, when they agree, mother and daughter part at the train station, never to see each other again. Phyllis arrives in New York and struggles to learn a new name, a new language, a new country, leaving behind all her traditions. Five days alone on a train, unable to communicate to anyone, finally brings her to San Francisco. 

"Only letters bind this extended family across oceans and time and Phyllis makes you eager to turn the page, read the next words from father, mother, friends and relatives, and her own letters. In a quiet child's voice you hear the resilience of the human spirit, to not just survive, but to thrive in a new home of challenges. 

"With a teacher's objectivity, Phyllis recalls world-shattering political events through her own ten year-old eyes. She frequently admits her adult memories either clash with her own written words as a child, or don't exist at all. Her own awareness that she has psychologically buried memories makes the child's letters even more poignant.

"I strongly recommend this book to any student of WWII, but I believe all freedom-loving people would be touched by this story of survival and the bond of family." — Kathryn Madison, author of Women’s Sigh, Wolf’s Song

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"FASCINATING STORY —   I have known Phyllis for about a year, have heard her speak to middle and high school students several times, and thought I knew what would be in the book. I was wrong. This is a story of a young girl growing up in the most unstable of times. It is written with truth and honesty, and makes Phyllis a three-dimensional person to the reader. I highly recommend it! — Sara Ann Levy, Educator

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"So engrossing was Phyllis Helene Mattson's talk that practically the entire audience lined up to buy books." —  Ridge Writers newsletter, California Writers Club, Ridgecrest branch 

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" I really enjoyed your talk and wish to also thank you for sharing the actual letters as well.....  You are most certainly, our most engaging speaker we've had!"  — Terye Riley, Librarian, Milpitas Community Library

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"Phyllis Mattson’s coming-of-age memoir, War Orphan in San Francisco, is a poignant, moving account of a young Jewish girl’s escape from Vienna on a children’s transport during World War II and her growing up in San Francisco. The story of her struggle to adjust to a new country, language, and the separation from her parents while being shuffled between foster care and an orphanage during the difficult time of adolescence is told with clarity and a sense of history, arousing a feeling of compassion and admiration in the reader. The letters between distant family members provide an intensely personal narrative, which demonstrates this remarkable young woman’s courage, hope, and eventual self-confidence. This is a rewarding book to be savored by both teens and adults; Mattson’s War Orphan in San Francisco should have a place on the shelf in every public library."
—Jane Botsford, Reference Coordinator, Santa Clara City Library

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".. The subject matter...is very interesting and heartrending: our library customers who enjoy wartime memoirs will find War Orphan in San Francisco very gripping. ...The letters authored by a child displaced by the events surrounding World War II will be very useful to students of this era." —  Dee Dee Taylor, Virginia Beach Public Library

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"As we celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Liberation of Auswitz and Buchanwald, remembering those who perished and survived the Holocaust, Phyllis Mattson's memoir becomes all the more important. This book is a must-read for our youth, who need to learn about the atrocities of WW II, not from a dull history text, but from the memories of a girl their own age, in her own voice. History comes alive in Mattson's personal story of separation, loss and survival. A compelling read for adults, also, this book not only offers a poignant personal war story, but also serves as a larger symbol of the personal effects of war on the innocent. I can see this book being used in high school and college history classes across the country." —  Michelle DuBarry, college teacher

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"...you are a woman of great strength, courage and compassion. ...thank you for sharing your life through your excellently written book." — Carol Haugh

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"You wouldn’t expect a war story to leave you smiling, but that is what Phyllis Mattson’s War Orphan in San Francisco does. It is a surprisingly upbeat story of 10-year-old “stateless” Felicitas Finkel sent to safety in the U.S. by her parents in Austria in WWII. It is drawn from letters and a few photos kept for years in a box in the garage, a box like many of us probably have in a corner somewhere, with stories too sad or scary to bring out very often--but when we do, we find stories of adventure, bravery, growth, dreams, and all the joys of life mixed in with the sad, scary parts."  —  Jean Ricket, teacher (read the entire review)

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"Reading the letters to and from her family provided the story of this writer's poignant journey from war-torn Europe to San Francisco and her valiant struggle to make sense of her world. It read as if I had slipped into her shoes and lived a life other than my own. There are some parallels to Anne Frank, but Anne at least had her family for support. Phyllis had only her letters for comfort -- sometimes they were more critical than supportive. Phyllis' struggle to become a self-confident adult was amazing. I highly recommend this for a good read. You might want to have a Kleenex handy." —  Carol Gilbert, Palo Alto

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"Your book brought back many memories of the 1940’s. I thought that your description of Homewood Terrace was very accurate. The Home was run in a very fair manner—all of us sharing in the upkeep of our own cottage and thereby learning the skills of housekeeping preparing us for our future..." —  Eda Pell, San Rafael

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"By reading the letters written back and forth between Phyllis and her parents, I could feel the pain her parents and others must of felt as prisoners of the nazis. I could also feel the hope at the end of the book as Mrs. Mattson successfully becomes an American, unites with her father, goes on to college and a rewarding career." —  Michael Abrams, 6th grader

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"Your struggle during adolescence was a universal story…and the letters were so touching, they brought me to tears." —  Gail Levine, San Francisco

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"As I read Phyllis Mattson's War Orphan in San Francisco, my heart broke for each member of the family.  I felt the grief of her mother and father as they tried to parent their child across oceans and cultures while they were coping with the trauma facing them." —  Judy Pugh, teacher (read more of this review)

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"...By writing your story you've done a wonderful thing.  You have memorialized your parents, you've given your children the priceless gift of family history. You've given your readers truths to fuel our anger and outrage against genocide.  Now it is our responsibility to see its end.  To work." —  Harriet Van Ginkel, Peace Corps volunteer,  nurse

