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From Hitler to Trujillo

by

Alfredo F. Vorshirm


 

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Prologue
HITLER
Chapter 1 Allied confinement in concentration camps at Argeles and St. Cyprien
Chapter 2 Fleeing to the French Free Zone
Chapter 3 Pamphleteering in Belgium&Mac183; Arrested by the Gestapo
Chapter 4 Imprisonment in the political wing of Begynestraat jail&Mac183; Red Cross intervention
Chapter 5 Escaping the Gestapo &Mac183; Crossing into Spain . . . reversing course back to France . . . fake papers as Alfred Viroux &Mac183; Crisscrossing France, trying to reach North Africa by boat&Mac183; Crossing into Switzerland
Chapter 6 Gyrenbad and Adliswill refugee camps &Mac183; Forced residence in Baden (Aargau)&Mac183; Leaving Switzerland to join the partigiani in Northern Italy
Chapter 7 Fought, wounded, hospitalized in Domodossola&Mac183; Red Cross train back to Switzerland
Chapter 8 Departure from Swiss military hospital in Belp &Mac183; Crossing Switzerland back to France &Mac183; 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment of 82nd Airborne Division &Mac183; Battle of the Bulge &Mac183; Setting foot on Nazi German soil&Mac183; On to Berlin in 1945
Chapter 9 Saying goodbye to Europe&Mac183; Stowaway on Pomona Victory to USA
Chapter 10 New York City . . . Ellis Island . . . "Voluntary" departure
TRUJILLO
Chapter 11 Discovering the Dominican Republic&Mac183; Marriage
Chapter 12 Dominican arms and munitions industry &Mac183; Senior Army Officer&Mac183; Dominican citizenship
Chapter 13 Delegate to Atoms for Peace Conference-Geneva &Mac183; Delegate to Conference UNO-NY &Mac183; Secretary General Atomic Energy Research Commission
Chapter 14 Consul General in Antwerp &Mac183; Delegate to IAEA-Vienna &Mac183; Head of Diplomatic Mission in Brussels &Mac183; Opposition to Trujillo regime&Mac183; Dismissal from diplomatic post
Chapter 15 Experiences with Rubirosa
Chapter 16 Final thoughts
Epilogue
Conclusion


ILLUSTRATIONS


Alfredo in Nice, 1940 – page 23
Shalom Vorschirm, Alfredo's fathter – page 44
Salomé Vorschirm, Aflredo's mother – page 44
Piave Division I.D. (guerilla unit) – page 61
517th Paratrooper I.D. – page 61
256th M.I.D. (82nd Airborne Division I.D.) – page 62
Goering (third from left) observing the rubble and what was left of the conference room after the assassination attempt on Hitler's life in 1944 – page 66
Alfredo with Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina – page 93
At the UN in New York, signing the IAEA statutes for the Dominican Republic – page 94
Alfredo in Nice, 1990 – page 119



DEDICATION

To the memory of my parents, who perished in Auschwitz.


PROLOGUE

Brussels. May 31, 1961

I was working at my desk at the Dominican Embassy in Brussels shortly before the 1:00 P.M. televised news broadcast. A glance at my watch showed that five minutes were left before the start of the program. I got up, entered the library, and made myself comfortable in an armchair facing the television set.

The house was quiet. My wife Angelina and my daughters were in the residential quarters on the upper floor of our Embassy.

I looked out on the garden through the glass door that divided the library from the outdoor patio as I waited for the familiar face of the news commentator. Outside, the multicolored display of the last flowery sparkle of spring was in view. It was a splendid day, this thirty-first day of May 1961.

Suddenly, the voice of the speaker stirred me back to reality: " . . . Dictator Trujillo . . . Dominican Republic . . . assassination . . . last night . . . "

I walked slowly back to my office, pondering this shocking news. I looked out at Franklin D. Roosevelt Avenue, where our diplomatic mission was located. People were walking about and cars were moving as though nothing in the world had changed. And indeed nothing had—except for us Dominicans. In his portrait on the wall behind me, the dictator looked as confident as he appeared solemn.

Had the end of this thirty-year era indeed come to pass? The news commentator’s words still reverberated in my ears. Or was it the death of a dictator but not necessarily the demise of dictatorship? I put the thought out of my mind. Let me concentrate instead on democracy!

