Recently, I have found myself reflecting on a story I included in my book, “The Waldo Story: Home of Friendly Merchants.” The focus of the chapter is the Gillis Home, which has been doing good work with children and families for more than a century, most of that time at its site near 81st and Wornall Road. The story that has stayed with me in Gillis’ history is the story of an eleven-year-old Spanish boy named Arsenio who escaped the war in Europe in 1942 by entering into the refugee orphanage system in the United States, and eventually arriving at Gillis. The story was documented because Arsenio wrote the Gillis Home more than fifty years after he left in 1944. Gillis had the good sense to keep the letter, and the generosity to share it with me.
Arsenio spent only two years at Gillis before finally, on his third attempt, finding a permanent adoptive home in New York State. But his memories of that time are specific and plentiful. I’ll share some of my favorites here, but what makes this story even more moving and meaningful to me today than it did when I first heard it, are Arsenio’s recollections of the small kindnesses he was given as a non-English speaking refugee, and what those meant to him at such a vulnerable time in his life.
Speaking of his school experience, Arsenio wrote, “I was in awe of the affluent life style of which I had become a part. Rather than the slates I wrote on with chalk in Spain or France, I was given paper tablets and several pencils, pencils that could be sharpened with a small hand crank-operated device at the front of the room. I had new text and work books – they cracked when first opened at the start of the school each September. They were mine and could be taken to the orphanage if I chose.”
Gillis may have been Arsenio’s first chance to prove himself as a child. “An elderly lady was the cook at Gillis and each evening she made out a list of the groceries needed the following day. It was the responsibility of one of the boys to get the groceries from the storeroom. The job rotated every week. The task was never carried out to the cook’s satisfaction. When the job fell to me she had found her grocery boy. I knew how to operate the scales, was careful not to deliver beets when she asked for beans, put away the cart and made sure the storeroom door was locked. Most importantly, I could read her wavery [sic] handwriting. So I became the permanent grocery boy and the week’s allowance was increased a dime. At the movies I could buy popcorn with double butter.”
Arsenio directly benefited from the charity of the broader Kansas City community. In this memory, the two names he mentions were children that had come with him all the way from Spain to Gillis. “Sometimes on weekends two Jewish ladies dressed from head to toe in black (driving a black car) would come to Gillis and take Maruja, Esteban and me for an outing. They would drive us to the sights of the city, visit parks, to the airport where we could watch the airplanes take off and land and usually to a restaurant or their home and there fed sumptuously. Sadly, we could not communicate with them in English nor could they with us in either French or Castilian. The memory of these ladies in black who briefly were a small part of our lives and for so many years forgotten, now brings a smile and a tear.”
Arsenio reminds me that principles and politics are not just the purview of adults. Recalling how social workers understandably placed him with a Catholic family in his first unsuccessful attempt at adoption, Arsenio wrote, “What the social workers, the American public and this well intentioned couple did not comprehend was the intensity of our hatred for the Catholic church. It was universally believed by the refugees that the Catholic church complied with and even participated in the cruel reprisals suffered by those who opposed Franco. This abhorrence of the church was reinforced daily. An eleven-year-old could not enter a church that he felt was responsible for so much suffering and even the breakup of his family.”
When Arsenio was finally placed for adoption, he poignantly writes about the end of this chapter of his life. He refers to the social worker who will be accompanying him to his permanent home when he writes, “How could she know that living in groups of children since 1936 had become the norm for me, and in what was always an energized environment, that I thrived.”
I believe Arsenio’s story is best summed up in what are for me, his most poignant and insightful memories – memories of belonging.
“The years spent in the orphanage were the happiest of my childhood in America….It was a time when I reveled in the friendship of young boys, boys like myself who were the victims of others’ failings. Our shared lives in a pleasant setting softened the ache of severed family ties. Walking to school each morning following the trolley tracks or going to the movies together in groups and the common need of parental love, bonded us to each other as brothers and sisters bond. Light skin, dark skin, blond or brunette, all pained by circumstances not understood, all in need of friendship to assuage the hurt.
Cleaning up after a taffy-pull party – the housemother observing with folded arms, attempting a stern demeanor – the children in uncontrolled hilarity feigning struggles with pots and pans – created a sense of family, of closeness, and in the summer heading to the swimming hole (following the trolley tracks!) with our arms on each other’s shoulders knowing we were brothers. Brothers not of common parents, brothers made by common loss, thrown together by chance, drawn together by mutual need.”
Source: As of 2017, the Gillis Center is now part of the larger organization, Cornerstones of Care. This occurring five years after the Waldo book was written, the contacts I had there at the time are no longer available. Regardless, while it’s true that the Gillis Center graciously shared their history, and Arsenio’s letter, with me, the real attribution should be given to Arsenio. I was never told his last name, nor where his adoption took place. I only wish I knew where he or his descendants are, so I could thank him and/or them for sharing this wonderful oral history.