97-year-old Polish immigrant Irving Griffel came to the United States at 18, leaving his family and the old country for a better life. But when WWII broke out, his family never got the chance to follow.
It was 1938. Irving Griffel was just 18 when he arrived in the new country. It had been a long journey from his native Poland that had started years prior. The U.S. used a quota system that grossly limited the number of Eastern European immigrants. He waited four years for his immigration applications to be processed. Alongside his step-brother, he was finally ready to start a new life full of opportunity.
“The way we looked at the United States…[it was] a place for everybody,” said Griffel. “He can prosper, he can develop his talents.”
He left Lviv, Poland, a small Jewish village of 250,000, and his family behind. In letters, his family expressed their desire to join him one day. But soon after Irving’s departure, World War II broke out, and everything changed.
“When we left the family, all we knew was we were going to try to make it possible that they can come follow us. We were saving money with the idea that they’ll be able to come over,” said Griffel. “The war broke out and that was it.”
Any hope of following Irving was crushed, despite years in limbo in the U.S. immigration process. Irving’s cousins, siblings and parents were at the mercy of a quota system that became increasingly discriminatory against Jews, says Griffel.
“The State Department was the one that kept track of [the quota],” said Griffel. “The quota for Eastern Europe was very low … especially for Jews.”
His family never made it to the U.S. They perished in the Holocaust. For years, Irving tried to find out what happened to them, but every path proved inconclusive.
“No family that stayed in Poland survived,” said Griffel. “[If I had stayed in Poland] I wouldn’t be alive. My whole family perished away.”
Now, more than 70 years after the Holocaust ended, Irving says he sees a dangerous rise in Neo-Nazism and fears a repeat of history.
In August, the country watched white supremacists and Neo-Nazis demonstrate en masse in Charlottesville, Virginia resulting in one death and numerous injuries. While many politicians across the aisle condemned the violence, President Trump blamed “both sides”, the demonstrators, as well as what he referred to as the alt-left. For Griffel, watching the narrative play out proved disturbing and all too familiar.
“Here in the United States, we have segments of the population who wouldn’t mind having another Holocaust,” said Griffel. “Everybody sees what’s happening on TV…they’re willing to expound their hatred vocally … who would do the same thing that Hitler did in Europe.”
He says he feels that things aren’t that different from when he was a child.
“You have a growing population of people that could just as well see another holocaust committed,” said Griffel. “They’re a small group but nevertheless they have freedom of speech.”
Ultimately, Griffel wants history to be a lesson to be learned from. His vision of the United States is one free from prejudice and hate.
Despite the tragedies and loss, Griffel attended the University of Michigan, got married, had one daughter and served in the army. After the war, he worked at General Motors where he developed numerous patents. He now lives in an independent senior retirement home in Novi, Mich. After nearly a century of life, Irving says he survived just by chance.
“You could say I prospered here, with just luck,” said Griffel.