In a way the end of the Second World War seemed to come to life again. At that time another tyrant had died.

Today circumstances were quite different. I had been a survivor of the Holocaust, a victim of totalitarianism, covertly opposing it at first, later fighting openly. This time, however, I was a collaborator of the system, an accomplice of a regime that oppressed the most elementary rights of man—precisely everything I had resisted in the past. How perplexing to be able to feel and react to life’s situations and circumstances in such a contradictory manner.

Arrested by the Allies and interned in a camp, I was freed by the Germans. Later I was jailed by the Gestapo, and eventually the day came when I myself imprisoned some of its members. I ran back and forth over mountains until I found shelter in the peaceful haven of a neutral country, but instead of waiting out the end of hostilities, I once more crossed a mountain, this time to join the partigiani in northern Italy to fight the Fascists. I had lived under the domination of an invader to become an invader myself, when, as part of the 82nd Airborne Division, we penetrated the Third Reich and I eventually ended up in Berlin.

So, I opposed regimes of oppression . . . until I became part of one.

I lit a cigarette. The smoke rising to the ceiling rolled out an imaginary screen upon which my memory projected its vivid images of how it all began.






HITLER



CHAPTER 1

Antwerp. Friday, May 10, 1940

What does a boy who is not quite seventeen years old dream about, when he hasn’t finished secondary school and his parents expect him to follow the father’s footsteps in the business world? If he is like I was he has a boundless appetite for life, an excessive vital force, restrained only by the dullness of daily routine. And so he dreams of adventure—now—and never gives a serious thought to tomorrow, the future.

On this particular night, as on every other night, I felt secure, oblivious to the stormy clouds threatening to cover and obscure all the skies of Europe.

I woke up that spring morning with a start at 5:30 A.M. to the unexpected loud noise of explosions. As I rubbed my eyes, my first thought was of the resort town of Knokke-le-Zoute on the Belgian coast, where I was to spend my upcoming vacation and celebrate my seventeenth birthday. These sounds wouldn’t dare ruin my plans, would they? After all, my life was peaceful, without problems or worries of any kind. The elderly people spoke of the serious conditions, of the danger of invasion, and of similar dreary ideas; but I wasn’t concerned. I knew they took things far too seriously. The rise of Nazism in Germany and that country’s frantic rearmament, the occupation of the Saar and the Rhineland, the annexation of Austria, the rape of Czechoslovakia, the invasion of Poland, and the inevitable outbreak of war very much worried the elders. But this was Belgium, a country whose neutrality all parties in the conflict recognized; so why shouldn’t we go about our lives as usual?


Suddenly, the door to the room opened.
"Close the window and dress quickly," my mother ordered firmly. My brother Benno and I were more surprised by the anxious tone of her voice than by the sound of the bombardment that steadily grew louder.

This time it was no longer a matter of harmless alerts or the fear of the specter of war. The specter had materialized and now brutally and brusquely thrust itself into our lives.

A strange feeling overcame me. It was as though I had swallowed some gentle poison. I knew it was fatal, but I couldn’t prevent my palate from savoring its provocative taste. To me, war meant adventure. It would set aside the daily routine of studies. It meant change. I didn’t dare admit it, of course, and strove to control the expression on my face as I entered the living room where my father was listening intently to the radio.

My dignified father was slender and of medium height. His movements were brisk and quick, and a small, neat and square beard in the style of the period set off his face. Born in 1885, conservative, and very much tradition-bound, he nevertheless considered himself a liberal. His liberalism was that of the Belle Époque, and I didn’t understand it—or more accurately, never bothered to. After all, he was just my father. He was the true, honest man of the turn of the century. His sense of righteousness, of justice, and of family was directed more towards the individual than to the abstract and impersonal society at large. This state of mind was echoed in his deeds and words, as well as in his religious beliefs. The Latin maxim dura lex, sed lex (the law is harsh, but it is the law) best suited his personal behavior, and I could not imagine him acting otherwise.

Suddenly, the voice of King Leopold III was heard over the air:

"Belgians: For the second time in twenty-five years, Belgium, both loyal and neutral, is being attacked by the German Empire, in defiance of most solemn pledges made before the world. Fundamentally peaceful in nature, the Belgian people did everything to avoid war. But the Belgian citizen of 1940 hesitates no less than his countryman of 1914 . . . .

