“Line up against that wall” said the Captain to my uncle Fred. “Platoon. Get ready, take aim…”
On one of the numerous attempts to escape Germany in the late 1930s, my father and some friends paid someone to drive them to the Belgian border. The driver said he had arranged for a smuggler to help them cross over into Belgium. When they arrived at the border, a German patrol was waiting to arrest them. Apparently the driver had double-crossed the group of young Jews by informing the authorities of their plan. After he was arrested, my father was transferred to Aachen prison to await his fate.
While in prison he was put in a cell whose occupant was a shepherd (a German shepherd!). He was in prison for making love to a sheep. While doing the deed a German patrol passed by and as he had placed the hind legs of the sheep in his boots he couldn’t extricate himself in a timely manner and was arrested and brought to Aachen prison. In the few weeks my father shared a cell he was more scared of the shepherd than he was of the Nazis— having failed to consider that not being a sheep made him unattractive to his cellmate.
Ultimately he contacted my grandmother, who managed to obtain his release by bribing a prison guard.
My grandmother on my mother’s side was a Bolshevik. She was a firebrand communist activist in the pre-revolution days and lived in a shtetl (small town) in Belarus. Her father was the town baker and had some status in town. One evening the chief of police, a friend of my great grandfather, paid a visit and told him that the authorities were coming the next day to arrest my grandmother for anti-government activities.
That night, she packed her bags and fled the country, ultimately ending up in London where her sister lived. In London she settled into the East End, which was full of like –minded communists who had also fled the wrath of the Czar. While there she met and married my grandfather, who was a lefty from way back. An ardent pacifist who hated war, he left his small town outside of Kiev, Ukraine to escape conscription into the Russian army.
When World War One started he registered as a conscientious objector. Facing a tribunal and inevitable arrest and imprisonment, he decided to go into hiding. This was a capital offense and had he been caught he would have been executed. My aunt told me that as a very little girl she would visit him in an attic but she had to promise her mother never to tell anyone that her father was alive. So until the end of the war when amnesty for deserters was announced, he was a fugitive and, de facto, a refugee.
My father-in-law Benno escaped Germany in 1935. A tall handsome man who was quite well to do, he was a butcher in the successful family business. An avid sportsman and great swimmer he was chosen to represent Germany in the first Maccabiah games (Jewish Olympics) held in Palestine in 1932. He found Palestine interesting but not enough to want to live there so he returned to his life in Germany. As a good-looking bachelor, he had lots of girlfriends, many of whom were not Jewish.
In 1935, Hitler passed the miscegenation laws officially called the “Gesetz zum Schutze des deutschen Blutes und der deutschen Ehre “ (Protection of German Blood and German Honor Act) that forbade marriage and extramarital sexual relations between persons racially regarded as non-Aryans and Aryans. When Benno heard this he said, “If I can’t shtupp the shikshas (can’t have sex with non-Jewish women) then I’m out of here.”
He packed his bags and left for Palestine. On the train out of Germany one of the passengers in his compartment was an elderly, religious Jew who had spread out newspaper on the table in front of him. His lunch was pickled herring, which was messy and strong smelling. When the train arrived at the border, the German guards inspected every passenger and their luggage. They were looking for contraband and currency. At that time you were only allowed to take 10 Reichmarks (approximately $20) out of the country. When the inspectors came to the old man who was busy eating, he pointed to his bags, which they removed and examined, steering clear of his fish-smelling person. The search revealed nothing and the train was allowed to leave. After they had crossed the border into Belgium, the old man rolled up the newspapers, smiled at Benno and revealed hundreds of dollars and Swiss marks that had been hidden underneath.
My uncle Fred managed to escape Germany with some friends who made their way to the British lines in France. They encountered a patrol of Senegalese tirailleurs (riflemen) who were assigned to the French army. They explained to the sergeant in charge that they were Jewish refugees but he didn’t believe them and thought they were German spies. He decided to execute them and lined them up against a wall. As they were about to get shot, a British Major on a motorbike happened to pass by and stopped the execution. Not knowing whether or not they were spies, he had them arrested and shipped off to Pentonville prison in London. While there he contacted my mother to let her and my father know he was alive. I loved Uncle Fred but he was a schnorrer (sponger); in this first letter he asked my mother to send him money.
By this time the British had a surfeit of refugees and spies so they decided to ship them all off to Canada for processing. In Southampton dock, there were two transport ships going to Canada. While waiting on line to board one of the ships Fred heard his name called from the line boarding the other ship. It was a friend of his from Berlin. His friend encouraged him to join his line and as the guards weren’t paying much attention, Fred crossed over, boarded with his friend and sailed to Canada. On arrival, he found out that the other transport, the one he was assigned to, had been struck by a German U-Boat and all hands were lost at sea. He was ultimately sent back to the UK and joined the British Army and served alongside my father until the end of the war.