After our arrival in Nice, the first and most important job was to get residence permits for all of us. As I had mentioned before, father had made the acquaintance, through a middle man. of a commissioner with the Prefecture in Nice, a Mr. Butto. He was accepting gifts or money. John and I met this Mr. Butto and he wanted to impress us with how difficult it was to get our residence papers or renewals. They were usually good for only one month and we had to go through the same routine again. He had two expressions: "Don't worry" ( ne vous inquiete' pas ), and "I will take care of it" ( je M' encupe). To me this meant "maybe". The first permit we got through him and with his help did not go right, somehow the signals were crossed. John and I had to go to the police station and were questioned about how we got into France, and why we did not get a visa etc. We were illegally in France and we were arrested. A police man took us through a back door and there was the jail. We were finger printed, mug shots were taken and they searched us. We were then put in a large jail cell. There were already about a dozen men in this room, a holding cell. It looked exactly like the jails you have seen in movies, a big room with an iron grill across the front, a dripping faucet on one side and a hole in the floor on the other side. This was our available sanitation. It was smelly and dirty. Some of the people with us were thieves, some had visa problems like us. I don't think I have to explain how we felt, it was a new low. After a few hours we were released and brought to the office of Mr. Butto. He gave us a paper, authorizing us to stay in Nice for, I think it was two weeks, and he would work on a renewal. We had to listen again to how difficult our situation was because we had no good reason to be in France. To be a refugee was not a good reason. As we learned later, the French did not want refugees. They still had a large number of Spanish refugees, about three years after the end of the Spanish Civil War in camps. They could not return to Spain because they fought on the wrong side, as far as the Dictator Franco was concerned. Also Germans were by now not he best liked people. We did not have much cash available, but we had a container sitting at the port of Nice. I am going to talk about it very soon. Father made him presents from things we had in this container. Our parents did not have as many problems with their residence card because father had a visa to enter France and you have to understand that John and I were of military age and could have been sent there to create trouble. Maybe Mr. Butto did have a tough job finding a reason to extend our residence card.
The container, as I remember it, did not have any big pieces of furniture, but large numbers of lead crystal, silverware, pictures, figurines, some Persian rugs, etc. We succeeded in getting friendly with the custom inspectors at the custom warehouse. At first they were annoyed because we bothered them to often, but a few gifts helped again and we became very friendly with them. The container had to be at customs as it came from a foreign country. I remember that in order to get it out of customs they wanted a very large sum for import duty, it was an unreasonably high amount. We started to empty the container ourselves. We stuffed the pockets in our pants and coats and jackets with everything we could carry and walked out past, by now, our friends. We sold most of it, but ran into a new problem with our silverware; forks, spoons and the handles of the knives did not have silver contents high enough for France. Father found some dealers in this type of business and eventually sold it. We did manage to empty the container. Some things were brought to our apartment and much later some pictures and other items reached the U.S.A. But that again is a different story. Father and John eventually sold the Mercedes (the pregnant bed bug) in Belgium. We could not register the car in France, as it was not legally imported. Therefore we could not sell it in France.
One way to obtain a permanent residence card was possible if one had a work permit. To have a job one needed this permit. With the work permit one did not need the residence card any longer. In order to apply for it you had to have the promise of a job and the boss had to make also an application, stating that he wanted you as his worker and there was quite a bit of paper work involved. John and I found a place where the boss would make this application. It was a Chrysler car agency across the street from where we lived. He signed the necessary applications and we did get our work card several months later, but unfortunately it came the same day we had to report for internment. This will be another chapter.
In Nice there were large number of Jewish refugees from Germany and from other European countries. Our parents and we met people we knew. I found out there was a German watchmaker who had a kajak. I visited him, he had a small business near the port. He was Jewish and had left Germany right after Hitler got into power. We became very good friends, his name was Spiro. I don't know if I mentioned that I had a two-seater kajak packed in the container and it also made it to Nice. He belonged to a kajak club, small but the members were very very friendly. Most of the boats were hand made. I joined their club and we paddled our boats from the harbor to the Mediterranean Sea. The first few times we went out I got sea sick and did not want the others to notice it. There was always some wind and naturally waves. I got used to it. This part of the world, seen from the water or land is so beautiful it is difficult to describe. Anybody, who had seen it, will have to agree with me. It is called Cote D'Azur, the Blue Coast. We went with our boats to places like Cannes, Ville France and Monte Carlo, we also went to other small towns and generally had a good time. One day we wanted to take our boats out, we were not always smart. On this day it was very stormy, we still went out. But we could only go to the next harbor, the wind got too strong and the waves too high. We had to leave our kajaks there over night and return by bus. I did not realize that the waves on this day came up on the boardwalk. Father saw the waves and when I got home, did I get it, no brains, no sense, etc. This storm I just mentioned is a characteristic for this part of the Mediterranean, it is called Mistral. It usually starts at about nine o'clock in the morning, but it seems to be unpredictable, it is a desert wind, originating in North Africa and blows very strong, about 35 to 50 miles per hour. It will stop only at sundown, but again it could continue for two or three days and nights and it seems to be unpredictable how many sun downs will pass before this wind will stop.