"I appeal to our courageous army, to our brave soldiers, for the safety of our nation . . . . France and England gave their word of honor to cooperate. Their troops are already moving forward to join ours . . . .

"No one can doubt eventual victory . . . the cause of Belgium is just. With the help of God, she shall succeed."

It was the most deep-felt impression of my adolescent years. Tears moistened my eyes. The drama had impressed me more than the object of the tragedy, which I could hardly surmise as to its consequences.

The last notes of the national anthem faded away. His head high, my father tried to reassure the family gathered around. My little sister Renée had joined us by now.

The telephone rang. It was my brother-in-law informing us of his and my eldest sister Cecile’s impending visit to coordinate our plans.

Cut short by the King’s urgent communiqué, I recovered the sequence of my thoughts. I had fantasized joining the fight against the invader to set MY country free. Then reality sank in. This land I had in mind to defend was not mine. Though brought up in Antwerp, I was born in Vienna. We were all Austrians, and despite our opposition to Nazism, we could be looked upon as enemies. Anyway, Austria did not exist anymore. We were now considered Germans despite our Austrian passports.
As the house filled with relatives and friends, the news reached us that all male German nationals were to appear immediately at the Belgian army headquarters.

There must be some misunderstanding at least as far as we were concerned, the grownups speculated. After all, as enemies of the Hitler regime, the Belgians, in whose country my father operated his diamond business, couldn’t consider us dangerous elements. The commander at the barracks will clear all this up.

Some of our friends advised against appearing before the authorities; we should flee the country, as they were preparing to do. But who could convince my father to disobey an official order? Escorted by my brother and me, he went away resolutely to meet his fate.

The barracks suggested an oversight from the First World War. The unruly crowd, military and civilians alike, were the picture of disordered, tumultuous confusion.

At the guardhouse, a fat soldier, one of those whose head is as gigantic as it is void, looked up at us.

"The commanding officer, if you please!" my father said, impatient to meet the officer in charge.

The sergeant immediately asserted his authority and his superiority over civilians. After inspecting our identity cards, he showed the arrogance of his newly acquired power. The invasion of the territory had bestowed upon him, automatically and ludicrously, an importance he had always lacked in peacetime.

"Ah, you are enemies!" he cried triumphantly, as though he had personally captured Hitler, Goring, or Goebbels—and we weren’t the first ones to appear before him this morning.

Immediately he ordered a small group of soldiers with menacing bayonets to take us to a depot where people were being assembled.

I was troubled seeing my father protest in vain, haughtily refusing to accept what he considered injustice, or at least ignorance. He was fifty-five and I had never seen him so overwhelmed by reality. Like a man aware he is no longer in control and has to bow to the inevitable, he said, "I am not discouraged. For myself, I have my faith to sustain me; but what will become of the two of you and the others at home?"

The night came and went, and in the morning our concern for our family increased, because we were not allowed to get in touch with anybody outside of these stone walls.

That afternoon, under heavy guard, we were led on foot through city streets to the railway station. We were given a hunk of bread and moved in groups of fifty to boxcars clearly marked "40 Men or 8 Horses." My desire to live the great adventure vanished in this mobile prison. I couldn’t help thinking that it would have been far more pleasant to travel in the company of eight horses than with strangers. Somehow, this wasn’t the adventure I had in mind.

Most of the other "passengers" appeared to be elderly people. Anxiety consumed their features. Were they all Nazis? How could we know? Father chose not to communicate with any of them. He prayed while my brother and I stood close by him.
The journey lasted more than four days, and the stench and heat became unbearable. The only relief possible came from pressing your nose against the small barred opening on one wall of the wagon to catch some fresh air, if you were lucky. Our physiological needs not being anticipated, a corner in the freight car was selected for our convenience.

We were taken through France by various circuits. Finally, we understood the reason for this extravagant itinerary: peering out, at the bends and turns, we could discern huge letters painted in white identifying the cargo in the train as PRISONERS OF WAR. We were evidently a political tool. Perhaps it was intended to raise the morale of the French people, who insulted us at rail stations wherever we stopped. They didn’t know, of course, that we were civilians, not military personnel.

