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How I Fled Nazi Germany

ISSUE:  Summer 1986

In the Winter 1983 issue to which I had contributed, the Virginia Quarterly Review identified me as a person who had fled Nazi Germany. I thank them for dramatizing what has been an ordinary, and by the standards of grand biography, uneventful life, but they are mistaken, and I wonder who provided them with this apocryphal datum. The myth of my escape first surfaced one day in 1938 when Dr. William Gleason Bean, chairman of the history department at Washington and Lee University, summoned me to his office. After I arrived, he closed the door, bade me sit down, and asked in a conspiratorial whisper: “Tell me, Mr. Schmitt, how did you get out of Germany?” “I went to the Frankfurt main station, bought a ticket, and took a train,” I answered truthfully. His face fell, and he dismissed me with curt thanks. Obviously, I had disappointed him, whether because I had cheated him of a good story, or because my apparent reserve indicated a lack of trust, I cannot say. He never raised the subject again.

There was, of course, no secret to protect. I left Germany on Sept.19, 1934. It was three months after my 13th birthday, and I was on nobody’s hit list, nor was I hunted by the Gestapo. Still, it was a dramatic turning point in my little life. During the preceding spring the government had decided to add a new subject to the curriculum called “national-political instruction.” It was to be taught on Saturday and consisted of the history of the Nazi party, the lives of its founders and leaders, and indoctrination in the spirit of the new Germany. Not everyone, however, was considered fit to receive this revealed truth. Children with at least one Jewish parent, or two Jewish grandparents, were excluded. Their school week was now shortened by a day, the only instance in the history of the Nazi reign when Jewish ancestry proved an advantage.

Statistics revealed that frequent marriages between Jews and gentiles during the previous century had created a “Jewish Problem” which transcended Germany’s 600,000 Jews, and which included one and a half million Judenstämmlinge, persons endowed with varying ratios of Semitic ancestry. These mongrels complicated the separation of tribes. During its 12-year tenure, the Nazi government never produced a working definition of Jewishness. Goring is said to have terminated a meeting of legal experts, convened to close this gap in jurisprudence, by pounding the table and shouting: “I’ll decide who is a Jew.” The SS required its prospective members to document 16 ancestors free from Jewish contamination. Not even Hitler could meet that requirement, because his illegitimate father’s paternity has never been satisfactorily documented. Rumors also abounded that Reinhard Heydrich, the dreaded chief of the Gestapo, had a Jewish mother.

The racical legislation could, therefore, not bridge this vast gray area. Instead, it subjected many ordinary citizens to a capricious, oppressive game of numbers and percentages. Genealogy turned from popular hobby into fearful revelation. Unpleasant disclosures might suddenly exclude an individual or an entire family from the national community, without offering any social or emotional substitute. Rarely did these half-breeds possess preparation or adaptability to build bridges to Judaism. In our household, too, this new state of affairs prompted a search for identity. My mother briefly attempted to learn Hebrew, until she found that this strange and difficult tongue elicited no vibrations of ancient kinships. I joined the Jewish boy scouts, and at first had an easier time of it. My certified Nordic appearance was an asset to my troop. I marched in the first rank, the “token goy” who gave the whole outfit a deceptively Germanic appearance. But one day an orthodox member of the sponsoring Jewish community discovered that I was not Bar Mitzvah and lodged a formal protest against my infidel presence.

To forestall more trouble, I doffed my uniform. I, too, could not pass—in either direction.

In school, the first among my peers to join the Hitler Youth tried to recruit me into his troop. He assured me that the local party would not hold my mother against me. It was a gesture of juvenile friendship which nonplussed me momentarily. I solved the dilemma with the German child’s standard excuse: “My father won’t allow it.”

After such a succession of predicaments, my liberation from Saturday classes was to my parents no laughing matter. They found it intolerable to have their child segregated from his contemporaries and resolved that I must continue my education elsewhere. In the spring of 1934 English Quakers founded in Holland a boarding school for children whose parents were suffering political or ethnic persecution. My parents visited the grounds and decided that it was the place for me.

