Harry Samuel May at Ellis Island

What were the chances?

On November 14, 2014 – nearly 76 years to the date that Harry Samuel May, z”l,  set foot on Ellis Island – his photo appeared on a PBS show that his daughter happened to be watching.

Had she blinked, she would have missed him.

Yehudis Brea, of Oak Park, recounts the story, “My sister, Tami, in Boston, was watching an episode of the Henry Louis Gates program, Finding Your Roots, featuring a segment on Alan Dershowitz’s Lifesaving Family Synagogue when suddenly she recognized our father in a photograph depicting refugees coming to America. Our father’s Holocaust story has no connection to the Dershowitz family. And, of course, we have no photos from the war years or his refugee experience fleeing from Germany.”

A long shot

Determined to discover the origin of the photo, Tami contacted the producers at PBS in New York City. They forwarded her inquiry back to Boston, to Dr. Gates’ assistant at Harvard University, who identified the photo from Getty Images, a stock photo agency. “It was just a random shot used in the program as editorial for the story,” says Yehudis, “but it started us on a deeper search.”

Drawn to the image of the handsome young German “with that jaunty hat and the signature tilt of the pipe in his mouth,” Yehudis was eager to learn more. “We knew that our father was rescued among a group of young liberal rabbis and rabbinical students from Germany by Rabbi Stephen Wise, a prominent U.S. Jewish leader who was able to arrange their passage to America by securing employment in far flung synagogues across the country.”

This much Yehudis knows: her father was born in Berlin, educated in Breslau (now Wroclaw, Poland), where he was a rabbinical student with a PhD in Philosophy. Targeted by the Gestapo in two frightening events – when summoned into a Nazi office where his PhD thesis was destroyed before his eyes, and then, after a look-alike rabbinic student was shot riding a bicycle – he fled to Prague, where he rewrote his thesis and received his degree. “In Prague a banker befriended him and assisted in his escape from Europe. “We heard the stories that he skied over the Alps, but we had no idea how he finally made his way to America,” says Yehudis. “He never said, and we never asked him very much.”

With the help of Feige Weiss, Librarian at the Holocaust Memorial Center Library Archive, Yehudis located a few missing pieces of the puzzle, starting with documentation that revealed that Harry Samuel May set off for America from Le Havre on the north coast of France aboard the Il de France on November 9, 1938. . .the date of Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass in Germany. “There are no coincidences – only mysteries,” says Yehudis.

Dr. May’s first job in America was as a rabbi in Sedalia, Missouri, but he went on to work in the scrap metal business for nearly 16 years. “My father’s history produced a complex person. At heart, he was an academic, with no real interest in being a rabbi. And yet he served as a rabbi and Hillel Director for periods of time. He briefly took voice lessons and acted in television commercials. But, mostly he loved teaching history and Judaic Studies on the college level –  and that is what he did for many years before his retirement. His life journey would never be easy. There would be many moves for our family  – from the Midwest to the West Coast and to the South, from college campuses in Palo Alto, Nashville, Columbus and finally in Lansing, where our father passed away in 1995.”

“There are things that the children of Holocaust survivors never really know, but come to understand,” says Yehudis. “And sometimes there is estrangement between survivors and some of their children, which happened in our family. Our father made an impact wherever life took him . . . because he was a survivor, always a charismatic, learned, restless figure, difficult to understand. But when Tami happened to discover Dad as a refugee on television last November and shared her unusual experience with me and our other sister, we all felt that our connection to him was reaffirmed. And today his children and their children (and 21 great-grandchildren) are all here to affirm that his life was a blessing.”