At night, during stops, rations of bread, cheese, and water were distributed. The food was hardly enough to sustain us, but at least it prevented us from dying of hunger.

Daylight almost blinded us when the boxcars were opened. Under the protection of the military in sky-blue uniforms, we entered the Argeles camp in the south of France. From their looks, the soldiers didn’t inspire any confidence in King Leopold’s message and expression of hope for victory.

Living skeletons stared at us. Relics of their own war, these Spanish Republicans were refugees from their own folly, which had cost one million lives. The world had forgotten them. Like the French, they received us with hostility, taking for granted we were all Nazis or spies.

We spent only a few days in Argeles. Then we were taken, again by boxcars, a little further. At the foot of the imposing Pyrenées Mountains, the gigantic camp of St. Cyprien was divided into separate zones by barbed wire. On the other side of us were Republican Spaniards as in Argeles. Along the wide strip of beach, barracks were lined up.

What a sight surrounded us! A splendid panorama, so different from the austere north, was exposed to our view. But when our attention was diverted from the horizon and restored to reality, a scene of desolation appeared before our eyes. We were living in a small universe of squalor, in the midst of paradise.

How wonderful to live in a world without frontiers, without petty regionalism, the narrow limits of our own making.

The perfect nation would be the world, its citizens being all peoples of the globe. They would speak and understand each other by means of a common language, in addition to their own, with respect for and conservation of one another’s traditions and cultural heritage. A single legislation, inflexible respect for the rule of law, an international monetary unit, a single system of intensive learning, and a single version of unbiased universal history! Instead of fighting each other, this world would combat ignorance, misery, and disease.

Ah, to be young, to dream, to have easy solutions for so many different societies in a complex world. To be uncontaminated by experience.

As the days went by, men turned into beasts; their "civilized" principles gradually gave way to the instinct of preservation. Common misery would not unite the people in a fraternal bond for mutual assistance. Instead, they fought among themselves for any trivial reason, and greed made them rob each other. If the prisoners had fallen so low, the guards themselves dropped even lower. To foment dissension among the inmates, they systematically used favoritism to those who bestowed on them jewelry or hidden cash.

The body was being fed with black bread and undefined liquids, the mind with rumors from unreliable sources. Fleas, those repulsive parasites, didn’t make it any easier for us to sleep; nor did the heat or our worries for those we left behind.

All this time, we were not aware that the family and Erna, our childhood German governess, had left Antwerp and fled with thousands of families terrorized by the German blitz. They crammed the roads, involuntarily contributing to the defeat, as the French and British troops were moving in the opposite direction to the battlefront. A few kilometers before the French border, the family was obliged to abandon the car; and like others, they reached La Panne on foot, hoping to sail for England. The refugees were gripped by fear, as the Stukas plunged downward, discharging their weapons on the defenseless civilian refugees. It was the glorious era of the Luftwaffe.

As I surveyed the surroundings of our camp, I noticed a relatively sandy area in a deserted corner where a little digging under the barbed wire would enable me to get outside. Using both hands, I made an opening large enough to get out into the countryside. I told my father and Benno, but the lesson received in Antwerp had been in vain; my father was as inflexible as ever in his respect for rules and the narrow interpretation of the law. Because I wouldn’t escape alone, I stayed put, except for brief excursions to the outside world.

Taking advantage of the passage I had dug, off I went into the surrounding countryside, sometimes as far as Elne and Perpignan. At times, Benno and I went together with a tremendous feeling of enthusiasm and brought back some modest supplies to the camp.

We would escape in broad daylight, the rays of the fiery sun streaming upon the flowery fields. Larks ascended with all their might until they were tiny specks in the sky. Everywhere the vine supplied us with its fruit. Never had I tasted such delicious grapes, and never have I known such intestinal cramps due to the chemicals preserving the fruits from insects and disease. We relished the enormous peaches, almost the size of small cantaloupes, and the bread. The explosion of sun and luscious nature on the foothills of Spain burst happily upon me. I felt free in the countryside, and I realized that no one could ever be stirred by such an intense feeling unless he has been previously confined.