In the short run their decision freed me from the pressures of academic competition and the fruitless search for alternate allegiances. Being of an optimistic and not overly reflective disposition, I recognized the advantages of my impending transfer, without anticipating the pain separation from my family and friends would cause me. Nothing clouded the delight with which I looked forward to escaping the juvenile prison that was the German Gymnasium. I had never flourished in its atmosphere, and the mediocrity of my report cards scarcely presaged the scholarly life I would eventually lead. I disliked most of my teachers and gave them ample reason to reciprocate. With the exception of Dr. Schreuers— my French teacher whom his subject seemed to have turned into a dynamo of suspiciously Latinate ebullience—they rolled every subject into a tasteless dough of boredom. Before our eyes and ears these pedagogues picked apart the classics of German literature, like vultures ravishing a decaying corpse. They reduced geography and biology to dreary rote learning of statistics and classifications. They were society’s lictors, appointed to punish us for being the fruits of original sin.

The pathetic alacrity with which these same teachers yielded to the oncoming wave of new politics increased my contempt for them. My taskmasters turned out to be spineless and unprincipled. I therefore derived great satisfaction watching them wriggle in the net of the national revolution from which I was about to escape. Soon I would be able to thumb my nose at them as well as their Führer. Mistaking my parents’ wisdom and sacrifice for new and hitherto unsuspected virtues and desserts of my own, I indulged in an orgy of malicious joy.

At home my impending departure occasioned much serious conversation. As they looked at my report cards, my parents must have turned me loose with great misgivings. Who would hold my feet to the fire in Holland? Could boarding-school study halls replace parental authority? They tried hard to meet all negative eventualities by impressing on me that my going away constituted a premature rite of passage: a vote of confidence which my past performance scarcely justified. One day my mother also explained that I was not leaving merely for my own sake. Transfer to a foreign school, sponsored by British philanthropy, was to initiate the eventual escape of the entire family, probably to some corner of the Anglo-Saxon world. I was to be the spearhead of that exodus. Four lives, rather than one, might depend on my success.

I accepted this admonition as a compliment and promised freely to become the savior of our little clan. Otherwise, the prospect of such responsibility did not disturb my sleep. Getting together my belongings, from sheets to washcloths, from Sunday best to gym togs, absorbed me much more, almost as much as it did my mother who had to sew name tags into every article of my school wardrobe.

On my parents’ instructions I had only told two of my best friends that I was leaving. There was no law against sending children abroad, but to do so in these glorious times was not an act one wished to broadcast. So the hustle and bustle was confined to our apartment. On the day of my departure I got up early to embrace my father before he went off to work. Under the circumstances, he could not think of taking off the day because his oldest boy was leaving the country. Only one visitor came, with a package. It was Helmut, who lived across the street. His parents were, by our standards, immensely rich, but that made no difference to us. An even worse student than I, he had for years shared my fate of being an outsider in a world of disapproving parents and teachers. Since January 1933, we had added to our repertory of intransigence the refusal to give the Nazi salute outside the classroom. At all public ceremonies, we stood shoulder to shoulder, rigidly at attention, drowning in a sea of extended arms and buffeted by disapproving glares, until one day, during a demonstration for the return of some unredeemed German territory or other, a frantic teacher whacked each of us smartly across the face, and then took us into his office to explain what dire results our behavior would have for our parents.

“Open the package,” Helmut said impatiently. He loved to give gifts, and he loved to see the recipient open them. The parcel contained a book, Friedrich der Grosse by Franz Kugler, for decades the best-selling biography of Hitler’s favorite Prussian king. “Look inside,” Helmut ordered. On the fly leaf I read: “Don’t forget me in Holland. Your boon companion Helmut.” “The “boon companion” was my mother’s idea,” he apologized. Since I had for years spent many gray afternoons reading history, instead of doing my homework, I was very pleased. It was a good present, given by someone who knew me. But in retrospect, what a gift for such an occasion! It showed where we really stood, despite all the heart-to-heart talk about a familial exile. Here I was, leaving before the ghetto gates closed, with a biography of Frederick the Great as a souvenir of my past life, a biography—by the way—the bulk of which described the wars of the great Hohenzollern, lightly skimming over his musical virtuosity, his sophisticated literacy, his role as a lawgiver and reformer. What this book represented had been alien to my family’s values long before Hitler, but no one snatched the superpatriotic confection from my hands. My mother was also moved, by the gesture as well as my reaction to it; only Helmut left disconsolate, to report to his keepers at the jail of learning from which I had been paroled.

