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From the Mekong to Maryland

After the fall of Saigon, a Baltimore synagogue helped 15 Vietnamese become Americans

Hillel Kuttler
May 29, 2015
From left: Tai Khai Huyn; Muoi Truong; her brother Tai, with his daughter Lisa standing in front of him and his wife, Tu Anh Tran, holding their son Lap Tri Truong; Tu Anh's brother, Phuc Tran, in the early 1980s at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. (Baltimore Hebrew Congregation)
From left: Tai Khai Huyn; Muoi Truong; her brother Tai, with his daughter Lisa standing in front of him and his wife, Tu Anh Tran, holding their son Lap Tri Truong; Tu Anh’s brother, Phuc Tran, in the early 1980s at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. (Baltimore Hebrew Congregation)

In March 1980, Gary Seidel was at work processing customers’ orders at Jandorf Electric, a Baltimore company that supplied hardware stores, when a colleague remarked, “There’s a girl who walked in who’s cute.” The young woman was Muoi Truong, 27, a Saigon native who’d immigrated a few days earlier, on Feb. 29, and had been hired at Jandorf. Seidel, 32, learned that she lived around the corner from his apartment in the suburb of Owings Mills, so he offered to drive her to and from work each day.

A year and a half later, they were married at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. She was escorted down the aisle by an older man sporting a three-piece gray suit: Stanley Wagner, who’d taken her to Jandorf for that first day of work. He was not Truong’s father, but he had filled a paternal role for her and for 14 others, an extended Vietnamese family that arrived in Baltimore on five flights beginning in 1979. The last of them landed 33 years ago this month.

One of the children died of cancer in 1981, but the others are still living, the oldest being Muoi Seidel’s mother, To De Truong, 85. Seidel’s sister lives in Florida, and her brother and sister-in-law retired to Houston, but everyone else, and the 12 American children and grandchildren they have spawned, remain in and near Baltimore.

This week, they will gather to celebrate the wedding of Alisa Seidel, daughter of Gary and Muoi. The newlyweds’ future children will sprout fresh branches on a family tree, a tree with roots digging deeper into American soil, roots first tended and nourished by a group of Jews in Baltimore, synagogue members many of whose parents had been immigrants, too. The tree is a striking testament to a remarkable outreach effort, one that crossed religious, cultural, and national divides.


The family’s resettlement was a Baltimore Hebrew initiative spearheaded by Wagner, a recently retired guidance counselor and teacher in the city’s school system who’d been keeping busy delivering Meals on Wheels to homebound Baltimoreans and driving other strangers to medical appointments. Wagner also was serving on the congregation’s social action committee, so when asked to chair the panel’s newly formed Boat People Subcommittee, he embraced the challenge.

Wagner recruited 26 congregants to fill the eight sub-subcommittees he formed to address the newcomers’ initial needs: employment; housing; clothing, household goods and furniture; education and English language; finance; health; transportation; and enculturation.

“Boat people” was shorthand for the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese who fled their homeland, many by sea, following the end of the country’s decade-and-a-half-long civil war in 1975. The United States eventually permitted approximately 400,000 boat people to resettle in America.

Baltimore Hebrew would play its role, beginning through a contact at Jewish Family Services, a local agency. One of JFS’s clients was So Truong, Muoi’s brother, the first person of the 15 to reach Baltimore, in 1979. He sought help in rescuing his relatives.

A memorandum sent to Reform synagogues that year by Chai/Impact, a program of the Reform movement’s Religion Action Center, had urged four ways to assist Vietnamese refugees. The first two involved writing letters. The third was to donate funds. The fourth was to sponsor a resettled family.

Baltimore Hebrew chose the last possibility.

“Eight years ago, [26] congregants volunteered to oversee the progress and welfare of our newcomers who survived their own Holocaust,” Wagner wrote in a 1988 update to the synagogue. “Our effort was far outweighed by the rewards that have come our way. The conscientiousness, loyalty, and appreciation demonstrated by all of our family members has been a continuous eye-opener.”

Speaking last week about his father, who died at 95 in 2009, Ira Wagner said, “Volunteering to help people who [were] immigrants was the right thing to do for him. He took it very seriously and did what had to be done. He forged close relationships with all of them.”

A large black-and-white photograph showing two congregants greeting three of the Vietnamese at the airport hangs at Baltimore Hebrew. The picture blends into plentiful images of rabbis and buildings displayed along a corridor-long historical timeline that celebrates the now-185-year-old synagogue, born downtown as an Orthodox congregation and since 1892 affiliated with the Reform movement.

But with the passage of a third of a century, the image can easily be missed, and with it the Boat People Subcommittee’s work.

“I don’t know anything about it,” the Social Action Committee’s current President, Kathy Keene, who’s been with the synagogue since about 2000, said of the episode.

Last week, Irv Simon, one of Baltimore Hebrew’s two volunteer archivists, stood alongside the shelved boxes of files and artifacts that fill a small room at his synagogue. He reviewed a 1979 list of the subcommittee’s members.

“Arthur’s dead. Mildred’s dead. This guy died last year. She’s dead. I think he’s dead,” Simon said—continuing down the roster until nearly all of those on it were pronounced gone.

Simon turned to a visitor.

“I think that that time has passed, and the relationship between the congregation and the boat people has diminished,” he said. “They went their way, and we went our way.”

