When a man walked into the offices of The Jewish News in 1981 to place a personal ad, no one knew that the content of that ad was part of a family saga spanning decades and continents and involving a desperate flight from Nazi-occupied Europe, a “forbidden romance,” and, ultimately, the reuniting of far-flung siblings.
The man, Michael Kolber, had recently come to the United States from China. He was greeted in the East Orange office of the newspaper — a forerunner of NJJN, which has been in Whippany since the early ’90s — by then-editor Charlie Baumohl.
Kolber gave Baumohl the text for the ad: “Looking for my brothers, Harry, Charles, and George Kolber, born in Shanghai and Vienna, now living somewhere in New York or New Jersey, maybe. Your brother, Michael, the fourth son of Chao Chen and Walter Kolber, is here in New York.” He included his phone number in the Bronx.
The ad was placed, and a relative who saw it contacted the three older brothers; they had never met their youngest sibling.
“Our first meeting was surreal,” George Kolber, a Middletown resident, told NJJN. “There was some skepticism that he was really our brother. However, as soon as we saw him, we realized he was definitely our brother. We could just see it.”
Now George and Charles, a Manasquan resident, have told their family’s story of war, love, displacement, and reuniting in a new book, “Thrown Upon the World” (Archway). On Wednesday, Aug. 1, the authors will speak about their family history at Brookdale Community College in Lincroft. The program is a fund-raiser for the school’s Chhange: Center for Holocaust, Human Rights & Genocide Education.
At the time of their meeting in the early ’80s, Charles was 33, George was 31, and Michael was 29. Harry, who has since died, was 34 and was not in attendance.
The story has its roots in 1938 when Eva and Josef Kolber, affluent Viennese Jews who owned a sewing factory and retail clothing store, were forced to flee Nazi-occupied Austria with their three children — twins Dolfie and Walter, and Lily — to Shanghai. The Chinese city was a rare open port, where visas were not required for entry and which became a haven for more than 20,000 Jews — mostly Austrian, German, Lithuanian, and Polish. The stateless refugees settled in the Hongkew district of the city, which Japan totally occupied as of December 1941.
Josef and his sons left aboard a ship bound for Shanghai on Oct. 29, 1938. Eva and Lily prepared to depart two weeks later, but the occurrence of what came to be called Kristallnacht — the Nov. 9-10 pogrom in Germany and Austria that is widely regarded as the beginning of the Holocaust — made their projected journey into a harrowing overland ordeal.
Over the next 46 days, the mother and daughter were confronted by Nazis as they rode by train through Germany and Poland, and on to Moscow. For eight days, they travelled on the Trans-Siberian Railroad through the Soviet Union, facing detainment at points in areas held by the Japanese, who, said George, did not understand the red “J,” indicating their Jewish identity, stamped on their documents.
“They may have been the only two people to have arrived at Shanghai by land,” George said. “Everyone else came by sea.”
Josef and his sons docked in Shanghai on Nov. 24.
Once in Shanghai, the family set up a sewing factory. Like the city’s other refugees, they were forced into the Jewish ghetto following the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Just as the Kolber family had had their lives upended by the war, the politically powerful Gan Chen family was forced to abandon their estate and also find refuge in Shanghai. While studying music their daughter, Chao Chen, a pianist, met Walter, a violinist.
The two young musicians began what George said was a “forbidden romance.” After Chao Chen became pregnant, and without their families’ blessing, the pair married in December 1946. Shortly after their first son was born, the couple left for a displaced persons’ camp in Austria, where George and Charles were born. In 1952, Walter left for the United States with his three sons.
“Our mother was left behind because she was pregnant and couldn’t travel,” said George. “She never made it here. She could not care for Michael alone after he was born and he was adopted. He moved with his adopted parents to Peking. After doors opened with the Unites States, he came here looking for us.”
Their father was unable to care for three small children so the brothers were placed in foster families by HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.
“All the families HIAS found were Jewish, and we all had bar mitzvahs and were raised as Jews,” said George, who grew up in Newark, adding that contact with their father was “minimal.” Charles spent his childhood in Union.
George, who had a career in retail, real estate, and finance, and his wife, Vita, have two children and one grandchild, and are involved in numerous philanthropies, including organizations that further Holocaust awareness.
Charles was an engineer for Fortune 500 companies and later operated a family-owned business with his wife, Christa. They have three children and nine grandchildren.
The brothers said they will discuss whether they ever reconnected with their parents and the other results of their search — which included tracking down their grandfather in 1993 — at the Chhange program.
As for the brothers? “We’re all close since we discovered each other,” said George.