My mother and I took the streetcar to the station. If no deep and melancholy reflections filled my mind as we passed the landmarks among which I had grown up, it was because, I must say it again, this was no flight. It was only a departure. We got out at the Municipal Theater and changed to another tram which deposited us at the entrance of what I had always been proud to know as Germany’s second largest railroad station. The hash of sounds with which such terminals reverberate engulfed us and made conversation all but impossible. First my mother inquired where my train would leave; then she bought a platform ticket. Then we went to my train’s freight car. The previous day I had ridden my bicycle to the freight depot and entrusted it to the clerk for delivery to my train. We made sure that it had been duly conveyed, so that I could reclaim it at the end of the trip. Then we found a third-class compartment, and with the help of a kindly stranger lifted my suitcase into the baggage rack, and caught our breath. Now came the worst time, the remaining minutes before the train squeaked, jerked, and finally moved.

Since I had never traveled alone, this first journey to school was to be interrupted at Neuss, a small industrial town on the lower Rhine, across the river from Düsseldorf, where one of my future teachers lived. Her parents would board me over night, and in her company I would complete the trip the following day. The prospect of staying the night and passing an entire day in the company of a teacher was, of course, tantamount to purgatory. But the arrangements had not been submitted for my prior approval, and I really had no time to think much about them. I was entirely absorbed by concerns for my bicycle. In Neuss, where the train was scheduled to stop for two minutes, I would have to grab my heavy suitcase, run the length of the train, and retrieve my dearest possession. In my mind I had been rehearsing this operation incessantly since we had left home. I did not want the train to carry my bicycle to God knows what untoward and irreversible destination.

I looked at my mother. “Be sure to thank Mr. and Mrs. K. for their hospitality when you leave,” she said. “And be sure to put your knife in your right hand when you cut your meat at dinner. And don’t start eating before everyone else. These people are devout Catholics and may say a prayer before their meal.” This was going to be more difficult than I had expected. I suddenly realized that I was about to spend a night with strangers, in a town of which I had never heard until recently, in a room and in a bed of which I could form no picture in my mind’s eye.

A raucous voice shouted: Alles einsteigen! (“All aboard!”) I rushed from the car door to my compartment window. Suddenly the carefree expression of my face must have changed. My mother was on the platform, and I was in this moving object about to be carried westward into the unknown. I experienced the same feeling once more in life, 17 years later in the Social Science building at the University of Chicago, when the doors of the elevator carrying me to my Ph.D. oral on the third floor closed behind me. I had gone willingly to the point of departure, realizing, too late, that I was not sure I relished my destination. My mother’s mouth crumpled into weeping. She pressed a handkerchief to her eyes. I was moving, and she kept moving with me at first, until the speed of the train pushed her outside the frame of my vision. I kept standing by the window, looking at the railway yards, the switches, the idle rolling stock, the drab houses bordering the tracks, all passing ever more quickly before me. Mechanically I sat down.

“And where are you going, little man,” the voice of the same stranger who had helped me with my suitcase woke me from my paralysis of thought and feeling. “To visit family,” I said, telling the man what my parents had drilled me to answer under such circumstances. I had been trained not to trust people I did not know, because they might have an unwholesome interest in little boys—whose exact nature was then puzzling and incomprehensible to me—or because they might pump me for information which I had learned to reserve for relatives and close friends. “You are visiting family in the middle of the school year?” my interlocutor exclaimed. “My grandma is dying,” I answered calmly, “and she wants to see me once more. My parents will follow on Saturday.” I had lied to adults practically all my life, to parents about school, and to teachers whom I had treated over the years to an ever more elaborate menu of excuses for not turning in assignments on time. Lying with a good conscience was a new experience. It made the act even easier, and I am sure that I could have expatiated on the sufferings of my nonexistent granny for hours, had need arisen. But the kindhearted gentleman decided not to trespass further on this familial tragedy and opened his newspaper, leaving me to my thoughts.

