Interment in France
Then came September 3, 1939. All over the city, and I assume all over France, large posters appeared on all billboards, from walls, and on buildings, addressed to the "enemy aliens", this meant all men eighteen to forty five with German or Austrian nationality, to report within twenty four hours to a stadium in Cap d' Antibes, which is half way between Nice and Cannes for internment. We were to have with us provisions for three days and blankets. This was naturally catastrophic news. We had hoped to be able to stay as civilians. I mentioned earlier that we applied for a work permit. This "Carte d'identite" arrived on September 3, 1939, in peace time it would have meant the permanent residence permit. We felt a hopeless frustration. John and I took the bus to the stadium with suitcases, packages and coats, etc. When we got to the stadium we saw that we had a lot of company, there were hundreds of people reporting. The French are not known to be the best organizers. It was the worst mess anybody could imagine. Nobody could tell us anything or what to do. We finally walked in and found a place on that part to the bleachers which was covered by a roof. We thought this would be better than the part under the open sky. We still did not have much protection, as the bleachers were open towards the front. This time on the Cote D'asur is still fairly warm and we had good weather. We did not suffer from exposure. By now there were thousands of people, we don't know how many. Nobody knew what to do, no preparation had been made for food, good thing we had enough to eat with us. The only preparations were some latrines they had dug out. A latrine consists of a long ditch partially covered with boards and a hand rail to hold on to, good luck! There was not much water available, a few faucets. It was miserable and everybody was in a miserable mood. We noticed a number of people we knew among the internees. On September 5, 1939, an announcement was made, they wanted volunteers to build barracks, because we would be there for quite a while, also the age group of fifty years would be joining us. Most of us started to build barracks, naturally most of us did not have any idea, but we had a lot of lumber, nails, tar paper, and tar. We got almost as much tar on us as on the roof and we were covered from head to toe. We found out the best way to get tar off your skin is with kitchen grease and just wash your hands with it. It removes the tar from the skin. We all thought we would be experts in building barracks after a few days, but for some reason we never got the barracks or roofs water tight, when it rained they would be leaking in the most impossible places, it was just a little better than to be in the open.
The older people came in very large numbers, mostly refugees, and most of them Jewish. Field kitchens had been brought in the meantime and they served three meals. The food at that time was not bad, it was army food and a few times during the week they gave us a cup of red wine, it belongs to the army food ration. At this time I would like to tell you who these internees were, First of all there was a very large number of Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria. The second largest number were gentile Germans, who lived in nearby towns of St. Rafael, St. Tropez, etc, some were retired; some had their winter homes there and there was a large number of homosexuals among them. The third group were Germans, who happened to be in France at that time, for instance tourists, merchant mariners, business people, etc. All together a very large crowd, several thousand men.
Among the very "dangerous" internees was also a Rabbi. It was the end of September and we were approaching the High Holidays. He wanted to do what one would expect a Rabbi to do, he wanted to conduct services during the High Holidays. It would be nice, he said, if we would have a Torah for the services. The nearest temple was in Nice. The camp commander, gave him permission, accompanied by a guard, to go to the Rabbi in Nice and he came back without the Torah. We all gathered around him and wanted to know what had happened. He gave us this explanation: the Rabbi in Nice told him, he was not able to give a Torah to his enemies, he was a Frenchman and the Rabbi was a German. This was a horrible statement, but I should tell you about it. Because not all Jews have learned what a "Mensch" is, it means to be a human and to see the same in other people. We were very upset. I want to give you some "background" explanations. The German Jews looked down on the Russian and Polish Jews, because they did not speak German as good as we did and many were not as well educated and therefore were lower in their social standing. They were the East Jews; from east of the Oder, a river which was the border between Poland and Germany before World War II. When we came to France we found out that the French Jews looked down on the German Jews in the same manner we looked down on the East Jew. This might have also been a reason for refusing the Rabbi's request. Now comes the other side of this event. Somehow the Bishop in Nice got word of this happening. I don't know what he explained to the Rabbi in Nice or what he did, but our Rabbi was asked to go back to Nice and receive a Torah for the holiday services. We were very ashamed. I am reporting this because I was there. Prejudice and ignorance exist also among us Jews. To make a point, the Sephardic Jews, who trace their ancestors to the Spanish Jews at the time of Queen Isabelle, also think they are better and superior than other Jews.
