Leaving France for Portugal
Again Mr. Butto from the Prefecture came into the picture and helped with identification papers. He also told us and it was very important, to be out of our apartment every morning by six o'clock. If there would be a search for enemy aliens or for people who escaped one of the camps, the police would come between six a.m. and seven-thirty a.m. Again the grapevine was very helpful: The police would not bother people standing in food lines. There were food lines for everything which could be eaten, for bread, or flour. or skim milk, there was no regular milk, for fish or vegetables, don't even think of meat. By the time we got to the store, usually there was nothing left to buy. It did not matter, we had been out of the danger zone and could walk back to our apartment. When the living room window was open, it was safe to come in and nobody had come to check.
We knew that we had to get out of France as soon as possible, there was no doubt in our mind, that Germany eventually would occupy all of France, it was just a question of time.
The more I think about it, the more I have to admire our parents. What they figured out, Father and Mother, and what they accomplished, is so unbelievable. Let me try to explain: we were German subjects, to travel with a German passport through Spain, which was an Axis partner with Hitler and Mussolini was impossible, we would have been immediately arrested, as we were of military age and considered draft dodgers. The Spaniards would have shipped us right back to Germany. How do we, John and 1, get through Spain? One can not get out of France unless one travels through Spain. There were no airplanes flying from France to Portugal and also France was at war. Father and some other people figured out, the only way to do this would be with a passport from a neutral country. The neutral country the people advised our parents to choose was Rumania. Rumania was suitable because it had been occupied by the Germans and the Rumanian consul in Beziers in the French Pyrenees was willing to make some extra money. I don't have any idea how much they had to pay for it, but I'm sure it was not cheap and the parents must have spent a big part of the money they had in France.
The parents did all this while John and I were still interned. I have in front of me a 'Au Lieu de passport", which means instead of a passport or an "attestation". As their country was occupied by the Germans they could not get regular passport books. They printed the passport on legal paper. The top line reads "Consulate de Roumanie a' Beziere." The date it was issued was September 2, 1940. At that time we were in les Milles. It states we were born in Gelsenkirchen, my first name is Carol, in parenthesis Kurt, profession agricultural mechanic, living at 6 Rue Mayerber in Nice. It further states that we, John and I are Roumanian citizens and that this document is being issued instead of a passport, very impressive; indeed. I will leave a copy for you.
This passport has a collection of stamps, visas and permits. Looking at it today, it is unbelievable what our parents and we too, accomplished. It is a complete documentation and time table from the time we left France to the time we left Portugal. You will find a visa for the Republica de Panama, a Spanish and Portuguese transit visa. It documents that we entered Spain at Port-Bou, the first railroad station, coming from France. More about this later. John and I left Nice, again ahead of our parents and Yvonne, the evening of March 11, 1941 and reached the French border the next morning at Cerbere. We had a French exit visa which again was obtained through Father-s friend Mr. Butto. After our French exit visa and our German passport had been stamped at Cerbere and the train had started toward Spain, we had prepared our little suitcase in advance, we glued the German passport under the lining and at the same time took out the Roumanian passports. It was very convenient that the train went through a very long tunnel. There was no light inside the compartment. We got to Port-Bou at about eight o'clock in the morning and we were told that the border was closed till noon when the next train to Barcelona would arrive. The train we came on returned to France. We had to wait four hours to find out if our Roumanian passports would be accepted. There is nothing in border crossings to make time pass. Finally the train for Barcelona pulled in and the immigration and customs were opened. They looked at our passports for a long time, took them to a back room, came out, gave them to another man, in the meantime, I don't know why our pants did not turn brown, but they accepted them, stamped them Aduana Port-Bou, March 12,1941. This stamp also lists the foreign money we had: twenty American dollars and one thousand francs. The Spanish trains at that time, it was only a few years after the revolution, and as we did not have much money, we traveled third class, had wooden benches, facing each other, not very clean and terribly overcrowded. What we did not realize was there were three more passengers hiding under the seats. The doors were on each side of the compartment. Many stops and many police inspections, typical for a fascist government. It took a very long time to get to Barcelona, it must have been late that evening or very early the next morning, I remember that the train was sitting for hours. We were both smoking at that time and the cheapest cigarette in France was the Gauloise Bleue. When we got out of the station in Barcelona I threw away a cigarette butt. Immediately there were about ten children fighting for the butt. We were sure these were homeless children living in the streets and they wanted a smoke. The next time we were more careful before we threw anything away, we almost created an uproar. We wanted to buy cigarettes, but there were none sold, somebody directed us to the state tobacco distribution and there we had to show our passport, they stamped it and gave us some tobacco, rolled in paper. It could not be smoked unless you rolled the tobacco in cigarette paper.