We had left Frankfurt behind and were racing down the Main toward its confluence with the Rhine at Mainz, the first stop on the journey. I had not seen much of the world, and it did not take long before the sights that passed my window began to engross me. The trip was one of the most beautiful one can take on a German train. The tracks followed a great river through its most spectacular valleys, past a succession of idyllic little towns, framed by steep hills whose crests were adorned with castle ruins. The names of these remnants were known to me even before I saw them for the first time. I have traveled this stretch many times since then and never wearied of its beauty, although later in life I found that the Hudson between New York and West Point offers sights just as spectacular, even without an occasional ruin punctuating the wonders of nature. After Coblenz the country leveled off, and by the time the train passed Cologne the landscape became monotonous, and the castles were replaced by steel mills and factories. I began to worry about my bicycle again. Around 1:30 the conductor announced Neuss as the next stop. I put on my loden coat and dragged my suitcase from the compartment to the exit of the car. My own first D-day was at hand.

Miss K. was to collect me at Neuss station and take charge of me. Foresightedly she had sent us a recent photo, so that I knew what she looked like. I spied her as soon as I got off the train, gave my suitcase a vigorous push in her direction, and made a dash for the mail car. By the time I reached it, the train was moving again, but not, of course, before all mail and freight destined for Neuss had been unloaded. I realized that I could have saved myself much anguish and some exercise, because the German Railways were not in the habit of carrying persons or freight one kilometer farther than they had contracted to. There, leaning against a post, stood my bicycle, visibly in the same peerless working condition in which I had surrendered it the day before. Relieved, I seized the handlebars and guided it to the spot where my reception committee of one and my suitcase were waiting.

My chaperone looked younger than any teacher I had ever had. On our trip the next day I would learn that she was to be the new art instructor at my school. From her passport I gathered that she was only 23, thus not really outside the pale. After this revelation I gave her the benefit of my doubt and found her company to be a great deal more pleasant than I had expected.

For the moment, however, I apprehended that my bicycle had not figured among her travel preparations. “You are planning to take this to school?” she asked, rather foolishly, for I certainly had not intended it as a present for her parents. “Everybody in Holland has a bicycle,” I informed her, both reprovingly and defensively. “Well, then we better dispatch it at once,” she decided. In Neuss this was more difficult than it had been in Frankfurt. The clerk at the freight window was still out to lunch, and we had to wait until he returned, or was summoned—I suspect the latter—for he was wiping his mouth demonstratively with a greasy handkerchief as he grumpily opened his counter for business.

I should perhaps explain at this point that the school whose student body I was about to join occupied the 18th-century chateau of Eerde, in the countryside of northeast Holland, two miles from Ommen, the nearest town. My bicycle, insignificant in official eyes to begin with, had to be charted for a journey far more complex than the clerk seemed prepared to handle. First it had to cross a border, then it had to be transferred in Arnhem from a fast international train to the jurisdiction of the Dutch Railways, and finally to the Dutch version of a milk train which twice a day—as I subsequently discovered—chugged placidly from Zwolle, the provincial capital of Overijssel, through a succession of small towns and villages, including Ommen. The scribe repeatedly shook his head and emitted many grunts of disgust and frustration as he mapped this itinerary on his manifest. After he had written and stamped to his heart’s content, he warned us that if the Dutch customs should refuse the importation of this vehicle of dubious value, the matter was, of course, out of his hands. Then he gave me a copy of his handiwork, which took its place in my bulging hip pocket beside my identity card and my ticket. Miss K. sighed with relief and summoned a taxi that took us to her home.