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"Your mother and father are antithesis to something I learned in Psych 101. "As the stress becomes greater, the individual becomes less cognizant of basic responsibilities." Your mother and father never became less cognizant of you and their parental duties. ...It is a very well organized well written book."  —  Pat Jackson, teacher


Extended Reviews:

Iris Posner
President, One Thousand Children, Inc. (OTC)
and co- author of Don't Wave Goodbye: 
    The Children's Flight from Nazi Persecution to American Freedom


http://www.onethousandchildren.org

       In 1933, people and organizations on both sides of the Atlantic, anticipating the darkness that was to become known as the Holocaust, began to plan for the rescue of those people subject to Nazi persecution, especially children. Sent across the ocean by their parents and taken in by foster parents and distant relatives, approximately 1,000 children, ranging in age from fourteen months to sixteen years, landed in the United States and out of Hitler's reach between 1934 and 1945.

       Seventy years after the first ship brought a handful of these children to American shores, the general public, scholars and many of the children themselves remain unaware of these rescues, and the fact that they were accomplished despite powerful forces in and outside the government that did not want them to occur. One of the fortunate children brought to America and out of harm's way was Phyllis Finkel Mattson. Leaving her parents behind, she arrived in the United States in the spring of 1940. Though separated by an ocean and unspeakable perils, her parents continued to communicate by letter.

      Today, those letters, and Phyllis' own recounting of those times are  contained in an exceptional book entitled, "War Orphan San Francisco."  One of the few accounts told in the words of one of the "One Thousand Children,"  and her parents, this important book gives the reader a first-hand account of a terrible time marked by the courage and sacrifice of these children, the parents that let them go and the rescuers who never gave up for twelve years, even if it meant saving one child at a time. "War Orphan in San Francisco," is an important edition to the Holocaust literature as well as that of the American historical record.

— Iris Posner

 

  As I read Phyllis Mattson's War Orphan in San Francisco, my heart broke for each member of the family.  I felt the grief of her mother and father as they tried to parent their child across oceans and cultures while they were coping with the trauma facing them. ...
 
     Early in the book writing process, an essay that Phyllis wrote describing her leaving her family and going to San Francisco appeared in the San Jose Mercury. [now Chapter 1] I read that essay to two classes of fifth graders.  The children were about the age of Phyllis when she left her family.  The conversation that followed the reading of the essay was wonderful.  The children's comments indicated that they related closely to Phyllis's experiences.
 
    I highly recommend War Orphan in San Francisco to readers of all ages. 

—  Judy Pugh, teacher


 

    You wouldn’t expect a war story to leave you smiling, but that is what Phyllis Mattson’s War Orphan in San Francisco does. It is a surprisingly upbeat story of 10-year-old “stateless” Felicitas Finkel sent to safety in the U.S. by her parents in Austria in WWII. It is drawn from letters and a few photos kept for years in a box in the garage, a box like many of us probably have in a corner somewhere, with stories too sad or scary to bring out very often--but when we do, we find stories of adventure, bravery, growth, dreams, and all the joys of life mixed in with the sad, scary parts.

   As an English teacher, I am interested in letters. They record events and feelings and reflect our growth. They catalog our special story and place us in the world. They are evidence that we lived. 

   As I sit at my computer writing email that is delivered instantly, I appreciate the time and effort people spent writing letters to maintain ties. They wrote during war when paper and pencil were difficult to get, going from edge to edge on pages of thin paper, knowing that the messages might take weeks or months to arrive, and might arrive with pieces cut out, or not arrive at all. They wrote because the connections were important to them. And they are important today because they record the world as it was, with the dailiness and details of how people survived, and suggest where we might go next.

   Felicitas / Phyllis’s mother told her not to cry, to be brave, and to “write to me and Papa weekly, giving all the details.” Phyllis’s letter writing started in 1940, when she arrived in San Francisco, and continued through 1946, when her father was finally able to join her in San Francisco. Her mother’s letters stopped in 1942, and the reader feels 12-year-old Phyllis avoiding the obvious conclusion, stepping around the larger-world facts, and continuing to write to her Papa, “giving all the details,” while avoiding the big picture.

   Reflections by the adult Phyllis are wonderfully insightful. The adult wonders why she and her father never mentioned the lack of letters from her mother. Even years later, things hinted in the letters remained unresolved. Sometimes the letters give the bare bones of what was happening, and details are filled in by Phyllis today; sometimes, there is nothing beyond the letter. In her first year, Phyllis went from speaking no English to speaking, reading, and writing English and her mother, in a letter, implored her to not forget her German. Today, Phyllis has published articles and a technical book in English yet had to get a German translator for her treasured letters written in German. 

   The family always signed their letters with endearments--love, hugs, lots of kisses, millions and millions of hugs; yet other everyday feelings are side-by-side in the letters, as when her father wrote: 

“… Much as I like reading your letters, however there is always something in it that I do not like. For instance in today’s letter the language used by you … is shocking… All my love and heaps of kisses from your Daddy.”
   Interaction at a distance is not perfect but as the saying goes, it beats the alternative. Letters were better than nothing at all. They buoyed the young girl alone in San Francisco as she moved in and out of foster homes. As the adult Phyllis observes, her early success in moving on alone led her eventually to new experiences all over the world. War Orphan in San Francisco is a reflection of and tribute to the human spirit finding and upholding values in life, building bridges in hard times, through one of mankind’s oldest ways of communication. It will make you want to sit right down and write a letter.

Jean Ricket, teacher