When Europe Was a Prison Camp: Father and Son Memoirs, 1940-1941

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In a compelling approach to storytelling, When Europe Was a Prison Camp weaves together two accounts of a family's eventual escape from Occupied Europe. One, a memoir written by the father in 1941; the other, begun by the son in the 1980s, fills in the story of himself and his mother, supplemented by historical research. The result is both personal and provocative, involving as it does issues of history and memory, fiction and "truth," courage and resignation. This is not a "Holocaust memoir." The Schrags were Jews, and Otto was interned, under execrable conditions, in southern France. But Otto, with the help of a heroic wife, escaped the camp before the start of massive transfers of prisoners "to the East," and Peter and his mother escaped from Belgium before the Jews were rounded up and sent to Auschwitz. Yet, the danger and suffering, the comradeship and betrayal, the nave hopes and cynical despair of those in prison and those in peril are everywhere in evidence.

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1 The End of the Great Illusion

ePub

Even before the previous September, when the Germans marched into Poland and he moved his family from Luxembourg to Brussels, Hans Licht had been trying to repress a growing sense of danger. The move to Brussels had been their second in four years, the first from Germany to Luxembourg in 1935, then to Belgium in 1939—yet again a new country, a new business, a new language. Despite the warnings of his brothers, who had by then all emigrated to America, and in willful disregard of the shadows to the east, he was determined not to move again. And on this spring evening, as he wound his way home past the Belgian War Ministry, he was partly reassured: there was only a single lighted window in the building, not the unusually intense level of activity behind the building’s gray façade he would have expected if there was any real danger. It was only later that he recalled the date: May 9.

Everything was as silent as in peaceful times after the shops had closed for the night. For a few days now the chestnuts had been in bloom, and Licht, hands in his pockets, whistled as he walked through the streets on his somewhat crooked legs. No one seemed to notice his inner disquiet. He had brought the art of dissembling to such a point of perfection that he himself was sometimes unsure how he felt.

 

2 The Forty and Eights

ePub

Along train of cattle cars had come in. Soldiers had opened the doors. To Licht, it looked like a long row of dark caves. Each car was marked “40/8”—forty men or eight horses. They were ordered to step to the cars and begin boarding, sixty men to each car. In the confusion, Licht had lost his companions and now found himself among strangers. “Vite, vite, vite!” the guards shouted again and again. Using their rifle butts, the soldiers shoved those who weren’t quick enough.

Licht, among the first in, felt his way along the walls, all his instincts suddenly alert. In the dark interior, he felt his way along the side of the car and laid himself in a corner. No sooner had the sixty been loaded than the doors were pushed shut and barred from the outside with iron bars.

There was great tumult in a darkness that was almost palpable. People elbowed and stepped on one another; no one knew where he was or who was who. Some tripped over luggage in the dark; Licht heard cursing and groaning. A man standing next to him tried to open one of the vents. He was breathing heavily, and said to someone else. “I know how these vents work. I used to be a cattleman. I’ve opened and shut these things a thousand times. But these swine have nailed this opening shut.”

 

3 La Panne, Dunkirk, and Beyond

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I would be traveling with the women—my mother, my partially lame grandmother, and the eighteen-year-old maid, Maria, whom we had brought with us from Luxembourg and who successfully pleaded with my mother to take her with us again. They seemed to be a threesome of fussiness and vulnerability, none of whom could drive a car—in those days probably few European women could—and whose undertaking of such a task at a time like this struck me as doomed to failure and therefore humiliating to me.

I had lived most of my life with women—with my mother and what seemed like an endless series of cooks and maids. I had always disliked their world—looked down on their endless fussing about things I didn’t care about, things of the kitchen and laundry, their little complaints, their gossip, and what in my view was their apathetic ignorance of things which interested me. I had by then learned about the separate provinces of my existence, provinces demarcated not only by gender but by what I thought were coincident degrees of worldly competence. Women could not deal with the sorts of things we were about to confront—had never dealt with them in my experience—and my father’s seeming betrayal, the abandonment, was thus magnified.

 

4 Le Vigeant

ePub

Many were still asleep when the train stopped again. The doors were opened and a soldier shouted, “Descendez!