I have forgotten what the K. residence looked like, nor have I any recollection of Miss K.’s parents. I do not remember whether I committed any social faux pas. Did my hosts pray before dinner; did they pay any attention to my table manners? It has all been wiped from my memory. The guest room in which I slept struck me as elegant, but what stands out most clearly in my mind was a book which my chaperone had given me to read, and which I did not put down until darkness overcame the long central European day. It was a German journalist’s tale of his travels in the U.S. and Canada. One episode has stuck in my mind to this day. It seems that the author found himself one evening all but penniless in a small town of the Canadian West. Faced with the necessity of paying for his hotel room, he went to the local radio station, where he presented himself as a piano virtuoso specializing in contemporary music. The station manager appeared to be impressed and scheduled an afternoon recital for an honorarium which would cover the author’s current embarassment. Actually, the narrator did not know how to play the piano, but he wheedled the money out of his employer in advance, and once alone with the instrument and microphone began to belabor the former in a vigorous, if random fashion, with fingers, fists, and elbows until he, and, one presumes, the local listeners were both exhausted and deafened. Then he rushed back to his quarters, paid his bill, and high-tailed it out of town.

I think I know why this tale from an undistinguished travel book by an obscure author cleaves to my memory. This was the first account, since my reading of Tom Sawyer, of my future homeland which did not teem with “Trappers” and Indians. Like Mark Twain’s classic it reflected a spirit of easygoing enterprise, half-rebellious, half-larcenous, still adhering to a culture which produced such hybrid heroes, both robbers and revolutionaries, as Jesse James. In Europe you could not cheat and run. Frequent borders, a small geographic space, and your identity card would lead to quick capture, no matter whither you fled. In the expanse of North America there was room for genuine escapes. I had no way of knowing that it would one day be my home, and that its wide open spaces protected from the sanction of the law not only charlatans but murderers. As a child inured to oppression of many kinds, I empathized with this vision of liberty. It concorded with daydreams in which I defied adult authority and got away with it.

Next morning after breakfast, my companion and I rode another taxi to our train and began an odyssey of which the completion of my bicycle manifest had given me so daunting a foretaste. The distance we covered was barely 300 miles, but with two long stops at each side of the border and two changes, it was evening when we detrained at the small market town which was as close to our destination as any railway would carry us. The first impressions of a strange, flat country had not been spectacular. Naturally, I began counting windmills as soon as we had crossed the border. I noticed that Dutch houses were roofed with red tiles rather than slate. Dutch trains were drawn by English locomotives with highly polished brass fittings, which also bore the name and location of their manufacturers. By the time we reached our destination, I had learned that the Dutch word for platform was “perron”, and for train “trein.” Quickly I learned to ask Op welke perron gaat de trein nar. . .. (“On what platform will the train to . . .depart.”) Dutch numerals being similar to their German equivalents, I had no trouble understanding the answers. There was nothing to it, which was very reassuring.

In Ommen I discovered, however, that my bicycle was still in transit, and after that discovery of this strange country’s unreliability my spirits sank again. The creaky taxi in which we completed the last miles of our journey did little to lift them. After we left the outskirts of the town behind, dark woods engulfed the highway until we turned into a broad, unpaved avenue at the end of which sparkled the lights of the castle. My “flight” had reached its destination.

As we got out of the car, a handsome lady bore down on us, both hands extended in a gesture of welcome. She introduced herself as Mrs. Petersen, the headmistress, and welcomed new teacher and new student with equal warmth. I had never been placed on an equal footing with a teacher before, and this reception made me so comfortable that I began to realize I had not eaten since breakfast. Besides, Mrs. Petersen looked exactly as I had expected her to look. Friendly, stately, and blonde, and obviously in charge of things. She took us both to the kitchen in the basement where a late dinner awaited. She asked after my parents, and what kind of a trip we had had. While we were eating, we were joined by two boys who were introduced as my roommates. They went by the nicknames of “Stippi” and “Rommel”, and I learned only later and incidentally that their real names were Hans Lüdecke and Eberhard Brann. They guided me and my suitcase to our quarters, Room 12, in a separate dormitory building, and after I had extracted my sleeping and washing implements, we all went to bed and, so far as I can remember, to a good night’s sleep.

So much for my first escape. There was nothing unusual about it, and what made it more ordinary was the fact that I would make several such journeys to and from Germany during the next three years.

