The Village News Columns: Oral Histories


South Country Community Oral Histories

As part of an effort to alleviate the effects of social isolation for high-risk residents during the COVID-19 outbreak, we would like to invite you to reach out to "high-risk" residents in the South Country community who may need someone to talk to during these tough times. Sharing a summary of these conversations on can inspire us and will also add to the oral history of our community.

If you'd like to participate, please consider including the following questions in your interview:

1. Can you describe a crisis that you overcame in your lifetime?
2. Does that experience provide any lessons for us today as we deal with the current crisis?

Email your interviews to and we will consider including them with the other entries below!



Renee Hoffman
Interviewed by: Andrew Budris

From Andrew: As part of an effort to alleviate the effects of social isolation for high-risk residents during the COVID-19 outbreak, I conducted an interview with my mother-in-law and longtime Bellport Village resident Renee Hoffman this week. This is my retelling of what I learned from the fascinating conversation.

Renee Hofman

Renee is pictured above with her daughter, granddaughter, and Andrew

“We develop a protective mechanism during times like these, where we settle into a routine that helps us get through difficult times day-by-day. One day, it wears off, and you realized you survived.” These were the concluding thoughts of a conversation with my mother-in-law, and longtime Bellport resident, Renee Hoffman. The conversation began with two questions. The first focused on asking Renee to describe a crisis that she had endured in her lifetime. The second asked whether there were lessons for us today as we deal with the crisis of COVID-19. As a Social Studies teacher at Bellport High School, I assigned my students this same task of interviewing an elder who was isolated at this time. The interview with Renee provided the opportunity for me to share a story with my students that would serve as a model for their own work. Renee’s story of crisis would focus on her successful escape from Nazi Germany in May of 1939.

Renee was born in Berlin in 1930. She was the only child in a Jewish family, lovingly raised by her parents, Ruth and Erwin Schepses. Erwin was a successful lawyer who had risen to the position of a judge for the German government. Hitler and the Nazis were elected to lead that government when Renee was three years old. By 1935, the Nuremberg Race Laws had stripped Erwin of his job. In November 1938, eight-year old Renee watched as the Gestapo arrested her father during Kristallnacht, or Night of Broken Glass. He was held for two weeks, after which he was released based on an exemption due to his military service to Germany during the First World War. It was after this event that Erwin and Ruth determined that they needed to leave Germany with Renee for a new life.

They made plans to come to America. Before they could put the plan in motion, they needed the approval for a travel visa from the same Nazi government that had ended Erwin’s law career and recently incarcerated him. This involved a visit to the Consulate building for the desperate family of three in March of 1939. It was this meeting that Renee chose as the crisis that she would recount as the answer to my initial question.

At the meeting, the Nazi official quickly told the Schepses family that the quota set by the government had been reached for the year. This was the limit on the amount of German-born Jews who would be allowed to legally leave Germany that year. The limit had been met, and it was only March. The official did say that Erwin could leave, but that he would have to leave his wife and daughter behind, but they could reapply in 1940. Renee remembers seeing her mother start to cry, something she had never seen before. I asked if she had seen her mother cry during Kristallnacht when her husband was taken away. She said she hadn’t; her mother simply sprung into action to make sure that the government knew of her husband’s military service. Erwin quickly squashed the idea that he would leave his family behind.

Erwin’s legal mind, still sharp despite his ejection from his judicial position four years prior, proposed the use of a loophole to the quota. Erwin’s father had been a coffee importer. While his parents were on a business trip, Erwin was actually born in Mexico; it was stated clearly on his birth certificate. This quirk of fate would allow Erwin to apply for the visa as a Mexican-born Jew who wished to leave Germany. This fact would later help in their arrival to the United States, as the American government had established quotas for immigrants arriving from Europe, there was no quota for Mexicans arriving. The irony of seemingly being of Mexican heritage serving as a ticket out of Germany and into the US as a refugee is not lost on Renee today.

Renee then recounted the memory of her boarding a train that she would take to the ship that would take her to the United States, the George Washington. She remembers her friend Ilse accompanying her to the train station to say goodbye. Ruth told Renee to give Ilse her winter coat and the new scooter she had just gotten for her birthday in January. Renee never heard of the fate of Isle and the rest of her family during the war, but she was not optimistic about her fellow Jewish family friends. Ilse’s father was deaf-mute and her brother was mentally-challenged. Renee said they were precisely the type of family who would be unable to escape as she had.

As she finished the story of her escape, I asked what lessons could be of use to us today during these days of quarantine. She spoke of the way the mind can protect itself during unsettling times like these; one can endure until one needs. She said that eventually, normalcy returns and you begin to feel settled again.

This prompted my last question to Renee: At what point in your life did you finally feel settled? Do you remember the age where you finally felt free of your refugee experience and you “settled in” to the type of predictable existence that we, until recently, took for granted? Her answer surprised me. She answered that it was a few years after her college graduation from Swarthmore. In her mid-20s, she looked at that college community that she was revisiting for a reunion, and felt that she belonged there.

She has felt that same sense of belonging in our community in Bellport for a half-century. She knows from personal experience a person’s capacity to endure unsettling times. And she continues to value those places that can make one feel at home, and grounded. Renee has many years of experience in situations where a person has limited control over their lives. As we eventually move past the outbreak, we also will have similar stories of surviving difficult days, weeks, and months.