After this interview we started the preparations to get out of Germany, and the sooner we left the better it would be. I had been very active with my Falt Boot, folding boat or better known as Kajak. I belonged to a club, we went to smaller rapids, and we took our boats to the mountainous region of the Rhine River. The river gets very narrow and has a terrific current and is at some locations very shallow. With this strong current one cannot run aground, or the boat would be torn up. I was pretty good at handling my Kajak.
We decided I would take the train to the last railroad station on the Rhine river, before the Dutch border, which was Emmerich, there I would put my boat in the water. I would be very close to the border and should be able to reach Holland without creating any attention. John and I had tried the previous year to take the same trip, as a vacation. We did not succeed because we ran into very bad stormy weather. We also had a two seater folding boat, which we loaded too much. John had constructed a side board motor which mounted behind the rear seat on one side of the boat, with a long propeller shaft. The motor tilted to get the prop into the water. It was. a great idea but not for bad weather and the heavily loaded boat. We almost became a submarine. But we had a good idea what the border looked like and we also had a very good navigation chart of the Rhine river which showed every marker and every detail.
The very beginning of September 1938 we were ready to start the exodus. As I was the only one who did not have an exit visa, I had to leave first. I forgot to mention that my sister Inge did not need any exit visa, she was lucky, she was too young. One morning I took my folded up Kajak, consisting of two bags, one for the skin of the boat and the other for the ribs and braces, tied it on to a small two wheel luggage carrier and walked to the train station in Cologne. Kajaks were very common and I was dressed for this sport. In other words, it was not strange seeing somebody pulling a Kajak.
When I arrived at the Emmerich railroad station, I got out of the train and walked to the baggage car to get my Kajak. There was also the S/S man who asked "Where are you going?" "To Xanten across the Rhine with my Kajak" I said. The attendant in the baggage car brought my boat out while we had this nice questioning. He must have believed me because he told me to go ahead. Xanten is a small town, built like a fortress on the Rhine by the Romans, it also has a very old church. It is a tourist attraction.
I pulled my boat to a small harbor connecting to the Rhine and there I assembled it. Everything I had with me including my passport, was stowed inside the hull. The river is very wide at this point, like the Hudson in New York, and to be on the safe side in case anyone was watching me, I kept to the middle of the river. It would be eight to ten miles to the border. Sure enough there coming at me at a very high speed with a terrific bow wave was the German version of a Coastguard cutter. My kajak had a splash cover, something like a protection if the waves would run over the boat, with only a narrow opening for the person. I had needed it for the rapids and rough water. It was a warm day and I had taken my shirt off. I was dressed properly for the occasion. They were watching me through their binoculars and possibly they were only checking my boat registration number K.N. 9834. K.N. stood for Koln or Cologne. They came very close, less than fifty feet and I was thinking at that moment of a cold bath and very wet clothing and papers. At the last moment the cutter changed course away from me and ,slowed down to idle speed. Their wake hit me and I preformed a wild dance. The crew laughed as the waves went partially over my boat and then they took off to the South and I continued to the North. I was still wondering, if these guys might have been curious to know, if I could operate a kajak. One had to be at least good to pass their test and I was glad that I did.
After this incident I paddled slowly to the right bank of the river and checked my navigation chart for the markers, indicating the Dutch border. Just beyond the border the Rhine split into several arms and my good chart showed me the arm which flows past Arnhem, my first destination. From the border to Arnhem is about twelve miles. I tied up to a small boat house in town and I asked the owner if he could use my kajak. He said "yes" and we agreed on ten guilders, about ten dollars at that time. I went by street car to a friend's house, we had known them for several years. They gave me a big welcome. From there I called my parents with the prearranged code, pretending I was one of father's customers, who lived in Arnhem, and using his name I said, I would go shortly to Cologne and pay an old debt. This meant I had made it. The customer and his debt did exist. I left my navigation chart with these friends and I heard much later that at least five young people made it to Holland using my chart before the Nazis found out.
As soon as my parents knew I was out of Germany, they, John, and Inge began their trip by car to Basel, Switzerland. This is a distance of about three hundred and eighty to four hundred miles. They crossed the border to Switzerland the next morning without any difficulties and drove to Basel. I went the next morning by train to Amsterdam, the capital of Holland, and drove to the Schiphol airport to take the plane to Basel, Switzerland. Something was very strange when I went to buy my ticket. There were two planes flying to Basel at about the same time, one would fly over Paris, France and the other over Frankfurt, Germany. I had to make sure the plane I was on flew over Paris, or I would have been back to where I came from. There was a short layover in Paris and the French gendarme told me not to leave the waiting room and he stayed there and watched me until I was escorted to the plane continuing to Basel. The reason for this was simple. I did not have a French transit visa. When I got off the plane in Basel I saw my family standing near by and waving to me. One of the Swiss custom inspectors started to tell me I could not get off the plane because I could not give him an address where I would be staying. I finally convinced him that I was a tourist traveling with my parents and pointed them out. It was a great moment for all of us to be in Switzerland and out of Germany.
