“The one-woman Ellis Island of Pittsburgh”
The entire story of Jewish immigration to Pittsburgh is told in the life of Zena Saul.
Saul was born in 1886 in Suwalki, Poland. Her older brothers immigrated to the United States in the early 1900s, joining family members who had already settled in Pittsburgh. After the war, the brothers returned to Suwalki, bringing Zena Saul and the rest of her family back to Pittsburgh in 1920.
Saul was well-educated and spoke French, German, Russian, and English fluently. In 1921, she was selected to lead the Service for the Foreign Born committee, and working with refugees would continue to be her job for the rest of her life. This 46-year career of service earned her the nickname “mother of the refugees.”
Starting in the 1920s, she worked primarily with immigrants from Poland; in the 1930s, with German refugees; and after World War II, she worked with refugees who had survived the Holocaust.
She was frequently at the center of refugee rescue attempts in the 1930s, and convinced many people to sign affidavits for refugees. She also helped the Friendship Club to get established and gain popularity.
After World War II, Saul’s brother went back to their village of Suwalki, and discovered the fate that they had avoided by coming to Pittsburgh in 1920:
“I went back in 1960, and when I came back, out of the 9,000 Jews, only seven, not 7,000, but seven people survived.”
Saul was known for her expert knowledge on immigration issues, her linguistic skills, and for her professionalism. At the time of her death in 1967 at the age of 73, she was still actively working with the JFCS, carrying a caseload of 400 families. One of her co-workers called Zena Saul the “one woman Ellis Island of Pittsburgh,” and several refugees referred to her as an angel. Her work was continued on by Holocaust survivor Dora Bastacky.