As to whether he figures those congregants who came of age after 1982 know about the project, he said, “I doubt it.”


Le Hoa Loi isn’t among the doubters.

Now 38, Loi grew up experiencing the aid extended to her family. At age 3 in 1980, she, along with her parents—the ones now living in Houston—relocated to Baltimore on the same flight bearing Muoi Truong and five other relatives. All had lived in a refugee camp in Malaysia since fleeing their homes in Saigon in 1978, three years after the Communist-led North seized control of the entirety of Vietnam and the war officially ended.

“I remember that it was winter because we wore coats,” said Loi, an accountant who adopted the first name Lisa and lives near the Baltimore suburb of Ellicott City. Her brother, Lap Truong, was in utero when the family moved to the United States. He now works for a federal contractor after serving in the U.S. military. He was the first member of the clan born in America.

“When we came to the U.S.,” she said, “we didn’t speak English at all. We had a Vietnamese-English dictionary, and we communicated that way.”

One subcommittee member who tutored a Vietnamese family in English was Stanley Levin. His lessons happened once or twice weekly for a half-year, at the immigrants’ apartments and sometimes at the synagogue. At their request, Levin said, he also brought the family (he doesn’t recall which family) to Friday night services, where he’d be peppered with questions about Judaism and how to pronounce two Hebrew words from a central prayer: Shema Yisrael.

He volunteered for the project, Levin said this week, to repay the debt he felt toward those who assisted his mother, Anna Feuer, after she immigrated to New York from Austria in about 1918.

“I feel I was returning the help that was done for my mother,” he said.

Wagner and his wife Evelyn were among those who helped Loi’s parents, Tai Truong and his wife Tu Anh Tran, get jobs manufacturing computer circuit boards at Bargale Industries and an apartment in the Allyson Gardens complex, just across Owings Mills Boulevard from where the NFL’s Baltimore Colts then trained. All the Truongs’ relatives lived in the complex, too.

“His relationship was above and beyond. My parents look upon him as a savior. Without him, we wouldn’t be here now,” Loi said of Wagner.

“Everything we had was thanks to the Wagners,” she said. “He was at my birthday parties, graduation, and wedding. I called him Grandpa, because he was family to us.”

A similar sentiment prevails in the home in Randallstown, near Owings Mills, where Loi’s Aunt Muoi and Uncle Gary Seidel live.

On a recent Sunday morning, Muoi poured a glass of orange juice for a guest sitting at their dining room table. On a stand beside the breakfront is the couple’s framed wedding photograph. Gary pointed a few feet off. There, in the living room, by the front door, was where in 1990 they held a brit milah, a circumcision, for their son. Wagner, he said, “took care of the arrangements,” including ordering the refreshments.

“We feel like we were lucky to have someone take care of us, help us out,” Muoi said. She’s not referring solely to that event.

She added: “I can never say ‘thanks’ enough.”

What Wagner, the son of immigrants, extended was love and concern for each detail. He wasn’t writing personal checks. “I doubt if he gave a lot of his [own] money, because he was a retired school teacher,” Ira Wagner said of his father.

But he mobilized resources—and people. He approached other BHC worshippers, the ones who owned Jandorf and Bargale, to arrange jobs for some of the immigrants.

Baltimore Hebrew’s initial fund for the absorption of what its newsletter then called “our Indo-Chinese family” amounted to $3,000. Shortly before the Feb. 29, 1980, arrival of the nine Vietnamese, the committee appealed to congregants for another $7,200, along with furnishings and household goods, “to care for our family.”

Later that year, on Oct. 14, Sinai Hospital mailed Loi’s mother a bill for $1,892.37, the balance due for a three-day hospitalization in August to deliver her son. Someone, perhaps Wagner, wrote “10/18/80” on the bill in black ink, apparently authorizing payment of the balance.

A gray-cardboard file box contains more collected paperwork of the subcommittee’s labor, including a Feb. 25, 1980, document issued by the U.S. embassy in Kuala Lumpur, authorizing passage to America for the group of nine people it determined to be refugees; the minutes of subcommittee meetings; Social Security card applications, co-signed by Wagner; Jandorf Electric pay stubs; letters confirming personal interviews to weigh food-stamp applications; a Baltimore Hebrew ledger page listing rent and other expenses covered by the Boat People Fund; some of the immigrants’ job applications and medical forms, listing their professions in Vietnam as seamstress, dressmaker, surgical nurse, pharmacist; a red-felt-covered invitation to the Nov. 1, 2003, wedding of So Truong’s son, Thuan.

In the box, too, are letters mailed in the early 1980s to the Wagners, care of Maine’s Camp Takajo, where Stanley worked many summers. All began “Dear Father and Mother” and were signed by Muoi and her brother Tai.

On the gray file box’s flap, the contents are marked by a white sticker: “Boat People.” Another sticker notes the box number: 18.

Without Wagner’s and the synagogue’s involvement, said Loi, “We wouldn’t have the life and freedom we have now.”

On May 29, in Annapolis, Gary and Muoi Seidel will escort Alisa down the aisle at her wedding. In attendance will be a Stanley. That is the middle name Gary and Muoi bestowed upon Alisa’s brother Matthew.

The newlyweds will honeymoon in Vietnam.


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Hillel Kuttler, a writer and editor, can be reached at [email protected].

Hillel Kuttler, a writer and editor, can be reached at [email protected].