At age 18, Josephine Von Berkendorf escaped from Vienna as Hitler began his horrors. Her 13-year old brother Adelbert was sent to England with Kinder Transport. As he left for safety, Josephine’s mother told her to, “Find him and take care of him.” This was perhaps the first time Josephine was asked to act selflessly. It was not the last.
Shortly thereafter, Josephine began a long and solo journey to America. She travelled through Siberia, took a freighter from Kyoto to Honolulu, landed in San Francisco, and then boarded a train for a trip across the United States to Boston. Fortunately, a Jewish charity organization had arranged for her to live with an observant Jewish family who had offered to share their home.
She spoke no English and had only $3.60 in her pocket – the amount Jews were allowed to take when they left Austria. She also had two gold bracelets, which she sold link by link to live. She worked in a factory making artificial flowers. She saved her money to bring her mother to America, but she had already been sent to Auschwitz.
Josephine met her husband in 1942 and together, they opened a gift shop. She honored her promise to locate her brother with the help of the Red Cross. In 1947, she found her brother and arranged his move to the US in 1950. She had her first child, Olivia, at age 34. While working side-by-side with her husband, she found time to cook, bake, clean and do charitable work. She made sure that students at a local university would always have a seder to attend when they were far from home.
As a Holocaust survivor, she was alone in a new world. Jewish organizations provided her with a circle of American friends. Despite losing everything to Hitler, she believed in life and love. She would use the rotary phone in her front hall to ask people to donate to Jewish causes. She held rummage sales and always found a dollar for any Jewish purpose. She gave the gift of her time and the gift of herself.
Josephine’s philosophy of life was “you don’t ask, you don’t get. You have to give people a chance to say “yes.”
Josephine’s daughter Olivia, a JWT board member, remembers her mom this way, “I utterly admired my mother. Despite losing everything to Hitler, she believed in life and love. She overcame her despair and her fear, and built a new life without forgetting her past and honoring her family. She loved my father and me (her only child) without reservation or condition. She believed in God, she believed in the United States of America, she believed in kindness and strength and the future. Totally incredible, considering the devastation and loss in her past. She never missed a chance to give to a Jewish organization, even though her family was of modest means. She never missed a “Chance to Say Yes.”