Skip to main content

Grace Polk Family Collection

Identifier: AR 25104

Scope and Contents

The Grace Polk Collection covers the life of the Polk family from the early 20th century to the 1970s. The bulk of the collection consists of private and official correspondence, but also includes personal papers, clippings, publications, and essays. Although Grace Polk, the daughter of Harry and Elizabeth Polk, compiled the collection, the records concentrate on her parents, grandparents, and other relatives. The combination of official documents, clippings and correspondence illuminates the situation of Jewish families living in Europe under the Nazis. Finally, the collection illustrates the effort and problems encountered by Jews as they attempted to leave the country, in particular from Austria, as well as their experiences in the United States.

Also included are personal records such as school reports from the 1910s, scrapbooks depicting life during several wars, songbooks, drawings, and oral histories.


  • 1877-1975


Language of Materials

The collection is in German, English, French and Czech.

Access Restrictions

Open to researchers.

Access Information

Collection has been digitized. Please follow the links in the Container List to access the digitized materials.

Collection has been microfilmed (MF 964).

Readers may access the collection by visiting the Lillian Goldman Reading Room at the Center for Jewish History. We recommend reserving the collection in advance; please visit the LBI Online Catalog and click on the "Request" button.

Use Restrictions

There may be some restrictions on the use of the collection. For more information, contact:

Leo Baeck Institute, Center for Jewish History, 15 West 16th Street, New York, NY, 10011


Biographical Note

Grace Diana Polk was born in New York in 1941 to Harry and Elizabeth Polk. Grace's father, Harry, (originally Hans Gunthar Pollak), was born on May 3, 1894 in Vienna, Austria. His parents were Hugo Pollak (1866-1935) and Thekla Pollak (née Lichtenstadt; 1871-1939). During World War I, Harry served in the Austrian Army and was held as a POW in Siberia until 1921. After his release, he worked for the Ephrussi Bank in the Stocks and Bonds Division. In 1936, he married Elizabeth Sofer. The couple left Austria in 1938 for London. Later that same year, they traveled to New York aboard the S.S. President Roosevelt. While in the United States, Harry worked for the Waldes Company in Long Island City, a manufacturer of slide fasteners with branches in Vienna and Prague, until his retirement in 1964. He separated from his wife the same year and began to travel, finally settling in Austria. He remarried in 1974 to Hermine Rubin. Harry Polk died in Vienna on August 24, 1983.

Elizabeth Sofer was born in Vienna on March 23, 1902 to parents Julius Sofer (1871-1957) and Katharina Skalla Sofer (1864-1944). She worked for her father at the Waldes Koh-i-noor Company in Vienna. Elizabeth was a dancer and a member of several modern dance companies. Like her husband, she first worked for the Waldes branch in New York. In 1957, she began to work as a dance therapist at the Lexington School for the Deaf in New York City, and in 1958 co-founded the National Dance Teacher's Guild. From 1960 to 1982, she was a staff member at the Children's Center for Creative Arts at Adelphi University. She specialized in working with handicapped and emotionally disturbed children. In 1966, she co-founded the American Dance Therapy Association (ADTA). Elizabeth was also instrumental in shaping the New York State public school curriculum. She conducted more than fifty teacher workshops in the United States and abroad. After retiring, she worked as a freelance writer with senior citizens and co-founded the Timelines Community to encourage the creativity of elders. In 1995, Elizabeth was honored with a lifetime achievement award from the ADTA and noted as a chief pioneer in the field of dance and movement therapy. She died on October 29, 2001 in New York.

Julius Sofer (Elizabeth Polk's father) was a manufacturers representative at the Waldes Koh-i-noor Company in Vienna. He was a highly distinguished member of the business community. His connections to the American branch of the Waldes Company helped him to obtain affidavits and visas for the Polks and other members of their family. In 1938, Julius Sofer transferred to the export department of Waldes in Prague and then immigrated to Cuba in 1941. His wife Katharina Sofer stayed behind in Vienna and died there in 1944. Julius finally arrived in the United States in 1943 and lived with the Polk family until his death in 1957.

Harry Polk's sister, Zdenka (Mimi) and her husband Ernst Orenstein, stayed in Vienna until 1939 in order to care for their mother, Thekla Lichtenstadt. After her death, the Orensteins left Austria for Norway and finally settled in Hawaii. Only their oldest son, Otto, accompanied them. Tony, the younger son, arrived in Hawaii on his own as a child via England and the continental United States.

Elizabeth Polk's sisters, Felicitas Sofer and Lilia Sofer Skala, also immigrated to the United States. Lilia Skala brought her husband, Louis Erich Skala, and her sons Martin and Peter. Lilia was an actress who worked for Austrian theatres. In the United States she appeared on Broadway and in several movies and was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance in the film Lilies of the Fields.


5.5 Linear Feet


The Grace Polk family collection contains materials related to the Polk (formerly Pollak) family, including Julius and Katharina Sofer, their daughter Felicitas and Lilia and their respective families, the Orenstein Family as well as information about Harry Polk's grandfather, Paul Lichtenstadt. The bulk consists of private and official correspondence. In addition, there are official papers concerning immigration matters of the Polks, Sofers, Orensteins and others, including affidavits, and official correspondence.


The collection is on 12 reels of microfilm (MF 964):

  1. Reel 1: 1/1 - 1/6
  2. Reel 2: 1/7 - 1/12
  3. Reel 3: 1/13 - 1/17
  4. Reel 4: 1/18 - 1/22
  5. Reel 5: 2/1 - 2/6
  6. Reel 6: 2/7 - 2/12
  7. Reel 7: 2/13 - 2/24
  8. Reel 8: 2/25 - 3/18
  9. Reel 9: 3/19 - 3/27
  10. Reel 10: OS 85/3
  11. Reel 11: OS 85/4 - OS 86/2
  12. Reel 12: OS 86/3 - Photos OS 86

Separated Material

Series V, Photographs, has been removed to the Photograph Colletion. Please see the photo archivist for assistance.

Guide to the Papers of the Grace Polk Family, 1877-1975   AR 25104 / MF 964
Processed by Martina Nuetzmann
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note
Description is in English.

Revision Statements

  • March 2009.: Microfilm inventory added.
  • October 2010.: Links to digital objects added in Container List.
  • 2010-10-12 : encoding of linking to digital objects from finding aid was changed from <extref> to <dao> through dao_conv.xsl
  • December 2011.: Corrections made to finding aid.

Repository Details

Part of the Leo Baeck Institute Repository

15 West 16th Street
New York NY 10011 United States