You have probably heard that our Father, your grandfather, was born in Krakov, at that time it was part of the Austrian Hungarien Monarchy. After World War I it became part of Poland. He was one of fourteen children. His father was a tallis maker and tailor in the Ghetto in Krakov. I was privileged to meet his mother and eight of her children at John's Barmitzwah. Except for my Grandmother these eight uncles and aunts came also to my Barmitzwah. They were wonderful people. When Father Simon was twelve years old, conditions in Poland were very bad and antiSemitism was very strong, he was sent to Berlin, where he had two cousins, relatives from his mother's. Their family took him in, their name was Gruenfeld. He stayed with them and they helped him find a job. When he got a little older he became a window dresser. He had a talent for it, the same talent our daughter Margaret has, to have an eye to see and to know what fits together and what looks good. Our Mother Margarete came from Breslau, in Germany. I mention this because John and I were in the middle of the East and West dispute and we heard both sides say more bad than good things about each other. Therefore I understand both sides, but there is no excuse for this prejudice. This "division" also exists in the U.S.A. in a very ugly way.
We tried to get used to life in the internment camp, it was difficult but after a while one finds a routine. Over the following months, it seems we were pushed from one camp to another with the probable intention to get us away from the coast. It would have been easier to communicate with the enemy near the shore. They did not want to know who we were or what we were and did not want to differentiate between the internees. We were in a smaller camp in the Alpes Maritime, when the Germans invaded France through Holland. We got the news from somebody who had a hidden radio, we were not permitted to have radios, naturally not. The way the news came we expected the German army to come from this side of the hill and the French army to come from the other side of the street and which ever way we would run, from the French, the French would shoot us and from the Germans, the Germans would shoot. We were in a panic. We lived through this too. We were moved to other camps and we created the saying: There is never a limit how bad and low things can get, there is only a limit how good it can be. We were referring to the internment camps, the next one was always worse than the previous one.
We finally wound up in a large camp, it was called "camp des Etrang-aux Milles", Camp for Foreigners at les Milles. It is near the city of Aix en Province in the southern part of France. The camp was built to be a brick factory with huge ovens, a mile long, where clay was burnt. One part of the plant had big conveyor belts and huge sand piles and machinery. The offices became head quarters. The grounds were huge. The only thing they did not have enough of was water in sufficient quantity and bathrooms. The good old latrines were dug again in several places. By the way, transportation to the camp was by railroad in freight cars, "eight horses or forty men", that was written on these railroad cars. This classification goes back to World War 1, horses needed more room than men.
The shortage of water was not too important, the winter of 1939/1940 came and it got too cold to wash too often. We did it a few times early in the morning but we were brave at those times. One thing we had in the ovens, beside protection from the cold, was bedbugs and fleas. They stayed with us as long as we were at les Milles.
Among the internees from the Cote d'Azur or Mediterranean were a lot of Germans, who had settled there and among them were a large number of homosexuals. At that time, it might sound strange, but I was there, therefore I can talk about it, if they knew you were not interested in their type of love, they would not bother you or would try to convince you. But one thing we found out, they were the best friends and the most helpful people you could find. This group eventually opened a little night club in one of the ovens, nicely decorated. The main attraction was a very good female impersonator, I have to assume he was a professional entertainer. The camp commander showed up a couple of times, that meant the cafe' was legal.
After a while the government decided to raise the age for men to be interned to sixty years and our father had to join us in the camp. He was very miserable, even with all our help. He did not make any secret out of it and he succeeded in being sent home again after about one month. He was not a well man and with fifty seven years one does not need internment.