Twice a year the Quakerschool Eerde closed its classrooms, one month, from December 15 to January 15, for Christmas vacation, and two months during the summer. I generally spent these interludes with my family. There would be nothing to say about these trips home were it not for the changing rules of travel which proliferated during the 1930’s. While my parents remembered the days before 1914 when Russia was the only country requiring travelers to carry a passport, after 1918 few continental borders could be legally crossed without this document. It was a time when European governments seemed to glory in their power to make the passage of people, capital, and goods across their frontiers as difficult as possible. Before long, earnest bureaucrats discovered the visum: a special stamp which a passport had to contain before it became a valid transit document. Until 1935, if I remember correctly, crossing the German boundary entailed no unusual ceremony. Controls on the German side were thorough and systematic. They may have been a trifle more time-consuming than the border formalities of other Western countries. Then the Nazis added to the inspection of papers and baggage the examination of billfolds. Having raised outlays for armaments to levels which would have led to national bankruptcy, unless the printing presses of the state staunched the hemorrhage of deficit financing, the government prevented a second wave of inflation in ten years by insulating the mark from international currency markets. Travelers could take no more than 10 marks out of the country, unless they secured a special currency export permit. At the border the amount of cash one carried was entered on one’s passport by a suitably grimfaced official. After the beginning of food rationing, especially of meats and fats, in 1936, travelers from such dairy-rich countries as Holland and Denmark usually arrived with packages for their German friends, of butter, ham, and bacon, only to find their kindness requited with additional bureaucratic stratagems. The gifts had to be weighed and inspected in an office at the border station, to make sure they did not exceed totally arbitrary, government-imposed maxima. One had to leave the train, stand in line, and finally pay a fee before the produce could enter the sacred precincts of the new Germany. Each such requirement extended the border stop by another half-hour or so.

It was a dreadful bore with which one had to contend. No one cut and ran, no shots were fired, and no exciting chase enacted, at least within my sight and hearing. On one of these trips home, when I was 15, these nuisances became even more burdensome when I had to take charge of a first grader, Mischa, whom I was to deliver to his mother at the Frankfurt railroad station. Since my own brother was not much older than Mischa, this was not an unaccustomed chore. But Mischa was a winning little extrovert, who liked to wander about the train and cadge sandwiches and other diet supplements from kindly avuncular travelers, and when I returned from the obligatory weighing of dairy imports, he was, of course, gone from his seat. Only half an hour after the train had resumed its progress did I catch up with him, cheerfully devastating the candy box left at his disposal, this time, by a solitary old lady in a first-class compartment. Luckily he did not get sick before I had turned him over to his mother. He seems to have made up for this omission later, for his mother subsequently complained that 1 had not taken good care of her little boy. He was never entrusted to me again, much to my relief.

I remember two other journeys taken during these school years-in-exile. My first holiday coincided with the impending Saar plebiscite. This referendum was to take place on Jan.13, 1935, to decide the disposition of about 1000 square miles of German territory, until 1918 the southwestern tip of the Prussian Rhine province, with a population density of almost 1000 per square kilometer. The Saar district clustered around the core of central Europe’s richest coal deposit from which its mining companies had since the beginning of the century drawn annually some 15 million tons of black gold. After the first World War, these mines had been turned over to France as part of German reparations. Government of the territory was in the hands of a commission appointed by the League of Nations. Now, after 15 years, the inhabitants were to vote on their own future, choosing between a continuation of the League mandate, French, or German citizenship. The contest created little suspense. The population was German and no one expected the result to deny that fact. Saar miners, like miners elsewhere in Germany, had organized into unions before any other group of industrial workers, but under Catholic rather than Socialist leadership. Agitation by a still militant left-in-exile was not likely to affect their decision. But a world rendered nervous by Germany’s totalitarian government smelled trouble ahead, and the Quaker school, therefore, decided to send us home on December 10, so that we could have a month’s vacation and still be back by voting day.