There was mass confusion as people scurried to get their belongings. Each wanted to get out quickly. But Licht took his time, slowly putting on his jacket, getting his rucksack on his back, and picking up his satchel. Then he climbed out of the car.

The train stood in an open field where a row of gorgeous acacia trees lined the tracks, their leaves shimmering with raindrops. The most wonderful thing was the air. Never in his life had Licht breathed anything like it. This was not ordinary air; it was an altogether unfamiliar thing, creating for him a heavenly sensation halfway between morning dew and a cool evening breeze. A great artist had lightly perfumed this intoxicating mix to further its enchantment.

Although Belgians still had the watch, French officers were about to take over. They looked puzzled as they saw their new charges, who had been described to them as dangerous prisoners.

 

5 Another Cattle Train

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The next day, when trucks holding both bread and cans of liver paste came into the yard, the men knew they were being shipped off again. Everybody was packing.

“What would you think,” asked Veilchenfeld, who was clean and groomed, as always, “if we all wrote our names on the walls? Who knows, maybe they’ll bring our wives here?” And so they all wrote their names and addresses and the names of their wives. Licht used a broad-pointed fountain pen, so that all future inhabitants of Barracks 14 could read, in French: “Judith Licht, sought by her husband, former address Avenue des Scarabées, Brussels.”1

That afternoon, after having packed their food and standing for hours in the yard, they were marched back to the railway station, now looking grayer and uglier than in the bright sunshine at their arrival. The air was like nothing they’d breathed before. Today a depressing sense of not knowing hung on them. Even before they were marched off they’d talked about whether they’d again be loaded into cattle cars. Brust thought that was out of the question—or if they were, at least they’d leave the vents open. After all, the Belgians were gone.

 

6 Boulogne

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In theory we owned the car, but our officer-driver, a tall man of patronizing dignity, treated it as if it were his, as in some practical way it was. We had become totally dependent not only on the car but on his ability to make it move. He seemed to know it intimately, understood its moods, and knew what to kick or shake or adjust to make it start after it sputtered out. He was cordial, courtly, even relaxed, but he would not let himself be rushed. “Madame must understand. . . . But Madame must surely know.”

It was now my mother who was in a hurry; somewhere during one of the many repair stops on the way south into Boulogne she had heard a rumor that the bridges over the Somme, some ninety kilometers to the south, would be blown up the next day, and she wanted to drive through the night. She had a feeling, she said, that the information was correct. But he refused; he wanted to get some rest. Surely Madame must know that in wartime it is dangerous to drive at night.

By the time we reached Boulogne, the city and its port had been subject to intermittent German bombardment for a week. In peacetime it had been a fishing port and a major embarkation point for Channel traffic to Dover and Folkestone and, like Calais, a landing place for British tourists headed south. In 1804, Napoleon had assembled his grande armée there—some 200,000 men—for an invasion of England, but the plan was so ill-conceived that it was aborted even before Nelson’s defeat of the French at Trafalgar guaranteed the British control of the Channel. Many years later, I learned that its casino had once made it also a major destination for French vacationers.

 

7 Saint-Cyprien

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The station sign said “Elne.” If this is where they were going to be off-loaded, said Ritter, then they were at Saint-Cyprien. And so they were.1

When the doors were opened, they were loaded with their belongings on large trucks on the square opposite. Ritter sat next to Licht. “These are our good old Spanish vehicles,” he said, stroking the side of the truck. Although it was a clear evening where they stood, there was a strong wind.

“Now you’ll experience something that you’ll never forget,” Ritter said.

“What?” Licht asked.

“Sandstorms.” Licht thought the man wasn’t quite right in his head.

The sleepy Elne train station where Otto (Hans) and thousands of others were unloaded from the cattle cars that brought them to southern France for transfer to internment camps. The station today is little changed from 1940 when they arrived.

Photo by Peter Schrag.

By then, the news of the fall of Belgium, until then known only in Licht’s car, had spread to others. So now hundreds of men sat miserably as the column drove off, moving at hellish speed through a village that looked quite Spanish. There were many women on the street, but few men. Here and there they passed a gendarme.