Basically John and I and also our parents had a good time for the first ten months in Nice, and Yvonne had a very good time. I have to add one thing: our little sister Inge became Yvonne when we got to France, because if you want to pronounce Inge the way it is pronounced in French, it would mean "Angel". She and we agreed she was not an angel. The beach in Nice did not have any sand, only large pebbles, it made it very difficult to walk. One day Yvonne and I went to the beach and we were lying near the boardwalk, we were wearing sunglasses. Our parents came by, I waved to them and I hear father say to mother: "Who is the shikse with Kurt?" Yvonne heard it too, took her sunglasses off and we all had a good laugh. John and I wanted to have something to do and learn something, so we attended a school for diesel engines. Classes were naturally in French and we spoke the language quite well and improved with every month we were in France. Also German became a very disliked language for the French.
Naturally the main question was: "Can we stay in France or Not?" It was questionable. We tried again to get to the American Consulate and the number of people trying to apply for the U.S.A. visa, would have meant a waiting time of about four years. You will remember that I mentioned the American quota system before, where by only a certain number of people of one nationality would be permitted per year to immigrate. Now came the question, "What else is available?" Refugees were talking about visas to Shanghai, Panama, they were talking about Hong Kong, etc. If you should have a chance to see the picture "Casablanca", where they have a scene in a cafe, the hang-out for refugees from the European countries, in which everybody is talking about for how much he can buy dollars or pounds, or Guilders and what visa he can get and for how much and which passports would be available and for how much. This same scene was played for real in Nice in the Cafe de la France, where you saw the people, refugees naturally, and each one had a connection to some information, or had gotten some information. Visas were sold which might have seen the consulate, but never the country. They were issued by the consuls and there was quite some money involved. It appears strange today that we did not seriously consider countries like Australia, New Zealand or any of the other South American countries. For some reason we had made up our minds we wanted to go to the U.S.A., but, we did not make much progress for one simple reason, a letter and its answer to New York took about four to five months as it could only be sent by ship. You have to understand that there were no refugee visas like were issued to the Cuban refugees in the sixties. There was only an immigration visa based on the quota for that particular country. To make an application for the U.S.A. visa one had to prove that the applicant would not become a burden to the U.S.A., this meant one had to provide guarantees, given by other people in America, or that you had sufficient money in an American bank so that you could live from it. The bank account with the money was created in many cases in the following way: several of the refugees, who had made it to the U.S.A. or relatives would pool their money and open a savings account. In our case the money we had in New York was included. The account would be opened in the applicants name and the bank was asked for a statement of this account and this was mailed, in this case, to us. It would be also submitted to the American consulate.
It probably was known how these statements were obtained, but you still could not apply for support or unemployment compensation, because there were the guarantees from your friends and you had shown that you had money to live. It was like a co-maker loan. We had great difficulties finding people who were willing to give us these affidavits. We had some distant relatives we knew were here, but did not have their address. The same was true with friends and if you think about it, it is not so easy to give an affidavit, if you don't know the persons too well and to state that they would not become a burden to the State. Still it was done often, but we had difficulties getting these affidavits. But this is another story for later.
I am trying to remember spring and summer of 1939 and my thinking at the time. It seems I did not want to face reality and did not want to think about the future, which looked very muddy, with the threat of war between Germany, France and England and the strong possibility that the U.S.A. would join. One could not make any plans. I lived one day at the time and it seems to me that John was thinking the same way. It was not a time to make plans for the future. I had made friends, male and female, we always had something planned and kept busy, regardless of the fact that we did not have any television at that time.
The tension was rising, everybody knew something had to happen, Germany did not back down, France and England were threatening. Came September 1, 1939, the unfortunate date when Germany decided to invade Poland, naturally the Polish army was no match at all for the German army. The Germans occupied Poland in no time and met up with the Russians. They had a nonaggression pact with them. On September 2, 1939 France and England declared war on Germany. Father owned some stocks, traded at the New York stock exchange. These stocks, in case of war, would have been impossible to sell or trade. At the last moment, when we did not know if there were hours or days left before the war would start, I went by train to Paris, with the instructions to go to the stock broker's office because the office in Nice did not have any more communication with Paris or New York. We hoped that the Paris office might still maintain some communication and to sell the stocks and deposit the money in Father's account in New York. I left Nice in the evening, got to Paris the next morning, was able to sell the stocks and took the train back to Nice the same evening, eight hours each way. I did not see much of Paris, people in the streets were very agitated and I was glad to get home.
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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.