In my case these precautions proved unavailing. On January 10 I was in bed with a high fever and a swollen countenance. Mumps, not Nazi troubles, kept me home. On the 13th I sat by the radio listening to the returns. My parents hoped for some magic upsurge in favor of a continued League of Nations mandate, based on the assumption that tales of political oppression would prompt the Saarlanders to forego German citizenship until some miracle had unseated the tyrant. Hope was all one had. It was still strong, but, of course, no factor in the plebiscite. Some 90 per cent of the voters chose Germany, thus giving Hitler his first and most effortless victory. Without delay, the League returned the Saar to German control. The transfer was entirely peaceful, and a few days later I returned to Holland, this time without retinue, and, as before, without incident.

My last trip in and out of Nazi Germany remains even more memorable because it coincided with the end of my school days in Holland. It took place in the summer of 1937, after I had taken the examinations for the Oxford School Certificate. Though I was not to learn the results until September, an interim of unpleasant suspense before actual graduation, I was on the way to enjoy my graduation present, six weeks which my brother and I would spend with our maternal uncle in the Austrian Alps.

Because of a German-inspired attempt to overthrow the Austrian government in 1934, a coup which failed but which cost the life of Federal Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss, relations between Berlin and Vienna were as low as they had been since the 1866 war between Austria and Prussia. When I come to think of it, this was the first Cold War within the orbit of my experience. Austrian courts condemned to death the assassins and outlawed the Nazi party. In retaliation, Germany struck a solid blow at Austria’s tourist industry, a majority of whose clientele came from the Reich. Every German going on vacation in the mountains south of the border was required to deposit 1000 marks with German customs, redeemable on his return. This measure not only kept at home countless prospective tourists who simply could not, even temporarily, add such an amount to their vacation budget. It also made clear that traveling in Austria was frowned upon, reducing former hordes of skiers and mountain climbers to a faint trickle of officials and businessmen.

How my uncle managed to circumvent these obstacles I can only surmise. Being a Jew, he had in 1933 lost an executive position with the Telefunken electronics firm, but found employment with a Dutch competitor whose board placed him in charge of one of its faltering Austrian enterprises: the Plansee Steelworks in Reutte, only a few miles from the German border. His responsibilities involved frequent trips to Germany and Holland, and I have a dim recollection that he and his chauffeur had some kind of pass which allowed border crossings without payment of the prohibitive 1000-mark security. Perhaps it was this magic paper which secured our transit. In any case, my brother and I took the train in Holland, incidentally enjoying the privilege of a 50 percent fare reduction, which Germany at the time accorded foreign tourists so as to acquire hard currency to bolster its chaotic finances. We traveled to Augsburg, where the chauffeur picked us up at the station. Whatever arrangements had been made, they proved effective, and our progress, at what seemed magic-carpet speed, was scarcely slowed at the border. The driver exchanged a comment about the weather with one of the German officials, and he merely waved at the Austrian on the other side. They knew the car, they recognized the license plate, and whether they even noticed my brother and me, I have no way of knowing.

I enjoyed not only the vaguely illegal border crossing but the train trip which preceded it. Attired in a new suit consisting of jacket and plus fours, hand-me-downs from English benefactors who periodically shipped cast-off clothing to the school, I decided to use my cut-rate ticket to play the foreign tourist. At the first major stop I bought a copy of the Times, which I studied earnestly, while my brother dozed or looked out the window. By now I spoke English well, and before long two English ladies in our compartment engaged me in conversation. With the reserve characteristic of their nation, they did not ask me personal questions, as Americans might have, but approved of my reading matter, discussed the weather, and were delighted to find me so knowledgeable about travel in the country which they were visiting for the first time. I smiled tolerantly at their expressions of surprise that the state of affairs in Germany did not seem to be as bad as they had expected. The train was clean and punctual, the service courteous and efficient, not a bullying storm trooper in sight. Predictably, they were enchanted by the scenery, the river, the hills, the vineyards, the castles, the picturesque towns and villages, and I am sure that they decided then and there to disbelieve the tales of horror and oppression which their press had been disseminating since Hitler’s advent to power.