The five of us continued in our little Mercedes to Lugano. Margaret knows this city in the Italian speaking part of Switzerland, on a beautiful lake and very close to the Italian town of Como on Lake Como, where Margaret went many times on business. We went to Campione, an Italian gambling casino in Switzerland, and to many little villages on the lake. But Switzerland was very expensive for us. We packed up and continued toward Italy and the Mediterranean Sea. We found a small hotel in Bordighera, close to the French border. The next morning we drove to Ventimiglia, the last town before the French border, and went to the French consulate to apply for French visas for us.
We found out very soon that there was no longer any kind of visa if you had a German passport. Mother spoke French very well and she was able to convince the consul to issue one visa to Father so that he could go to Nice, France, where our furniture was in a warehouse near the harbor. Father took off for Nice, but you have to understand that he did not know any French whatsoever. The consul did not want to give Mother a visa, it was very frustrating. Father did not have any trouble finding other German speaking refugees and he also found a connection to the Prefecture where he might get for him and us residence permits, but we had to be in France first. The same old story, also today in the U.S.A: once one is inside the border one has a better chance. We talked by phone every evening and he found out a lot of things, also that many of the state employees were always hungry and needed extra money, but not hungry enough to get us an entrance visa. We were very depressed.
John and I knew how to read a map and we were studying a highway map of this area, the Italian and French coast and the surrounding area. We came to a very astonishing conclusion: to go from Bordighera, in Italy where we were, to Torino, Italy, where the Fiat automobile factories are, one would have to cross French territory for a few miles. It looked to us on the map, that this was a very mountainous region and we could not find any other possible detour to go to Torino. We also assumed, you might call it wishful thinking, since we did not need a visa to go to one Italian town to another, we would not need a French visa to go to Torino in Italy. Once inside the French territory there was a highway, at the town of Breil, going to Ville France and Nice. We told mother of our plan and she said immediately lets try it. She was a brave woman and did not hesitate to take chances. It was early afternoon, we had to get Yvonne from the beach and she was very angry. Mother made her put a dress over her bathing suit, and made it clear to her that she could not stay alone on the beach. Italian and French males are very aggressive. We did not take any luggage or clothing with us, we wanted to see what would happen. We came to the Italian border at the beginning of the Alpes Maritimes or Maritime Alps on highway #20, away from the coast. It was a very small border crossing. The guard told us we would need a French visa to go to Torino on this highway and he would have to see it. We explained that we were sure we did not need a visa with a German passport. There was another border guard and he said we did not need a visa and could just drive through and then came a third one and he also said we didn't need anything and he opened the gate and we went through. Naturally they admired our car and had to see the trunk in the front and the motor in the rear. We had a nice nickname for our car: the pregnant bedbug, in German "die schwangere wanze".
The highway became very narrow and we were climbing very high in a short time with a lot of hairpin curves and on top of the mountain we saw a village and a sign, Breil, France. We drove to the village, a very old and primitive mountain village, we saw a sign "Customs" and a building with the doors closed so we kept on going. We were now in France. We were coming to the end of the village and were looking for the road sign #204/2204 to Nice, when suddenly we heard a police car siren behind us and there was no mistake possible, it was a French police car, a black Citroen, red light flashing. They had to be after us. The street is not wide enough for two cars to pass and we could only stop and pull over as far as possible and wait and see what they would do. The police car slowed down, almost stopped, and with only inches to spare, passed us, four gendarmes inside the car greeted us very formally and politely, which French gendarmes can do, and disappeared behind the next curve. At the very end of Breil we found the road sign to Ville France and Nice and turned into this road. It took a while before we could catch our breath.
We had an address where father was staying in Nice, but he did not have any idea we would be "visiting" on that day. I still remember his face when he saw us. He must have thought he had hallucinations.
Now came the next problem: as I have mentioned before, we had only the clothing we were wearing, with us. We just wanted to investigate the border situation, but when we saw the opportunity to drive to Nice, we just had to do it. We were convinced, if at least John and I would not be at the hotel the following morning when the maid came in to make the beds, whatever we had in the rooms, Mother's jewelry, money, all our clothing and documents, would not have been safe any longer. After father brought us up to date about his situation and the possibility to get eventually residence permits, John and I headed back to Italy. We took this time the coastal highway, passing Monte Carlo, Menton to the Italian border. I will furnish you with a road map of this part of the world, it will make it easier to understand our "trips". The Italians wanted to see our passports, international drivers license and the car registration; no problems. The French were not at all interested in us, because we were leaving France. We continued to Ventimiglia and than Bordighera. It was about midnight when we got to our hotel, nothing had been touched. We stayed two more nights at this hotel.
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A Teacher's Guide to the Holocaust
Produced by the Florida Center for Instructional Technology,
College of Education, University of South Florida.
©1991 Kurt Lenkway.