We had little reliable news about the military situation. Resignation was the lot of most inmates, many of whom—among them a black American jazz musician—questioned why they were here. What benefit could be gained by trying to explain our own case; to whom would we explain it? The administrative machine overwhelmed the best of intentions. There just wasn’t anyone to talk to, or you couldn’t reach "him"; and, anyway, "he" wouldn’t have any authority beyond the administration of the camp.

The sunshine shimmered on the Mediterranean, and waves blinked as though beckoning us to its waters. There, at the edge of the beach, were four latrines, oddly resembling bathing cabins. When the wind blew in from the open sea, the stench filled our nostrils.

A couple of weeks went by. As German troops devoured hundreds of kilometers of French territory, different reactions began to manifest themselves among the various groups in our midst. The guards became friendlier, anticipating the forthcoming debacle. The Spaniards of the neighboring zone recovered the apathy they experienced before our arrival.
Then Paris fell and our hearts with it.

The German forces invaded the entire region, making escape to England or to the south impossible. My family was back in Antwerp.

Weakened by corruption, the Third French Republic stooped before the power of the Third Reich. A narrow strip of land, which extended from east to southwest and included the lower half of the country, was declared an unoccupied zone. It was ruled by a puppet government from Vichy, which merely carried out orders from Berlin. We were therefore in the free zone—the unoccupied one, or better still, in the "relatively" free zone.

Soon a German civilian commission arrived at the camp. Their purpose: to rescue and liberate its unfortunate compatriots.

We were lying on the hay in our barrack when the door was opened.

"All those under nineteen are to report to the office of the commanding officer," shouted the head of the barrack, proclaimed by himself the "legitimate" spokesman of our tiny community.

When I entered the office, I was handed a small piece of paper with an array of bureaucratic seals. It signified my return to freedom—thanks to the benevolence of the Third Reich.

The time to leave father and brother, who was going on twenty, had arrived. It was not easy, but they insisted that I leave. My father advised me to go to Nice, contact some acquaintances, and try to get in touch with my mother. He then gave me his blessing. Tears rolled from his eyes, and the touch of his protective hands remains impressed in my memory.

I left the main gate behind me, and for the first time I found myself practically alone with the enigmatic destiny of my life, at the ripe age of seventeen.

It was the same dusty road that led to Elne and Perpignan, but it didn’t look as beautiful as it had during my previous brief escapades. Somehow, I would reach Nice. Now that I was on my own, solitude frightened me.

I had walked five or six kilometers when a car came towards me, abruptly screeching to a halt a few meters behind. Lost in thought, I didn’t take notice. However, I pricked up my ears when I heard my name repeatedly. I turned around and saw my brother-in-law coming to me with wide-open arms.

After the first excitement and exchange of questions, Sigmund took me to a hotel in Perpignan. He then was on his way again to the concentration camp.

It had been two months since I had enjoyed the comfort of a soft bed. Stretched out, I fell asleep.

Suddenly awakened by the sound of the door, I sprang out of bed. With puffed-up eyes, I saw my brother-in-law smiling.

"Sorry if I frightened you," he said. "It’ll take ten days or more to make the necessary arrangements for the release of father and Benno. In the meantime, let me take you home. I’ll return for them later."

Antwerp was more than a thousand kilometers north. On the way, Sigmund explained how he had obtained the travel permit from the German authorities, which allowed him to go from Belgium to France, to pass from the occupied to the unoccupied zone, and to obtain valuable gasoline coupons for his long voyage. Wasn’t it really to liberate an Austro-German from the French? My brother-in-law, who was Dutch, had no difficulty convincing the invader of the noble purpose of his mission.

In the car we spoke about many things, particularly how our lives had changed so dramatically since that Friday, the tenth of May and about the grim prospects for the future.

In the distance, the city of Nimes rose on the horizon. Kilometers slipped rapidly by.

All of a sudden, a group of uniformed Frenchmen came into view. They began to gesture frantically for us to stop the car.
Sigmund stopped.

"Your papers!" barked one.

He didn’t bother to examine our identity papers and took us to the Nimes police station. Half an hour of explaining convinced them that we were not the parachutists they were looking for in the area. We couldn’t understand their preoccupation, now that their little war was over; or were they already expecting British agents?

We continued our journey. I felt strange at the thought that within a few kilometers I would be seeing my first prototype of the invader. We were drawing close to the line of demarcation and the occupied zone.