Towards evening we got to the next train to Madrid, the same type of train, too many people, some under the seats, many long stops and many police checks. They poked under the seats, at one time a teenage girl appeared from under our bench, I had no idea how she got there. The police made them leave the train. We arrived the next morning, it was about four hundred fifty miles from Barcelona to Madrid, it was on March 14, 1941. Again we would not have any train for Lisbon till that evening. We walked from the station along a wide Avenue and we noticed a lot of high wooden fences, we could not understand this. When we peeked through the cracks we understood: bombed out and collapsed buildings one next to the other, not yet touched from the Civil War. Every few feet we saw old or old looking women, calling "filla", they were offering their daughters for entertainment as we found out later. We had never seen so much poverty and dirt.
The train left Madrid late that evening, arrived in Lisbon the next morning. There was no problem at the Portuguese border as we had a visa. But the same difficulties John and I had in France, we also had in Portugal, only worse. Our visa for Portugal was only good for two weeks. The parents and Yvonne had also left Nice in the meantime on a different route and we all met again in Lisbon. You see, our parents did not have the difficulties we had, traveling through Spain. Father was fifty seven at that time and was way over the draft age, women did not fall under any draft laws. We rented a small apartment in the city. Lisbon is a very impressive city with many wide avenues and some very narrow old sections, but it is one of the noisiest cities in the world, Why? Two cars meeting at an intersection, the one with the loudest and longest horn signal will have the right of way. John and I did a lot of walking, we did not have anything else to do, but sight seeing.
Yvonne was the lucky one in Lisbon. A classmate of hers from Cologne had a job as a governess for three small children with a very wealthy family. This girlfriend was ready, with her parents, to leave for the U.S.A. Our little sister was able to get this governess job with the same people. Her job was to speak only French with these children and to play with them. There must have been a lot of servants and a summer home in Estroil, a famous seashore resort near Lisbon. She was with these people almost the entire time we were in Lisbon.
The first thing we attended to in Lisbon was a visit to the American consulate and there found a vise consul, we assumed he was Jewish, but we don't know for sure, because we never dared to ask him. When he found out that we were a family of five and when he realized how we got to Lisbon, he assured us he would help us in any possible way. This man was very impressed with our family. Immigration visas under the American quota system were available, as very few people had been able to apply since the beginning of the war. You have to understand the war started in September of 1939 and now it was March 1941. We also had the great advantage of having direct airmail from Lisbon to New York with Pan American's famous clipper. John and I went once to the place where the clipper landed and took off. A huge seaplane, if I am not mistaken, it had sixteen engines, eight mounted towards the front of the wing and eight to the rear. We could not see too much, because the moment we wanted to get closer, the security police and some detectives, we assume, chased us away, either we looked like dangerous characters or they were afraid we might want to sneak aboard. Nevertheless, what we saw was an unbelievable sight. Now, that we could correspond with New York, we asked for and received some guarantee, we got some bank statements, showing the available money. Still an answer took three to four weeks. This clipper made a round trip only once a week and the amount of mail must have been enormous, that meant a letter would not always make the next plane.
John and I went investigating. We found a very good and inexpensive restaurant, the trouble was, as we came from France, where we had very little food and even less food in the internment camp, everything was too rich for us. I got quite sick as my stomach could not take it, to make it worse, everything was cooked in olive oil. I took some medication and soon we could go back to our little restaurant. The main meal was eaten at noon. The cost of each meal compared to the dollar would have been five cents and we thought at that time it was expensive, so we did not eat there every day, cost to living in Portugal was very cheap. Then we found a cafe, where we could go in. the evening, to have a cup of coffee or a beer. We noticed many young girls in this cafe, each one wore a fur jacket with 1/4 length sleeves. This, we learned was the official dress of the street walkers. Don't worry about John and me, we did not have any money.
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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.