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How Our Family Escaped the Nazis

How Our Family Escaped the Nazis

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My first lesson in faith and loyalty came when I was almost three years old. Clearly I was too young to comprehend the full significance of what was happening, but having lived through it, and having heard the stories repeated, it was ingrained in my psyche.

Saved by an Angel

I was born in April 1937 in Antwerp, Belgium. Most of my family lived there, and we were all involved in the diamond and jewelry business.

Hitler, the megalomaniac, was steadily gaining power in Germany,They were out-manned, out-gunned, and out-tanked starting in 1933-1934. In his quest for European, perhaps even world, domination, he brought the full force of his ever-growing military conquests against the nations of Europe.

We Belgians thought that our country and the Netherlands, both being neutral, would be exempt from the onslaught of the Nazis. But of course, that was not to be. During the first few months of 1940, the Belgian army, with the help of the British, put up a furious fight to save Belgium from the Nazis. But they were out-manned, out-gunned and out-tanked. The British finally pulled out, and to save Belgium from total destruction, King Leopold surrendered to the Germans on May 28, 1940.

A strategic port city, Antwerp was one of the first cities to be taken by the Germans. On the Friday night before the invasion of Antwerp (it was more of a German victory march), a car and driver came to our house to rescue us—my parents, grandparents, my brother Joseph and me. The driver was supposed to take us out of immediate harms’ way into France. But, amid the chaos, my grandmother boldly stated, “We’re not going.”

There was a moment of silence, and then, “What do you mean, we’re not going? The Germans are coming on Sunday, and who knows what will happen?!”

My righteous grandmother replied, “M’tur nisht fuhren oif Shabbos. One doesn’t travel on Shabbat.”

“Yes, we all know,” everyone pleaded, “but we don’t know if we will even survive. What we do know is what’s happening in Poland and Germany. This is a matter of life and death!”

But one didn’t argue with my grandmother. So right or wrong, in this terrifying moment, we turned away what was possibly our only salvation, and resigned ourselves to praying and hoping for the best.

For the next 24 hours we tried to remain calm. We went to synagogue, prayed, hugged each other and discussed the precarious future in whispered tones with our family and friends. We knew that whatever happened, even if we could make it out somehow, we would have to leave behind our belongings, businesses, property and all sorts of valuables.

To our great astonishment and disbelief, the same driver returned after Shabbat. We didn’t know who he was; he never told us who sent him. Was he an angel sent by G‑d to to save us? Did my grandmother earn G‑d’s protection because of her unflinching resolve? Was it her faith and loyalty?

Also, I'm convinced that G‑d looked down upon me and told His angel, “We must save that child, because his bride will be born a year from now, and I don't want to disappoint her.”

(Fast forward 22 years and 3 months … on Saturday night of the Labor Day weekend, I stepped into my friend's car and saw his date, Ahuva [it was a double date]. We locked eyes and souls, and I met my bride whom G‑d had promised to me many years ago.)

The driver brought us across the border to France, to a small town called “La Panne,” dropped us off at the train station, and we never saw him again. We are forever grateful, and thank G‑d every day for sending one of His angels to my family.

Stuck in France

We began planning our escape to England. As it was almost impossible to get transportation, my father bought a pushcart for his very sick father, and we walked for hours until we reached Dunkirk. There, the nuns of a convent gave us shelter.

The next morning, we were astonished to see a devastated town. We realized we had slept through a huge bombardment. The fatigue from the previous day’s journey, and the convent’s thick walls, had given us the respite we so badly needed. Staying in the convent had saved our lives. Our angel was still with us. But the nuns were told the Germans were coming to search the area, and they could not provide for our safety any longer, so we had to leave Dunkirk.

With some friends and family we found in Dunkirk, we hired a fishing boat with our collective, quickly-disappearing funds. However, while we were on the English Channel, German planes strafed us with bombs and bullets. The captain had no choice but to sail back to port. Sadly, my grandfather Jacob of blessed memory, was too weak to take this punishment and didn’t make it.

The German propaganda machine issued proclamations saying that everyone should go back home (there were hundreds of thousands of refugees on the roads). “Everything will be like it was before, no one should worry, no one will be hurt.”

