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A proud history of welcoming WWII refugees

  • A scene from “The Cummington Story.” Archival photo

  • A scene from “The Cummington Story.” Archival photo



Staff Writer
Friday, August 10, 2018

CUMMINGTON — The little red house sits not far along Main Street from the town’s Kingman Tavern historical museum, which marks its 50th anniversary this summer with continuous Saturday showings of a 1945 U.S. government film about a proud moment in the town’s history that echoes today.

It was in that house, as depicted in “The Cummington Story,” that many of the 44 World War II refugees who found sanctuary in this western Massachusetts community stayed between 1940 and 1944.

The 20-minute U.S. Overseas War Information Bureau film, which has been translated into 20 languages, dramatizes the temporary haven the Rev. Carl Sangree offered for German and Austrian refugees through the General Council of Congregational Christian Churches.

“When the refugees came, the kids lumped them all together as foreigners, not to be trusted,” longtime town historian William Streeter, who was 13-years-old at the time, told the Recorder in a 2005 interview.

“We’d follow them,” said Streeter, who died last year. “One night, a group of them came in on a Greyhound (bus), and after they went to the red house, I found some American Express checks rolled up. I knocked on the door, and they broke into tears, they were so happy to get that.”

Several of the refugees, who appear in the film with fictionalized names, had been noted artists, craftspeople and literary figures beginning life anew. Some settled at least briefly in Northfield, although most moved on. The refugees — most of them Jews — navigated an uneasy relationship with townsfolk at a time rife with wartime tensions.

Sangree offered sanctuary to a dozen refugees at a time, between May 1940 and September 1944. Beginning with Johannes Hans Gaides, a German political refugee who had escaped two concentration camps, the refugees arrived. Most came through New York and were part of mixed Jewish-Christian couples who Sangree felt would fall through the cracks of other refugee programs.

As the fictionalized account depicts, Sangree tried to melt some of the chill of townspeople toward the refugees, from the “old stove league” at Ed Hall’s grocery, to a stiff reception by those attending a church service.

The Yankee townsfolk, at first suspicious of who these foreigners were and why they’d traveled on a Greyhound bus to the picturesque New England village, felt the strangers couldn’t be trusted.

But the strangers, who used their stay at the makeshift hostel to retool their skills to find their way to new lives, won over the locals by their hard work.

The film was part of a series the U.S. government used to be shown in recently liberated Europe to counteract enemy propaganda and show the value of democratic institutions, from a New England town meeting to the freedom of religious expression.

“I’ve always felt the strangeness between people breaks down when they live and work and meet together as neighbors,” says Sangree, who serves as narrator of the film.

The Cummington Historical Commission’s 50th anniversary, with self-guided tours of Kingman Tavern Museum’s barn and carriage shed, Saturdays through Aug. 25 from 2 to 5 p.m., includes an exhibit in the Old Parsonage focusing on the contributions the refugees gave to the community and the world. Commission members say it’s “an important story to tell, especially given the current political situation concerning immigrants, refugees and people seeking asylum, plus ongoing wars in Syria and Yemen.”

Some of the town’s newer residents may hardly be aware of Sangree and the refugees he helped, says the Rev. Stephen Philbrick, pastor of West Cummington Congregational Church.

“People are passionate here about a lot of things,” says Philbrick, a standard bearer at the 15-year-old weekly peace vigil in front of  Bryant Library to champion a variety of causes, including the latest crackdown on immigration.

Connie Talbot, who is Philbrick’s wife and Sangree’s granddaughter, born two years after the film was released, recalls, “When I was a kid, it was big thing what my grandfather had done. … It was an experience of welcoming difference and the other into your community.”