As the survivors pass away, the Holocaust books, films and commemorations keep coming – the ceremonies marking the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz in January, Anthony Doerr’s powerful best-selling novel “All the Light We Cannot See,” the rediscovery of yet more troves of art stolen and hidden by the Nazis, and countless other reminders.
But for millions of us who were never shipped to a death camp, there are other World War II anniversaries of events that were nearly as fateful and fearful as the horrors of Auschwitz, Treblinka and Sobibor.
Ours was May 10, 1940, the day the Germans invaded Belgium, Holland and Luxemburg, followed six weeks later by the capitulation of the French to the Germans on June 22, and their craven agreement to “surrender upon demand” to any Germans “named by the German government in France.”
Had it not been for the courage and determination of a spouse or a parent, and sometimes the sheer human decency of strangers – or sheer luck – those events could have sent thousands more to those same death camps, as many eventually were.
My parents, my grandmother and I were living in Brussels, German immigrant Jews living with the hope – and the illusion – that we were safe. When it began I was not quite 9.
It all changed in a matter of hours. My father, though declared stateless by Hitler, was interned, along with countless others, as an enemy alien and shipped in cramped, airless cattle cars to internment camps in southern France. Men, some in their 70s, who had been promised asylum, were now labeled “saboteurs” and “extreme suspects.”
Many died in those camps – of malnutrition, of typhus and malaria, of dysentery. In the Nazi camps they beat you to death, Arthur Koestler would observe, in the French camps they just left you in the cold to die.
Shortly after her arrival in America, Hannah Arendt, who had been interned with thousands of women and children in the notorious French camp at Gurs, remarked that none of us wanted to be known as refugees: not in Belgium, not in France, not in America. We were exiles, maybe, or émigrés, or immigrants, not refugees.
In part it was pride – we didn’t want to be seen as victims or supplicants. We didn’t want to be seen as anything but masters of our own destiny. And we didn’t want to bore people with stories that sounded like something lifted from “Casablanca.”
For 70 years, a long memoir my father had written (in German) about his internment and escape from the French camp at Saint-Cyprien, and his subsequent struggle to get the documents, legal and illegal, to get out of France, and eventually to America, had lain in one or another drawer, unread by me and, as far as I know, by anyone else.
I didn’t want to think about it, or acknowledge that I was anything but the complete American I’d become. I didn’t want to talk about my own and my mother’s odyssey trying to escape from the invading Germans in 1940, by car, on foot, on a truck, a trip that ended in a cellar in the port city of Boulogne while a ferocious battle raged overhead, then the year in occupied Brussels after the German army ordered us back.
I didn’t recognize my mother’s courage until much later. She made the dangerous, forbidden trip across the Line of Demarcation between occupied France and Vichy France not once but three times: First to help my father escape from his French concentration camp and find him a hiding place. Then back to Brussels to get me, then with me – by train, on foot through a French railyard around a Gestapo checkpoint, then through the woods across the Line of Demarcation in the early hours of a May morning. By the time I was 10, I had been an undocumented immigrant several times over.
It wasn’t an unusual story – it was the story of half a continent, people on roadsides trying to repair their broken-down cars; people sitting on their luggage in railway stations waiting for trains that no longer ran; families in hay wains pulled by oxen, on foot carrying infants, people living with the terrible uncertainty of not knowing where their loved ones were, whom to trust, which road not to take.
Three years ago, my family finally persuaded me to look at my father’s crumbling old manuscript, to translate it and to return to my own story – family history, yes, but also to add yet one more document to the history of those terrible years, a history that must never be forgotten.
Peter Schrag is a former editorial page editor of The Sacramento Bee.
“When Europe Was a Prison Camp: Father and Son Memoirs, 1940-1941”
By Otto Schrag and Peter Schrag
Indiana University Press, 2015
328 pages, $30