"My mother said in 1937 that anyone who had all their faculties as a Jew did not have a child," commented Edith Hamer, with a wry smile. "I was an unexpected gift." Fearful of Germany’s territorial ambitions, Edith’s parents, Louis and Sonia, had begun to plan their departure from Klaipėda, Lithuania in the mid-1930s. But restrictive laws and policies limited the number of refugees allowed into most countries and they struggled to find a destination. In March 1939, Germany seized Klaipeda, realizing Edith’s parents’ worst fears. With two-year-old Edith, they fled to Tauroggen, Lithuania where they hoped to wait in safety while they looked for more a permanent haven. But as war engulfed Europe, escape routes closed one by one. When the Soviet Union occupied Lithuania in June 1940, Louis and Sonia feared they were trapped.
Then Edith’s father learned of an unlikely way out: Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese consul in Kaunas, Lithuania, was helping refugees escape by granting visas to travel through Japan. Lacking clear direction from his superiors in Tokyo, Sugihara made the decision to issue the visas on his own. Although Lithuanian nationals could not use them—as the country had ceased to exist after the Soviet invasion—the visas saved the lives of hundreds of others, including Edith and her parents. Louis had a German passport which qualified his family for Japanese visas. Edith’s other relatives, Lithuanian nationals, remained trapped. All of them perished.
Edith and her parents were among the first people to receive visas from Sugihara, who issued visa no. 7 to Louis and visa no. 8 to Sonia and Edith. With money from a relative in the United States they purchased tickets on the Trans-Siberian Railroad. On November 20, 1940, they embarked on the long journey across the grasslands to Vladivostok and across the Sea of Japan. After a brief stay in Kobe, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society arranged for the family’s passage to San Francisco. There, they boarded a train for New York where Edith’s paternal uncle waited to welcome them. They had traveled more than halfway around the world to reach safety.
As a child, Edith lived in Manhattan. Louis went into business with his brother and, in 1945, when Edith was eight years old, her brother Robert was born. Tragically, Edith’s father died in 1949 at the age of 47. "I am sure that the difficulties of his life, and the Holocaust, itself, played a role in this," commented Edith.
Edith married Paul Hamer in 1957. Their twin sons, Louis and David, both became physicians. Edith taught elementary school for 25 years. After retiring, she and Paul moved to Houston to be near their sons. Edith was an active member of several Jewish women’s organizations and served as a docent at Holocaust Museum Houston. Under the auspices of the museum, she had the privilege of traveling to Japan in 2005. There she was able to tell the Japanese people about her family’s experiences and to express her gratitude for their countryman’s lifesaving courage.
Louis Finkelstein, survived
Sonia Kriwaviak Finkelstein, survived
Robert (b. 1945)