The American Visa
It was the middle of May 1941. The American consul, with the help and the hard work from our good friend, the vice consul, who I call our angel, requested that the family should come to the consulate to be interviewed. A Portuguese policeman had to bring John and me from the jail, he was in civilian clothes, he had to sit in the waiting room, naturally he could not come into the consuls office, because it was American territory. The parents and Yvonne came, they were dressed very well and John and I tried to smooth the wrinkles as much as possible. We had prepared, more or less, what we should answer. The vice consul had briefed us what to expect. John would be our spokesman. I don't think I mentioned it before that John had been living in England for about ten months, before we left Germany. Father and we were trying to establish a furniture export business. Unfortunately what we were trying to sell was not what the English wanted to buy, it was not there style. It went "down the drain" and John came back. But John spoke a very good English and he also had English in High-school three years longer than I or Mother. Another observation we made, to learn a language it helps very much to read magazines, newspapers and books, even if we did not understand every word, after a while we got the idea what it was all about. We both knew English, Mother knew English, Father understood very little but he was trying very hard to learn, and Yvonne had her school English which was not bad.
When we got to the consul there were not five chairs available. They all gave us terrific compliments, they had not seen a family of five in several years and we were quite a sensation. The consul wanted to know from us what we intended to do, and how we wanted to make a living. John had his speech prepared, he and I would work as automobile mechanics and or draftsmen. He showed the consul drawings of engines etc. We had started to make them when we were in Camp des Milles and they were impressive. Mother and Yvonne had planned to work in one of the garment factories and Father would find a job. He asked each of us some question to find out if we understood English. Then it happened, suddenly we were facing a very angry consul and we did not know why. Then he started his speech, he said: The United States are not interested that the standard of living is lowered through immigrants, and he continued: let me explain to you, your mother has to run the household, your sister is too young to go to work, she still has to go to school and your father is too old to have a job. There are only two of you who can work and earn, but, let me tell you, I think you two will be able to support the Family. The guarantees we had, if the consul had wanted to, would have been, maybe for one person or two, but not for five. But again we had the help from the vice consul, who went all out to help us, it is nice to find an angel once in a while. The assurance of the U.S.A. visa was not enough to keep us out of jail and we had to go back to Forte Norte de Cascais. By the way, it is also spelled "Caxias".
About a week later we received another request from the American consulate to come to them to complete the documents, this was on May 26, 1941. Again we had to be accompanied by a Portuguese policeman. This time we had to go to the consulate's office. The secretaries were filling out all kinds of papers and documents and we had to sign many times. The policeman was sitting with us in the office. Then came the question to top all questions: Raise your right hand and swear that you have never have been in jail or convicted of a felony. There followed a silence, you would have heard a pin drop to the floor. John and I thought this was the end of everything. Then one women started to laugh and the others were also laughing, but we did not know why they were laughing, I was ready to cry and so was John. Then came the explanation: We were in jail for political reasons, not because we had committed any crime. The secretary repeated her question and we swore that we had not been in jail for any crime we had committed. We received our documents, they looked like a large book. The policeman had to bring us back to Cassias, but we were released the same day and took the bus home to our parents. Naturally we were the envy of the other six inmates from our special prison cell. While we were in jail I was reprimanded by the commander of this jail because at one of the meals I sat down before the order to sit down was given. Several guards yelled at me and it was such a commotion, that I must have committed a major crime. A guard led me to some officer. There I explained in French that I had forgotten to remain standing. I apologized and he accepted it, but in the meantime I had missed my meal. It was a good thing I did not understand what the guards shouted in Portuguese, it probably was not a compliment.
It took a while before the fact that we had gotten the priceless American visa, sank in. I don't remember how we managed to get the accumulated dirt and filth out of our skin and how we managed to get used to civilized bathroom facilities.
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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.