It was an instructive experience, another reason I have never forgotten the trip and its encounters. A year later when I conversed in England with a male traveler just returned from his tour of enchanting Germany, I could, without risk, point out that dictatorships do not arrange public executions for the entertainment of tourists. But in the summer of 1937 I merely received and stored away in my mind an abiding impression of the worthlessness of vacation travel as an instrument of political education. The German government was not only gaining financial rewards from its encouragement of tourism. What began with the Olympic Games of 1936 continued almost up to the outbreak of World War II: an open door to harmless voyagers, who had great difficulty imagining that this lovely land with its natty, uniformed officials, sparkling hotels, and low prices could, at the same time, be a place of terror. As was to be expected, my sweet-tempered companions left me not at some grimy, big-city stop, but at Rothenburg, that popular relic of medieval architecture which remains a fixture on package-tour itineraries.

Seen in retrospect, my last passage through Germany was also the first time that I began to see my homeland as the foreign country it would eventually become. What was then still a childish, and frivolous pose, would soon become reality. But even before circumstances dictated such a metamorphosis, as early as the summer of 1937, playing the foreigner among Germans proved surprisingly easy.

For the moment, however, my mind was full of lighthearted anticipation. Ahead of me lay six weeks of what I naturally considered to be well-earned rest: hikes into the mountains, excursions into the surrounding country as far as Innsbruck, and contemplative idleness among my uncle’s books, while my brother played with our cousins who were closer to him in age. It was the summer during which I read Madame Bovary, and Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, a perfect companion for the eve of the Holocaust. A few days after our arrival, my uncle said he had a surprise for me. My mother was going to join us. She would travel to Zurich, where we would pick her up in his car and take her to Austria, not across the German, but the Swiss border. Naturally I was pleased, but then I wanted to know why she could not have come with us to begin with. “I can bring you children in at Reutte,” he laughed, “but adults present greater problems.” Still, would they not stamp her passport at Feldkirch, where cars journeying from Zurich to Innsbruck first entered Austrian space? “I think I have arranged that neither the Swiss nor the Austrians will stamp your mother’s passport,” he replied with a satisfied smile. “When she goes back to Germany, no one will be able to tell that she has been in Austria.”

The next Saturday we departed, at dawn, and after a long, beautiful trip—the likes of which I had never taken—through the Lech Valley Alps, Appenzell, and Toggenburg, we arrived at our hotel garni in Zurich. The next morning, before meeting my mother’s train, my uncle filled his gas tank at not just any station, but at the Hotel Baur-au-Lac, which was festooned that day with the Rumanian flag, indicating the presence of playboy Carol II (and, my uncle informed me, his red-haired mistress Magda Lupescu). I was told to sit up straight and look serious as we drove his Steyr convertible out of the premises. “Perhaps people will think you are the crown-prince of Rumania.” My uncle was not only generous and hospitable, but full of such unexpected funny notions. At times you could almost forget that he was an adult, a pillar of the business world, and himself a fatherly tyrant to his children.

Since this was Switzerland, my mother’s train arrived on the dot, and we barely got to the station in time. Then we drove off for a border-crossing a bit more nervous than my brother’s and mine the week before. Both Swiss and Austrian authorities examined my mother’s passport, as well as a piece of paper my uncle held out to them with his identification documents. While they stamped his papers with abandon, they merely returned hers with a noncommital nod.

None of these memories bear the stigma of fear or flight. But one must not repeat the mistake of countless tourists and forget—to put it colloquially—what went on in other parts of town. All my story proves is how lucky I was. I was spared frightening close calls—and the terrible fate of those who stayed behind.

Eight years were to elapse before I would see Germany again. It would be a different country, and the total paralysis of public life, commerce, and ordinary existence among ruins closed a chapter in history and provided the confused and tragic setting in which I was to take leave of my youth. The next time I would not be a tourist but part of a conquering army of an enemy country whose citizen I had become. I would be a soldier traveling in a jeep, not the Rhine Express of the Reichsbahn. Nobody would examine me at the border, and in my relations with Germans, I, not they, would play the role of inquisitor.

Actually, it is not terribly important how I left Germany. What matters in the long run is not that Dr. Bean or the Virginia Quarterly Review were wrong, but that my parents were right. In 1934 they decided that I would survive; they launched me on a new and good life. In a word, they were parents for which any child might have envied me.


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