The Germans, of course, wanted the roads open so that their army could advance without interference. As my father’s mother had a son in the Belgian army, she decided to go back to Antwerp, in the hope that he would come home. (Uncle Emil did come home, and lived with his wife and three daughters until his untimely death from cancer. Grandma Reizel also survived the war, and came to New York for my bar mitzvah in 1950. Fearing the Korean War might develop into another world war, she stayed with us for the rest of her years.)

Meanwhile, back in France, we redoubled our efforts to leave theWe redoubled our efforts to leave the madness of Europe madness of Europe. Our immediate destination was Marseilles, then the largest French port city on the Riviera. We boarded a train traveling south. About an hour into the ride, a German plane roared overhead and began to strafe the train. The train stopped, and the conductor ordered everyone to get off and run. While most of the people were terrified, screaming or praying loudly, my brother and I were having a grand time, innocently unafraid, lying on the ground, giggling and following the bombs with our outstretched arms, as they whistled their way down.

There were some injuries, but only a little damage, and after a few minutes, the pilot either ran out of ammo or gas, or got bored and left the area. We all hustled back on the train, and the rest of the trip to Marseilles was uneventful. Was the same angel protecting us from the Luftwaffe, or was this a different angel?

As you can imagine, six Jews arriving at Marseilles with nothing but a small suitcase and some money tucked away was a daunting experience. Luckily, my mother spoke French, which somewhat eased the constant confrontations with the haughty French bureaucrats. We first contacted the local synagogue, where assistance was gladly given.

We all settled into a small apartment, and made inquiries about the next boat to the U.S. At that time, there were a few countries accepting refugees from Europe (this too was to change in the following years): Cuba, Venezuela, China, Japan, Canada and America. Some of our family members chose Cuba (but that’s another story). My mother’s three brothers were clever enough to foresee the future, and had made their way to New York in 1939. Clearly, they would vouch for us, which would ensure our entry to the U.S.

My parents had already decided that America was to be our only destination, and waiting for news of a boat with passage for our family was excruciating.

Arrested!

Meanwhile, the French were becoming more aggressive in their eagerness to please the inevitable invaders from Germany. They began a “stop and search” routine to ferret out the Jews, which resulted in the capture of my father.

We were stopped by the French police, and my father was taken into custody, stripped of his Belgian passport and put in jail.

By some extraordinary planning, my parents had worked out a scenario that if either one was detained, the other would wait for contact at a specific café, between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. every day. My mom and my grandma took turns vigilantly. They couldn’t take the risk of Papa Chiel (Grandpa) being caught and thrown in jail as well.

How they survived the anguish and anxiety of not knowing what had become of my father is a testament to the human spirit.

One day, a few weeks on, a stranger approached my mom at the café, and asked her if her name was Guis? At once, my mother knew that this was a message from my father. “Yes,” the stranger said, “he’s fine. I’m on a weekend pass. The French police don’t want to spend every day of the week in their jail, so they are giving some of us a pass, in order to allow just a skeleton crew to be on duty on the weekend. Of course, they hold our passports as collateral. Your husband asked me to find you and tell you that you don’t have to wait here every day. The only way he’ll ever get out is if they give him a weekend pass. So you need to be here only on Saturday and Sunday.” And, abruptly, the man left.

Another angel?

And so the vigil continued—that awful state of mind of not knowing what the next minute would bring, the stress of trying to create a normal atmosphere for the children while in the midst of uncertainty, and yes, mental terror. Unless you walk a mile in those shoes, you cannot fathom the emotional drain. One day after another, one week after another.

And then, on a late Friday afternoon, when hope was becoming a thing of the past, Mom (who decided she would add Friday to her vigilance), looked up from her coffee cup, and there was my dad walking towards her. The reunion was exhilarating, the relief beyond description. They actually gave Dad a weekend pass, but with the warning that he must return Monday morning or he would forfeit his passport. Ha! Let’s see, forfeit my passport or forfeit my life? Tough decision!

The waiting for a boat continued, the tension ever-mounting.