We heard that Mother and Yvonne could not stay in Nice either, again the same old story, the French were afraid of contacts with German ships or sabotage to prepare for an invasion. They had to move to a small village in the Pyrenees. The Pyrenees are a very rough mountain region at the south-west border of France with Spain. They stayed there about four to five weeks before they were able to get permission to return to Nice. Again it was a very miserable time for them and many other women from the Mediterranean because they had a heck of a time finding anything to eat because there was hardly any food available in France and naturally the army had the priority. Food used to come in large quantities from the French colonies in North Africa and France was living on it, but the moment it stopped, on account of the war and German submarines, food got very scarce.
We had a similar situation. It seems the only vegetables available were large soup onions, as big as grapefruits. They gave us at least ten months, maybe longer, noon and night onion soup. Let me describe to you how this onion soup was made: there was a big kettle, filled with water and the water was boiled. Then they took one, maybe two onions and a piece of meat and the cook told the onions and the meat to look at the water and at each other. Then he would take the meat and the onions and put them away for the next meal. What we got was hot water with some kind of a taste and that was our meal with bread. After having onion soup for such a long time, I decided that I definitely don't like and I still don't like onions, today. I would say this is a good explanation for my dislikes.
Sometime in Summer of 1940 the camp commander asked for volunteers to repair automobiles, naturally this had to be for John and me, and we were taken. This was one of the few nice things I can report. We were driven every morning by truck to the next city, which was Aix en Province, it is a good size city. There we worked as helpers in a Citroen auto agency. Citroen at that time was already a front wheel drive, the same construction as today's front wheel drives. Citroen got his idea from Czechoslovakia from the Scoda automobile and weapons factory, at that time the biggest one in the country. This Citroen became very popular, almost every police car was a Citroen, they were very fast, but they had also one disadvantage. One can go into a turn at any speed, as long one continues to give gas, but if the driver would get scared and take his foot off the pedal, the advantage of the front wheel drive would not exist any longer.
The car would behave as any rear drive car and would flip over. They accumulated a large number of wrecked automobiles. We were supposed to work on them and take the engines out. After we had worked on a few we could remove the engine with the gear box, transmission and differential, which were one unit, in one hour. It was amazing how simple it was, once we knew how. We had very few restriction, could walk in and out of the shop, and talk to other people, it was a welcome change. It lasted only about five weeks. We were told security was the main factor, but we figured people living in the neighborhood had complained about the Boch, the Germans in their city. We even had a title in the French army. We were "Prestateurs", meaning we were leased out by the army.
One of the internees of the same camp lives in Miami, his name is Manfred Pfeffer, he is a metal dealer. We talked with each other a few times about the bad old times.
The part of France we were in was under the jurisdiction of the Vichy Government. Marshal Petain, a well known, but also very controversial figure, was head of this government. You have heard the name Vichy in connection with the Vichy water, sold in bottles. This separate state within France was formed after the Germans had over run much of France and Petain signed a surrender document with the Germans. This took place on June 22, 1940. The French disliked him and it meant for us we had gained some time and this large part of France was not occupied by the Germans till Nov. 8, 1942. By this time we had left France.
Towards the end of 1940 a German S/S commission came to this Camp des Milles. It created a bad uproar, and they had to call in additional Guarde Mobile, the French riot police and we all thought it better to be quiet. It was not easy because more than half the camp was Jewish. This commission came to find out who would want to or be forced to go back to Germany. I mentioned before a part of the Germans with us just happened to be in France when the war started. Among those going back to Germany, were two young men we had been very friendly with before, who helped us a little while later, in a most unselfish way and very dangerous for themselves. They told us that they did not have much choice, but to "volunteer" to return to Germany. Rumors always spread through the camp and more of them when everybody is tense and afraid of the future. We did not know if the rumors were correct or not, but they were persistent: the entire camp would be sent to a camp in the Pyrenees created for the Spanish refugees from Franco during the Spanish Civil War. The name of this camp was Gurs. This was very bad news, it would be much colder in winter and it was so much more isolated from any civilization and communication with our parents would be much more difficult. At present we were about four to five miles from the next town of Aix en Province. The rumors turned out to be true.