There he was, in boots and helmet! Looking tall, strong, and invincible in his greenish-blue uniform, he seemed the incarnation of those who had hoped to conquer the world by sheer brutality.


The Goliath turned aside, satisfied with our papers, and we continued north.
In Antwerp, the few pedestrians we saw seemed driven by some urgency. They didn’t enjoy the leisure of summer afternoons. From afar, the many uniforms we saw took on the look of greenish-blue insects, much as a plague of locusts about to destroy everything in its path. I was back home with Mama and Renée, and it felt good. Sigmund soon came back from his second journey, with Papa and Benno.

After the initial rejoicing and the family reunion, we knew that things were going to get worse, much worse.

As for me, I thought about my holidays lost forever and about the friends who had fled with their families and hadn’t returned. Were they dead? Were they in England? In Portugal? Perhaps even in America? Among my friends I also thought of Raoul Levy, who always found a way to go to the movies without having to pay. Many years later he was to discover Brigitte Bardot’s charm, and as a movie director drew countless crowds to cinemas all over the world.
Nights. I had become used to the total darkness in the city. Careful passers-by shone with a discreet blue glow, as the beams from their painted-over pocket flashlights, to comply with German regulations, bounced off the pavement. Intimacy in houses was preserved behind black blinds underneath the curtains. The polizei kept watch. They patrolled the streets, imposing severe penalties on those violating the blackout rules and accusing them of supporting the British who flew over Belgian territory.

We gathered around the radio to listen to the BBC from London, the volume very low. If caught, we’d be subject to imprisonment; but the news kept us informed and filled our hearts with hope.

My father tried to get in touch with his brokers, to whom he had entrusted his cut diamonds, for sale at the diamond bourse. A few of the brokers had disappeared, swept away by the exodus. Others told him that in their attempted escape, they had lost the precious stones. Father collected whatever he could, and there was no reason anymore to remain in occupied Belgium.

Sigmund, my sister Cecile, and their two children, Alfred and Margot, were to leave for Nice first; then we would try.

In fact, it was nearly impossible to obtain visas from the German Kommandantur, or to get near the coast. The Belgian population already organizing its resistance met the ever-growing domination of the occupier with open hostility.

Entrepreneurs and opportunists arranged escapes to the French free zone. Those who profited from fear demanded and obtained a high price. Often the fugitives were victims of betrayal; but even when in reliable hands, there was always the risk of being arrested by German border patrols.

Sigmund and his family entrusted their safety to one of them. They left for Paris, from where they were to continue, the following day, their underground trip to the unoccupied zone. The guide, however, had vanished, and soon we heard from them. They were making other plans to continue the trip. It would be too risky for us to flee from Belgium together, Sigmund advised, and he suggested that Benno should go to Paris first and travel with them down south.

Escorted by a guide, my brother left, and arrived safely in Paris. Their departure for Nice was imminent when Sigmund asked me to join them, while he would leave everything prepared for father, mother, and Renée’s journey.

I was to meet my guide in Brussels, less than twenty miles from Antwerp.

"He hasn’t returned from Paris," the voice said furtively when the door opened slightly after I rang the bell. It shut in my face almost immediately, before I could utter a word; and I found myself on the sidewalk.

Ashamed to return home and looking forward to my adventure, I wouldn’t need a guide, I thought. Speaking French and Flemish as well as German, I shouldn’t have a problem. Anyway, I was already in Brussels.

At the southbound train station, I bought a ticket for Courtrai and seated myself in a compartment, looking forward to the future.

The trip went without incident. Children were playing on the street, challenging each other in Flemish. How far is it to the border? I asked. They indicated the road to take for about ten kilometers. The tallest among the boys offered to take me on his bicycle for three francs; and we were on our way with the little suitcase I was carrying.

He dropped me off less than a hundred meters from the border. I waved to him, and before he disappeared, I went to cross the countryside in the general direction of France.



CHAPTER 2

Milestones, different in color than those in Belgium, confirmed that I was in France, fifteen kilometers from Lille, where I could take a train to Paris.

