A Jewish Couple Saved a Church. Their Generosity Ended Up Saving Jewish Lives
Solomon and Esther Ueberall raised the funds needed to keep a NY church open. Decades later during the Holocaust, their generosity was repaid in a remarkable manner.
Solomon and Esther Ueberall, a newly married Jewish couple, owned a small notions store on Myrtle Avenue in Brooklyn in 1913. Both were immigrants, he from Austria, she from Russia, whose families came to America seeking sanctuary from religious persecution.
One day Father George Caruana, the young priest of the local Italian Church of St. Lucy, walked into the store to buy a pair of shoelaces.
“What’s the matter? Why do you look so sad?” Solomon asked him.
The priest explained to Solomon that the mortgage on his store-front church was due soon but he was unable to raise the additional $500 needed to pay it off. He had gone door to door asking the parishioners to donate as much as they could but it still wasn’t enough to cover the considerable payment due ($500 was worth $14,000 in today’s currency).
Solomon and Esther Ueberall
Father George felt it was likely they would lose their church. Saddened by the prospects of no place for Sunday worship, he decided to go for a walk and pray for guidance when he noticed Solomon’s store.
Listening intently, Solomon was touched by the priest’s words about these poor immigrants about to lose their place of worship due to lack of funds. As Father Caruana turned to leave the store with his shoelaces, Solomon called out and reassured him, “Don’t worry, I’ll get the money for you.”
The incredulous priest just waved and walked on. Solomon’s wife Esther was even more skeptical, unable to believe what she had heard.
They didn’t even have five dollars. Where were they going to get $500, worth $14,000 at the time?
“Solomon, you know we don’t even have five dollars, where are we going to get $500?” she asked.
“You know those beautiful wedding gifts we received? Well, we don’t need them right now,” Solomon explained. “I can take them to the pawn shop and lend the money to the church. When they pay us back, we can retrieve our gifts, but in the meantime the people can worship in their church.”
With Esther’s agreement, Solomon took all their wedding gifts to the local pawn dealer, but he was only able to receive a total of $250 for everything. Solomon was determined to keep his promise. He told Esther he would borrow the rest of the money from members of his large extended family, his uncles, brothers-in-law and cousins. Some were sympathetic to the cause, while others were reluctant. Finally, in bits and pieces, he managed to obtain the full $500 necessary to pay off the church’s mortgage.
As promised, Father Caruana and successive pastors were at the Ueberall’s store every Monday morning with a portion of the Sunday collections until the debt to Solomon was fully paid off.
Father George Caruana
In 1914 the new church building was substantially completed. When Father Caruana was transferred to a church in Queens to become its pastor, he and Solomon said goodbye to each other. They lost contact as the congregation grew larger and the Ueberall notions store expanded to become the Ueberall Department Store. After Solomon died in 1920 of a heart attack, Esther continued to operate the department store with the help of her family.
Pleas for Help
Years later, as Hitler’s army was expanding into other European countries, Esther began receiving letters from Solomon’s relatives and friends in Austria. They were pleading for assistance to seek admission to America to avoid the Nazi concentration camps. Esther worked tirelessly to obtain visas for many of them but the letters continued to arrive as the immigration quotas were filled. The letters were so heart-rending, Esther was highly distressed and would not give up. Just as her husband had persisted to collect the money for the church, she struggled to save the lives of his family members.
As Hitler’s army expanded into other European countries, Esther began receiving letters from Solomon’s relatives and friends in Austria pleading for help.
As a last resort she traveled to Washington D.C., where she visited with personnel from various organizations and federal offices including immigration officials from the State Department. No one had any solutions.
Reaching the point of despair, a young man from the Labor Department told her that European refugees could still find sanctuary in Cuba if a prominent individual there would vouch for them and assure the Cuban government that they would not become a burden of the state.
At first Esther felt encouraged by this information, viewing it as a glimmer of hope. But on her way home to Brooklyn, her hopes crashed when she realized she knew nobody in Cuba. Then it occurred to her that Cuba was a Catholic country. She went straight to the Church of St. Lucy where she met the current pastor, Father Anthony De Liberty. She told him that she desperately needed his help. He gave her a letter of introduction and cabled the papal nuncio in Cuba, informing him of the situation and that Esther would be arriving in Cuba shortly.
The Priest in Havana
With many lives were at stake, Esther wasted no time and flew to Havana two days later. As she walked off the plane a young boy presented her with a bouquet of roses. Puzzled, she looked up and saw a slender, red-robed, priestly figure standing there smiling at her. Extending his arms outward, he asked, “Esther Ueberall, don’t you remember me?”
Staring at him in disbelief, she whispered, “Father Caruana…” and burst out crying.
He explained that he was now an archbishop and the papal nuncio to Cuba, and fully aware of the purpose of her visit as described by Father De Liberty’s cable which he received. He promised Esther that he would do everything in his power to assist her in this urgent situation.
Archbishop Caruana was able to arrange for more than two dozen of Solomon’s family members to escape Hitler and get into Cuba.
As they were being driven back to his office, she wondered aloud, “How could this be, after all these years, we would be reunited in Cuba, and you an archbishop?”
He explained that in 1921 he was appointed bishop of San Juan, Puerto Rico and later assigned to papal diplomatic positions in Mexico and Haiti. Finally, in 1935, he was appointed apostolic nuncio to Cuba by the Vatican. This prominent position allowed him to deal directly with the Cuban government. His office became even more influential when his friend in Rome, Cardinal Pacelli, became Pope Pius XII in 1939.
Through persistent hard work, Archbishop Caruana was able to arrange for more than two dozen of Solomon’s family members to escape Hitler and get into Cuba. While awaiting visas to America, they were prohibited from working in Cuba and he provided them with housing and food including kosher meat.
Esther was forever grateful to the archbishop. A few years after the war ended, he became ill and was sent to a hospital in Philadelphia where Esther visited him before he passed away. The Italian immigrants in Brooklyn also remembered the generosity of their Jewish benefactors. As they completed the construction of their church, they inserted, in the center of the ceiling grates, a star of David.