 

8 The Larousse

ePub

In school in the year after our return from Boulogne they gave all the students large translucent capsules filled with an amber liquid that were said to be vitamins. We got one every day. I was afraid to swallow mine and surreptitiously threw them away. On some days that was difficult without being detected; I never could swallow any large pill without water. Worse, I felt I didn’t have a right to my pill and that some morning, when our teacher, M. Boulanger, handed them out I would be challenged as a foreigner, a Boche impostor. It was, of course, not the capsule I would have minded losing; indeed what I minded most about the capsules, other than the daily need to find an undetected means of disposing of mine, was that through them I would be exposed as the Belgian I was not. Getting the pill and then palming it or hiding it in my desk or in a pocket doubled the guilt. Everyone must have known. In those days, of course, I was always Pierre, not Peter, however pronounced, but after one year in Brussels no one could have been taken in by my pretense that I was one of them; yet no one ever said anything to me. I knew what I was not. What I was, that wasn’t so clear.

 

9 “There’s a Letter from Papa”

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Ever since they returned to Brussels—and in the face of all the vicissitudes of their daily lives and the new circumstances of the occupation—Judith had only one desire: to learn where Hans was, to get in touch with him and to go to him. Three times a day she checked the mailbox. And each time she heard that someone else had heard from her husband, Judith’s heart sank. From Hans there was nothing. Every search proved fruitless. But she didn’t doubt for a moment that Hans was alive. She knew that she would have a very different inner feeling if he weren’t. How many weeks was it?

Then, as she came home one afternoon in late July, she saw through the little glass window on the mailbox a white envelope, and before she even got the letter out she recognized the handwriting. She tore the envelope where she stood and tried to read the letter through her tears. When she managed to wipe her eyes she learned at last where he was.

She went upstairs. “Peter, Peter!” she called. “There’s a letter from Papa.”

 

10 Les Martys

ePub

The house had been vacant for years. It had once been inhabited by farmers, until they could no longer extract enough from the rocky soil to feed themselves. The terrain was hilly, the road to the distant market difficult. In the early years of the twentieth century, as it became too hard to glean a livelihood from the soil, like many local farmers they moved to the cities to work in the factories. The house and the land became useless and remained abandoned until a very different kind of inhabitant brought a different kind of life.

There was a large living room on the ground floor, with a fireplace on one side and a table and a couple of chairs. The adjoining kitchen had a wood stove and a water pump that rarely worked; the alternative was to haul water from the well with a bucket. There were three bedrooms on the second floor, each with a large bed and one chair. Many windowpanes were broken, the holes covered with cardboard. Everything was damp. The rains had left stains where the water came through the roof and the holes in the windows.

 

11 Cavallo’s Bus

ePub

There was no light in the war-darkened streets of Toulouse. One could hardly see a hand before one’s eyes. Judith groped her way along the walls. Each time she stepped off the sidewalk she was afraid of falling. Now and again she heard steps and occasionally a voice. She shivered in the cold. I can still turn back, she told herself. I haven’t yet taken the last step. Suddenly she wished she would get a severe pain, maybe appendicitis, something that would allow her to turn back without losing face. Was that a stitch in her chest? No; it was nothing. It was all part of this life. In undertaking these adventures, she’d better get used to it. Maybe I’ll miss my ride, she thought, half in hope, half in fear; maybe my watch is wrong, maybe the Italian driver and the vehicle will be gone.

But the bus was standing in the appointed place. The door was open and a couple of her fellow passengers were already sitting there; the driver was asleep between the seats on the floor. Judith coughed; the man shook himself, yawned loudly, and sat up.

 

12 Brussels Encore

ePub

Because she didn’t want to disturb her mother, Judith spent the early hours after Cavallo dropped her sleeping in the building concierge’s flat. At seven, after she awoke, she walked anxiously to her own door, where a young woman, apparently a maid she had never seen before, met her.

“Who are you looking for?” she asked in French.

Judith noticed from her accent that she must be German. “I am Madame Licht, and I’ve just returned from France.”

“You’re Madame Licht. That’s unbelievable, and you’re arriving just now. Just now you have to come?”

Judith was frightened. “What does that mean?”

“I don’t know if I should be talking about that,” the young woman answered. “Mrs. Cohn is still asleep. But maybe it would be better if you knew before you saw her.”

“So speak already. Is it Peter?”

“No, no, he’s fine. Everything is okay. Only the Gestapo was here about three weeks ago and asked for you. For you and Mr. Licht.”