The uneventful trek to Lille gave me self-confidence and I forgot my fatigue. I reached the station and was soon sitting in the train. To both my right and my left, clouds of smoke engulfed the railroad car as though the engine wanted to envelop me in a protective shawl. Slowly, self-confidence gave way to apprehension. I felt insecure, but lulled by the rhythm of the wheels, I dozed.

I was jolted awake by a sudden jerking halt, followed by dead silence, then shouts: "Everyone off the train!"

Accompanied by German military, French guards forced passengers off the train. We were in Arras.

My body tensed with anxiety. I stepped down with the others, following the flock like a docile sheep.

We left the station and entered the city. Piled high on both sides of the street were the ruins from this lightning war, or perhaps from World War I. In any event, the tracks had been destroyed and we had to transfer to another train awaiting us at the other end of town.

As we approached the transfer point, I saw barricades ahead, where armed soldiers were inspecting everyone’s identification and the necessary travel permit. With no other document except my Belgian identity card stating my Austrian nationality, I had to act quickly.

Only twenty meters left, then fifteen, then only ten . . . no easy way out. Nine meters. Are these soldiers really looking closely? Seven meters . . . six! By dragging my feet a little I let two or three people pass before me. Of what use would that be? Five meters. Getting caught before my adventure had even started would be stupid. Don’t panic; especially don’t panic! Four meters. Suddenly I turned abruptly toward the travelers behind me and shouted: "A little order! Come on, line up properly with your documents in your hand, ready for inspection."

The people walked by, showing their permits, while the soldiers distractedly glanced at the official seals. I rapidly accompanied the last group, slightly distancing myself from them, and as soon as I was in the train, I dozed off again until we arrived in Paris.

The Gare du Nord was sinister and nearly deserted. As I moved rapidly to the station’s exit, I could hear the train puffing behind me, as though it were exhausted—like me—after too much of an effort.

In my pocket was a sheet of paper with the address of the hotel where I was to meet Sigmund and the others. After consulting the city plan at the nearby subway station, I easily found my destination, Rue du Faubourg Poissonniere.

In this unassuming building, people wouldn’t be asked for their identity papers and wouldn’t even have to register. The hallway was vacant except for a short, skinny man who scrutinized me closely as I crossed the threshold.

I asked to see my family.

"They are gone," he answered. "The guide insisted on leaving this morning. They had no other choice than to leave right away. I guess they didn’t know you were coming."

What to do now? I took a small room, left my suitcase, and went out. I was apprehensive; I had very little money and knew no one in this big city.

It suddenly dawned on me that I was in Paris, the city I always dreamed of knowing. Conquered and in mourning, Paris still couldn’t help being beautiful, despite her tragedy.

As I continued to stroll, I got acquainted with the many marvels of this former City of Light: the Eiffel Tower, the Invalides, the Place de la Concorde, the Arc de Triomphe, the Champs Elysees, Place Vendome . . . I discovered a new world!

It was late when I returned to the hotel. When I lay down on the bed, my eyes immediately closed. The next morning I woke rested, fit, and hungry. After dressing, I went out without having the slightest idea of where I should go. Stopping on the boulevard in front of a cafe called Madrid, I saw chess players concentrating on their game in the rear. Chess had been a passion of mine since early childhood, so I decided to take a seat and mull over my problem while having breakfast.

With the first shot fired, the war had given birth to a swarm of shady traders—black market dealers, gold and foreign currency traders, and smugglers of all kind of wares, including the human kind—for whom the armed conflict was merely an opportunity for lucrative business. I thought about these guides. Why couldn’t I take advantage of them? I didn’t want to become a professional myself, but I could learn from their experience, to know the tricks of their trade for the benefit of my parents, Renée, and myself.

The cafe Madrid became my hangout. In those days almost everyone knew someone else who could help you escape. Andre seemed old, probably about forty. It took me several days to gain his confidence, even though I had been recommended by one of the chess players.

We discussed the price as though I truly intended to use his services. He warned me about the dangers of crossing from one zone to the other, the ever-increasing German patrols, the ears of Vichy always on the lookout for information. He spoke about the peasants he knew, those who were to lead us by night, on foot across fields and forests to the other side, where prearranged transportation would get us to Nice. I promised to think about his proposal but always insisted on more details.

Meanwhile, I became increasingly anxious about my financial predicament, so much so that I confided in one chess player who, more than the others, had taken a keen pleasure in beating me at the game.