It was January 1941, when the official announcement was posted, we would be leaving this camp in three days at noon and we had to have all our belongings packed. John and I decided not to go to Gurs. Our father sent a friend of his to visit us, bring us some money and told us not to go to Gurs. This person also brought us the name of some people in Aix en Province we could trust and they would let us stay over night. The day of departure came. Everybody was running everywhere. Several freight cars "40 or 8" were pulled to a rail siding inside the camp and we were told to bring all of our belongings to these freight cars. We had contacted these two young men, I mentioned earlier who were going back to Germany. They told us that behind the oven they slept in, was a dummy wall and the oven continued behind this dummy wall. When we were ready to come to them and they would hide us there. We assumed that most of the camp guards would go with the train and if there would be any guards left was a question, as the remaining people had volunteered to return to Germany. We brought practically all of our luggage to these railroad cars, like everybody else. Then somebody blew a whistle and like all the others we ran out but went back into the ovens through a side door and to the oven the two young men were in. They showed us the secret compartment, we would hide in until the next morning. We found out we were not alone, a few other inmates were in the same hiding place. Our assumption was right, there might have been two soldiers left, but they were no youngsters either, the second or third reserve, maybe. One more thing was in our favor, nobody searched for "stragglers". We got up at four o'clock the next morning and found out that we were six who did not take the train to Gurs.
The two young men, I should call heroes, Why? In Germany it was at that time, punishable by death to help a Jew escape. They had to be very brave to do what these two did. They told us to follow them, they knew of a fairly safe place to get out of camp. We came to the section were the material to make bricks were stored and where the machines to form the clay were, with large conveyor belts. Our guides took us to a very high catwalk under the roof of the building. Under us were large piles of sand or clay. One of the fellows with us must have lost his footing and fell off the catwalk and I heard the thud from the impact when he hit bottom. I can't forget his scream. The sun had not come up yet and it was very dark. We waited while one of our guides went down to find out how to help. He returned a short time later, this fellow had broken a leg, but seemed alright otherwise. They would bring him back to their oven and also try to get medical help. In a situation like this one, we decided the remaining five would continue, as the one who had the accident would not be able to walk and there was no possibility of any transportation. It was very aggravating and sad. We came to the end of the plant and there was the big barbed wire fence, the French had pulled around the entire camp. From this moment on, John and I were on our own.
We found a place where we could lift up the wire and crawl under it. By the way one does not go "over" barbed wire, one has to go under the wire. It seems that each of us had a different direction to go to. Once past the fence we were on a road to Aix en Province, which was our destination. After walking for about one and a half to two hours, the sun was just coming up, we found the address of the people we were supposed to stay with. They knew of us, but we had never met before. They put us in a room in the back of their house and asked us to stay in this room. They bought us something to eat and drink. We remained in this room, I remember it did not have any furniture, we slept on blankets till the next morning. We knew the city a little from the time we worked there. The people explained to us where and which bus to the Cote d'Azur, the Mediterranean Sea, we had to take.
The bus was very crowded and very old, we were hanging on the straps, standing room only. The bus starts and gets to the big traffic circle, makes some funny noises and stops. You have to understand that most of these buses were running on charcoal. Wood was heated and the gas from the heated wood was substituted for gasoline. It took endless time, we were naturally very uncomfortable and did not care to be standing in the middle of the city, some policeman might ask for identification. After three quarters of an hour the bus started again and drove to the coast. It was a very slow bus, it made many stops, and each time more people went on than off. We were told only a very few buses were running each day. Through the good old grapevine our parents had heard that there was only one bus stop where the gendarmes usually would check the passengers for identification and we should get off the bus at the last stop before leaving Cannes. We got off at that point, walked past the next stop and took a local bus from the following bus stop. Lo and behold, we made it to Nice. As I mentioned before, the parents lived in an apartment right of the Promenade des Anglais. You can compare this Promenade des Anglais with our highway AlA, it connects all the towns along the coast. We rode the bus almost to the door of our apartment. Our Parents, and Yvonne were very surprised and relieved when we walked in. We were worn out, but we had made it, we had just come home from almost eighteen months of internment.
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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.