Michlean Amir (born Jana Lӧwy), 1940
Michlean Amir was born in Nîmes, France in 1940 to Czech Jewish parents. When her father Oscar joined the Czechoslovak Division of the British Army, Michlean and her mother Gertrude traveled with him to various training camps in England. At the close of WWII, the Lӧwys returned to Czechoslovakia where Oscar and his brother re-established the family wholesale food distribution business in Plzeň. Michlean’s grandparents (who owned the business) had been killed in the Holocaust, as were other relatives, including her uncle and his family. Michlean says that her father’s business became very successful, along with two family farms that he ran. After the Communist coup, Michlean’s maternal grandmother, who lived in Israel, came to Czechoslovakia to help the family emigrate. They arrived in Israel in 1948 and settled in Haifa where Michlean’s parents ran a small grocery. Michlean says that her years in Israel were instrumental in solidifying her Jewish identity and that she was reluctant to move to the United States with her parents and younger sister.
Michlean says that it was always her parents’ intention to immigrate to the United States, and they began making plans soon after their arrival in Israel. It was seven years before the Lӧwys were sponsored by a family friend. They left Israel in December 1955 and settled in Rochester, New York. Michlean says their household was very Czech, as they listened to traditional Czech music, her mother cooked Czech food, and her parents were active in the Czechoslovak émigré community; however, any Jewish holiday celebrations they held were because she organized them. After graduating from high school, Michlean returned to Israel for a few years. She met and married her husband, and then moved back to the United States. She studied American and Jewish history in college and received a master’s degree in library science, and has been an archivist at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. for 14 years. Today, Michlean lives in Rockville, Maryland, with her husband.
Michlean’s family left Czechoslovakia for Israel in 1948
“It became clearer and clearer that the Communists would take over, and we were very fortunate that my grandmother – my mother’s mother – was living already in Israel, and her best friend was the mother of the person who was Israel’s ambassador to Czechoslovakia. This lady told my grandmother that if she wants her children to get out of Czechoslovakia, she needs to get there and bring them, because the phones and the mail and everything was censored already. So she did do that exactly, she took a plane and came. Within a very short time my parents put together what they called a lift, which was filled with whatever belongings they could put in. And by the way, my mother had taken courses in photography, so one of the things they put in there was a camera because they thought that maybe she would be able to make a living in Israel as a photographer, and a few other very valuable things because we were well off in Czechoslovakia.
But when the lift came to Israel, instead of all these wonderful possible resources, there were rags. So on the way or wherever, these things were stolen or taken.
“So anyway, this is what we did to prepare to go, and because of this terrible experience of flying from England after the War, I developed a very high fever and they had to postpone the trip to the last plane that left Czechoslovakia for Israel. The plane that we were supposed to go on was one that was shot at, and it fell over, I think, Bulgaria. So that forever was kind of a shock to us that we could have been on that plane.”
In 1955, the Lowys immigrated to the United States
“My father had had an uncle who lived in the United States when he was a little boy, and this uncle – as uncles from the United States often did – would come to Czechoslovakia and bring for him and his brothers gifts, he always bore gifts for them. He was one of the co-owners of a large shipping company, so he was able to bring them goodies. And from that time on, my father had this dream to come to the United States. My mother and he had papers to leave, but when the War broke out of course there was no way to leave, and as I said, he joined the Army and so forth and so that fell through.
“So as soon as they came to Israel he started thinking about going to the United States, but it took about seven years until the papers were arranged and we left for Rochester because there was a family friend living there, which is an incredible story.
A man whose roots were Czech but he studied medicine and lived in Vienna. Evidently, he took care of my mother who was a tennis player and had some problems with her knee, and he took care of her and fell in love with her and wanted her to marry him, but by that time my mother knew my father already. I don’t know exactly what the story was, but he sent his wife to Israel and she came and saw how we lived and she said ‘Oh, we’re going to send you an affidavit, we will bring you to the United States, we will take care of you.’”
Michlean recalls the years she lived in Israel
“First of all, it was my formative years, but it also was the beginning of the state of Israel. That was a very exciting period and everybody was very nationalistic and so forth. I think that in those years, I just did not feel so much of the connection to Czechoslovakia as much as I did later on because my parents were so busy making a basic living, and everyone was trying to assimilate. There were people who came to Israel from all over, and everybody wanted to find a common denominator, so the language was an important factor, and the songs, and the dances and so on.”
Michlean discusses her heritage and identity
“You know, I never think that you have to choose, especially here because our loyalties to the United States, to Israel, to Czech Republic, they’re not conflicting. We all have very basic, democratic values, so it’s not like if I had to choose between Russia. So I don’t see them conflicting. I also think that religion is one thing, but as I said, I don’t think there’s any conflict between being an American and a Jew, and in the same sense, I don’t see any of it as conflicting. Fortunately, I never had to make big choices between ‘I believe this, or I don’t believe that.’ So I think in a way I look at it as very very enriching, rather than otherwise.”
Michlean reflects on hardships her family endured
“The wronging, if you will, when you think about it from the economic point of view, yes I know that if it hadn’t happened for it, I’d be living a totally different life because my parents on both sides came from very well-to-do families and I would not have had to struggle with my education, et cetera. But that is not so important. The fact that I never got to meet my grandparents and other relatives; it’s a very painful thing. It’s one thing if a person is taken because they’re ill, but to know that they died such horrible deaths, and with my uncle and aunt and cousin, I really don’t know exactly what happened, because they – the uncle and aunt were young people – they could have been used for forced labor, they might have lived for three, four years, who knows, and who knows what awful life they might have had.
“It’s a pain that does not go away and it’s a pain that all of humanity has to carry, not just for the Holocaust, but for other genocides, for other wrongdoings that just don’t make sense, not fathomable, not understandable.”
Category: Oral History, Washington D.C.