Dad had become a target for the Marseilles police, who were now activelyAfter an agonizing moment, the cop blinked a few times, and turned away searching for him. On one of the necessary bus trips back home from the docks, Dad noticed a man staring at him. Yes, it was the same cop who had taken him away many weeks ago.

It was approaching evening. Father held his breath. The policeman must have been on his way home. He looked straight at Dad, while Dad lowered his eyes to the floor. Then suddenly after an agonizing moment, the cop blinked a few times, and turned away.

Did he not recognize my dad? Did he not want to spend the next few hours with an arrest, going back to the jail, with all the paperwork involved? Did he just want to go home and spend a nice quiet evening? Or did our angel once again intervene on our behalf?

This episode brought home to my parents that it was no longer safe to wait in Marseilles. Drastic measures had to be taken. Some of the fleeing Jews were traveling to Portugal, for several reasons: To get as far away from Germany as possible, and because Portugal was neutral and not anti-Semitic. Additionally, word was that more boats were available out of Lisbon.

Flight to Lisbon

We heard of a guide, who for an exorbitant amount of money, would take you out of France, across the border to Spain, over and down the Pyrenees and into the nearest big city.

With no other option, we found and hired him, but he was only willing to take my older brother, Joseph, who could make the walk, and not me, who would have to be carried most of the way. So I stayed behind with my grandparents, who had somehow gotten documents that would allow them to travel to Lisbon, where we all planned to meet.

Did I have feelings of abandonment? Did I think I might never see my parents again? Or was I too young to comprehend what was happening? And imagine my mother having to leave one of her sons and her parents, not knowing if she would ever see us again.

My parents gathered whatever they could carry, with the understanding that my five-year-old brother might also have to be carried. The guide took most of what was left of our money (we were now almost penniless, and one adult didn’t have papers), and they took off at dusk.

The “savior” drove them close to the border of Spain and stashed the car in the woods, and that’s when the hiking began. To avoid the checkpoints on the border, they walked mainly in the woods. Not at all easy for my mother, who was for the most part a stay-at-home mother. My dad was a fervent Maccabi soccer player, so it was easier on him.

I’m not sure how many hours it took them to get to where they were going, but the guide said, “We’re not stopping. Either we keep walking, or I leave you here.” So on they trudged.

The later it got, the crankier my brother became. Then he started whining and crying. He was exhausted, and wanted only to lie down and sleep. Finally the guide told them that it was too risky for him to take them any farther. “If the child’s cries were to be heard, we would all be thrown in a Spanish jail.” He made an about-face (naturally keeping all the money), and left them in the middle of the night, atop the Pyrenees Mountains, with no food, little money and dwindling hope.

They rested for quite some time, and in the end, on their own, my parents chose the correct and safe path down the mountain into Spanish civilization. My parents and brother made their way to Madrid, only to find all the hotels and inns guarded by German police and soldiers. To get a room, you had to hand in your passport, which my father didn’t have, or face arrest. Food and board became an interesting game.

Here’s where the story becomes hazy. I don’t remember if my brother and I were ever told how we all managed to get to Portugal intact, or perhaps it was too painful to store in my memory, having been separated from Mom and Dad. But, indeed, eventually we were all reunited in Lisbon, to my parents’ great relief, and everlasting thanks to G‑d.

More Waiting for Passage

There was a community of Jewish refugees gathered in Lisbon, all helping each other with lodging, food, and most importantly, information. We needed to know when a boat was leaving, what its destination was, was there space available, and how to book passage with a minimum of funds. The Portuguese government was very sympathetic to the plight of Jewish refugees, so they helped in every way possible.

Unfortunately, my brother contracted scarlet fever during the wait for passage. Try as they may, my parents could not avoid the inevitable, and I caught it as well. Clearly, they could not risk the health of their children, or the safety of the other passengers on board. So Lisbon was to be our home for a further six weeks, until we were both disease free.

Dad somehow managed to acquire identity papers, and booked passage on the “Serpa Pinto,” which was bound for Canada. The journey was not smooth sailing either. During oneThe journey was not smooth sailing particularly heavy storm, a chandelier crashed down, just missing my father. There were also U-boat scares and other weather-related perils.

