Diane Portnoy was just 3½ when she arrived at Ellis Island in 1949. Her parents, Sylvia and Simon Katz, were Polish Jews who had survived the Holocaust by fleeing from city to city, at one point becoming slave laborers in Siberia.
With no surviving family besides their young daughter, the Katzes applied for admission into the United States under President Truman’s Displaced Persons Act of 1948 and were sent to their new country in a converted American battleship.
The couple settled in Malden, surrounded by fellow Holocaust survivors who primarily spoke Yiddish. They found jobs in a local sweater factory, learned English, and eventually opened their own business. They became American citizens.
Now 73, their daughter is a champion of immigrant education. Portnoy is the winner of the Ellis Island Medal of Honor; the author of “Immigrant Struggles, Immigrant Gifts” which discusses the contributions of 11 immigrant groups in America; and the founder and CEO of the Immigrant Learning Center in Malden.
Portnoy opened the center in November 1992 with a small staff of three teachers and 60 students. Already, the wait list had 80 people on it.
“I realized that there was so much misinformation out there about immigrants and refugees. So many stereotypes,” said Portnoy. “The mission of the ILC is to give immigrants a voice.”
The center strives to communicate that voice through three major initiatives: its English Language Program, which provides free, year-round English classes to immigrants and refugee adults; the Public Education Institute, which educates Americans about immigrants’ economic and societal contributions; and the Institute for Immigration Research, a joint venture with George Mason University in Virginia, which studies these contributions.
After immigrants come to America, Portnoy believes that “you need to learn the language, you need to learn how to navigate our economic systems, our educational systems, the healthcare system.” The center works to bridge that gap.
Along with English lessons, students gain leadership, problem-solving, organizational, and job skills. The ILC’s website also notes that students “achieve greater self-confidence, self-sufficiency, and the ability to contribute and participate in the community and workforce.”
Portnoy received her bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Boston University and her master’s degree in Curriculum and Instruction from Cornell University. Before starting the center, she taught part time at an adult learning center, worked to set up learning centers in private businesses, and conducted teacher training for the state. After her children went to college, she decided to fulfill her dream of opening her own learning center.
In 2017, she was granted the key to the city of Malden, the place her parents had moved her as a toddler speaking only Yiddish years before. She has received several other honors, including the Massachusetts Literacy Champion Award and Eastern Bank’s Community Quarterback Award.
Portnoy became inspired to help guide other immigrants as she witnessed an increase in immigration to this country in the late 1980s after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Rather than sit back and watch what she considered ineffectual government programs, she got to work and within a year she had opened the Immigrant Learning Center.
The center currently has about 450 students, and 33 staff members. On average, wait list numbers range from 500 to 900 people. Students are held to a strict attendance policy and attend 10 to 15 hours of intensive instruction a week.
“If you come to this country to live here and make a life for yourself, we will help you learn English, we will teach you the culture,” said Portnoy.
Classes include a technology program that teaches students crucial computer skills, free citizenship classes to guide students through the process of becoming a US citizen, and a senior conversation class that ensures students over 60 do not become isolated in their new communities. There are also family literacy workshops that help immigrant parents interact with their children’s teachers and understand how to guide their children through their education.
In 2017, the Next Steps Class was created with a focus on helping students reach education and job goals. This class helps students focus on job training, higher education, professional recertification, and job search skills to ensure a bright future.
To date, the center has served approximately 10,500 people from 122 countries residing in 95 surrounding Massachusetts communities. It also produces multiple webinars each year for educators and the public.
This year is the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, and Portnoy said it is crucial to remember the Holocaust so that “it can’t happen again to anybody.”
She believes those who lived through the Holocaust or were affected by it have a responsibility to share their experiences, and that schools must educate the coming generations.
“I still think the United States is the best country in the world. It was very good to me, it was very good to my parents. Where can a little girl, an immigrant, with nothing, end up here?’’ said Portnoy, referring to her good fortune and sense of accomplishment. “Only in America, I say.”
The Immigrant Learning Center is located at 442 Main St. in Malden. For more information, visit the center’s website at www.ilctr.org/.
Reach Meghan Sorensen at firstname.lastname@example.org.