They had gone into the kitchen. Judith had to sit down. Her thoughts were a carousel. They had to leave quickly; there was not a minute to lose. They mustn’t catch her. It was Peter who brought her back to reality.

 

13 The Paper Chase in Marseille

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Other than what he’d gleaned from Mrs. Cohn’s ominous letter, Licht knew little about any of this. It was only later that he learned any details. All his endeavors were directed to the goal of leaving France as soon as possible and meeting Judith in Lisbon. He had no doubt that one day those efforts would be successful, at least insofar as they concerned Judith. She had let him know that she would come in about four weeks, and he knew that when she put her mind to something, she usually succeeded. It was of course possible, maybe even likely, that it would take much longer and that when she arrived he’d no longer be there. But he believed that she’d come.

Lofe had returned from Marseille, where he and his sister had made some connections, bringing a whole collection of forged documents. If he wished, he could be a Pole or a Russian. All the documents had his photo and an official-looking stamp of one sort of another and were signed and sworn to by two witnesses.

“I advise you,” said Kreuzberg after he looked at the documents, “to go to Marseille and determine from the consulates how to get out. I would never believe that you’d succeed with these papers. You can use them to fool a gendarme who stops you on the street, but not the Gestapo agents who may examine you at the Spanish border.”1

 

14 Across the Bloodied Spanish Earth

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The train made its leisurely way along the shore. They passed the little station at Elne, where they and their fellow internees had been unloaded less than a year before. The station, which had seen so much misfortune and misery, now seemed to be hardly used. Tens of thousands of unhappy men had come through its gates: Spaniards, Germans, Austrians, Poles, Jews, Christians, row upon row, column after column, the old, the young, the crippled, the hungry, passed through this place. Now this homely brick building was sunk in sleep. A cat played on the platform; the station attendant sat on a bench smoking a pipe. When would this Elne ever come back to life? Maybe there’d be new uniforms standing here, German or French or who knew who, and the old horrors would wake to a new life. But maybe in a few years, as Ams had predicted with characteristic irony, there’d be tourist guides here from Cook’s and American Express, come to show the warm hospitality with which the French had sheltered its refugees.

 

15 Lisbon, Where the Lights Are On

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Anyone who came to Lisbon from fascist prisons—or from Europe’s pillaged, hungry occupied countries—was struck by so many powerful impressions that it became impossible to take them all in at once. Many little things were so striking that they immobilized those who saw them: the appetizing displays in the richly stocked food shop windows, the menus in the restaurants, the ability to openly buy dollars and other foreign currencies, the freedom to walk the streets and public squares with relatively little fear of the police, the brightly lit streets. In the midst of that, more ordinary things weren’t as obvious and often went unnoticed. Many people were well dressed; they moved freely without lowering their heads between hunched shoulders. There were not as many uniforms on the streets. At first, many didn’t even notice that.

When they arrived, it took some doing for Licht and the Lofes to find rooms. Everything was crowded. Lisbon was another catch-basin for European refugees. The hotels imposed their own terms: rooms were only available for those also agreeing to full board. And compared to France, they were expensive—extremely expensive compared to Spain. But with a room came real rest and a chance to begin to enjoy things. In Lisbon, even in late winter, the sun was shining, there was the dark sea; the things that had threatened to swallow them up lay behind them.

 

16 Crossing the Lines Again

ePub

As soon as my mother returned from southern France she began to make the rounds in Belgium for the documents we would need for our trip to America—the American consulate, the Portuguese, the German commission, in hopes of getting a travel permit to let us get into northern France—even as my father was in pursuit of documents in southern France. The American quotas made it virtually impossible for anyone from Germany to immigrate directly to the United States, even with the help of my American grandmother. Instead we got immigration visas to Mexico, obtained by circuitous routes I’ve long forgotten, if I ever knew. Those visas, after struggles with a sequence of US consular bureaucracies—and probably a hefty dose of the pervasive State Department anti-Semitism of that era—were ultimately sufficient to secure US transit visas (changed to visitor’s visas after we got to the United States; by 1947, six years after we arrived, our number finally came up and we were able to formally “immigrate”—by way of Montreal—and start the clock on the naturalization process).

 

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