Finally, in January 1941 we landed in the safe haven of North America. We made our way south through “Rouses Point” (on the Canadian/U.S. border) to New York, where my uncles were thrilled to see their parents, sister and brother-in-law, plus two thin but healthy nephews.

My father became established as a diamond sawyer and cleaver on 47th Street. Mom sent us to a school called “Children’s Colony,” which was geared toward easing us into learning English, as we spoke only French. So, teachers with heavy German accents taught us English with a touch of French and German

The eight-month ordeal had been difficult and terrifying, but with faith and loyalty on our side, and the indomitable spirit of loving parents and grandparents, we pulled through with flying colors.

We pay tribute to the many who suffered far greater and longer than we, and bless the memory of those who joined G‑d before their time.

I personally thank G‑d for 54 years of blissful marriage, and all the blessings and dividends that He has bestowed on us: good health, children and grandchildren. And I pray for us and all of Israel, that G‑d continues to look upon us all with favor, kindness, sweetness and peace. May He grant us the music of laughter, the ease of friendship, the warmth of love—with the knowledge that we will repay Him in kind.

Amen.

Sefira Ross is a freelance designer and illustrator whose original creations grace many Chabad.org pages. Residing in Seattle, Washington, her days are spent between multitasking illustrations and being a mom.
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jim dallas February 23, 2017

sefira has illustrated this story of survival of a horrific time of threat and disaster for the jew in the wide world...a prophetic and serious sky nearly devouring the victimized fearful family attempting an escape...this is the present horizon in the usa for millions of peaceful and hard-working hispanics, mexicans, and other nationalities...unacceptable!

i am thoroughly enjoying these many comments from a universal readership, thank you chabad.org! Reply

Paulo Toyosi Toda Nishimura São Paulo/Brazil February 19, 2017

Thank you. This was an enjoyable way of telling a story abou such a terrible moment of human history: the persecution in the second world war. This type and other more mild are very good to remind without shocking, about mistakes in the past. We must remember to avoid. But without shocking the newer generations who are found in, normally, a more comfortable inertia; in a better state, is a better solution.
Very grateful for the habitual gentleness. Reply

Fro February 17, 2017

Beautiful and poignant story...I never get tired of reading every holocaust survival story...each is a precious diamond that gives strength and hope to the soul. Thank you.. Reply

jim dallas February 16, 2017

a very many families of immigrants being only hard working and peaceful people, are now thrown into hiding and striving to survive as families or individuals, in the usa, not a good thing to see! Reply

M. Diane Flushing, NY February 15, 2017

I knew how it was going to turn out
because you were writing the story, after all,
But still, the tension and stress and fear
gripped my heart. It's still beating fast. Reply

Joyce Pustilnik New York February 14, 2017

Edgar, my family was from Antwerp also.My grandparents were lucky and came ot America in 1939 and my parents in 1940. I too went to the Children's Colony but I don't remember you from there. My grandfather and Uncle were diamond dealers.
I would love to get in touch with you. Reply

Tone Lechtzier Oregon x grid wilderness February 14, 2017

Thank you for sharing your faith, and reinforcing mine.
Blessings Reply

shlomo vancouver b.c canada February 13, 2017

it is always difficult to write about personal experiences so many years after the events. I am a survivor also and from Belgium too. I was 9 years old when the Nazis burst into the country.
I have to correct the writer on several issues he raises.
I quote; 'during the first few months OF 1940,the Belgian army put up a furious fight against the German army. " this gives the impression that the Belgian army fought for a few months before surrendering on May 28. First of all, the Nazis invaded Belgium on May 10, 1940. the Belgian soldiers did not fight " furiously ", they ran because of the treachery of their leaders and of the King Leopold

secondly, the writer and his family arrived at "La Panne " across the border in France. La Panne is still in Belgium, as far as I know. wonderful story showing that God moves in mysterious ways. all of us survivors have miraculous tales to tell. you survived and that is what counts. Reply

S U.K. February 13, 2017

What beautiful blessings you and your family have had from HaShem, and I pray this continues for you all, because your life account recalled here, is an inspiration and hope for people today, experiencing troubles, to help them have faith that all will be well. Thank you Reply