Evelyn Banko was born in Vienna, Austria in 1936. When she was two years old, the Nazis seized Austria. Now under Nazi control, Austria became a dangerous place for Evelyn’s Jewish family to live. The Nazis made her father scrub the sidewalks as a form of humiliation and it became increasingly difficult for the family to carry on its day-to-day activities due to anti-Jewish laws. In August 1938, a Nazi who sympathized with Evelyn’s father warned him not to return to his home one night, or else he would be arrested and likely deported to a concentration camp. In an attempt to escape rising violent antisemitism, Evelyn’s family made arrangements to flee the country as quickly as possible.
It was clear to some European Jews that the Nazi Regime was a threat to their wellbeing, and some were able to escape the hometowns their families had lived in for many generations. However travel was extremely difficult due to worldwide quotas on Jewish immigrants, the financial and bureaucratic difficulty of securing travel permissions, and the threat of the approaching Nazis. After a series of failed attempts to secure affidavits for residency in the United States, Evelyn and her parents escaped Vienna for Riga, Latvia with a tourist visa under the pretense of a family vacation. They lived there for two years and had to learn new work skills in order to support the family while they struggled to secure a total of three affidavits for travel to the United States. Securing each travel permission was increasingly difficult as the Nazis continued to invade more countries. After the Russian invasion of Latvia in June 1940, Evelyn and her parents were three out of 1500 people granted permission to leave the country. Through the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, Evelyn’s father was put in charge of 24 of these refugees: the only Jews granted permission to leave.
In September 1940 the group travelled through Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway. They transferred to other trains to pass through Manchuria, China, and later Kobe, Japan before boarding a Japanese ship en route to the U.S. Two weeks later, they arrived in Seattle, but were unable to settle there, as the quota on the city’s Jewish immigrants had already been filled. The family was allowed to choose between San Francisco and Portland and later that week they arrived by car in Portland, where Evelyn has lived ever since. She is the mother of two children and grandmother of two. Evelyn is a retired teacher and has been speaking about her experiences as a child refugee for years.