Days later, shortly after a risky "Gambit of the King," one of them gestured to me. I excused myself and sat beside him. He leaned over and told me that a collection had gathered enough funds to solve my problem. I didn’t know what to say. I felt very grateful, yet I sensed humiliation like I had never felt before in my sheltered life. I returned to the hotel, asked for the bill, and left with my suitcase.

After the war, I returned to the cafe Madrid to see and thank the small group that so spontaneously and generously had helped me out, but there were no longer any chess players to be found.

I believed the information I had obtained would enable me to get my family into the free zone. I purchased a ticket at the Gare du Nord and returned home to Belgium, this time without incident.

My parents were surprised to see me. As expected, they weren’t very enthusiastic about the plans of their seventeen-year-old son. As days went by, my father convinced himself that the course of the war was going to change. The German armed forces would overthrow this corporal from Bohemia, this madman called Hitler. The German people, or at least their cultured elite, would not allow a civilized Europe to be brutally dominated by a dictator. Yes, six months from now there would be peace. My Mother did not share my father’s optimism. Neither had much confidence in professional guides, so they finally decided to take their chances with me. Furniture and valuables were stored with a warehouse company, and we left for the French border in a car driven by a family friend. During the trip I felt a heavy weight on my conscience, as the responsibility I had taken upon myself prevented me from feeling at ease.

After we left the car, about a half-hour’s walk remained before we would reach France. We crossed a field to a railroad station in a small town and went onward to Paris. It seemed like quite a feat in a continent separated not only by frontiers, passports, and visas, but also by ancestral suspicion, war, and persecution. The world was still enormous—the distance between Antwerp and Paris exaggerated even more by the mental attitude of traveling from one country to another.

Gratified by the successful outcome of our journey, I scarcely gave a thought to the shabby hotel where I wouldn’t have dreamt of having my parents stay under ordinary circumstances; but Paris was only a temporary and hopefully brief stop on the way to Nice.

I didn’t know my father had friends in Paris. Had I known, my recent problem there would not have arisen; or at the very least, I wouldn’t have mixed chess with charity.

The friends were elderly people, but to me nearly everybody was old. They were relaxed and couldn’t understand why we were so anxious. When they heard of our intention, they became alarmed. It was absurd: the frontiers were hermetically closed; we would cross from one zone to the other; we could be fired upon; if taken alive, we would be deported to some concentration or forced-labor camp.

Disdainfully, they reprimanded me, unaware that my pride selfishly craved for my family to depend on me. "How can one trust a child’s imagination?"

Later that evening at the hotel, my father and mother, Renée, and I reviewed our predicament. Going back was out of the question. On the other hand, we couldn’t remain in Paris without proper resident papers or entry visas in our passports. We should try to find a guide, but whom could we trust? Maybe it was worth relying on me, after all; I was the only one, besides my sister, who spoke French like a native.

As we pondered the pros and cons, my experience at Arras came to mind. Nothing impressed the military element as much as extraordinary audacity supported by documents bearing stamps.

I pocketed the Austrian passports my father kept, and went out. A traffic police officer on the corner showed me the way to the Kommandantur.

Literally hundreds of people waited in line outside the building decorated with huge swastika flags. Soldiers, rigid and forbidding, stood guard at the entry. They were necessary ramparts against undesirable intruders—in short, people like myself. I had to act as though I did not fear.

From the sidewalk across from the imposing building, I studied the setting. In a few strides, I crossed the street, clearing a way for myself through the people gathered there; and in a loud voice I exclaimed impatiently, "Achtung, bitte, Achtung! (Make way, please, make way!)"

I achieved the desired effect, as they easily cleared a way for me. The guards looked at me with interest when I reached them; then I said in mock disgust, "Verdammt nochmal! (Damn it!) How badly disciplined these people are," and I went in.

Restlessness prevailed in the hallways. Office workers in uniform went here and there, either entering or leaving offices designated as Abteilung (Department). When I asked where I could find the Abteilung that issued travel permits, I was directed to the second floor. The sound of my steps mingled with the increased throbbing of my heart. I knocked on the door and entered.

The enormous desk was covered with writing pads and documents, all arranged in an orderly fashion. Behind the desk, inlaid in a blond head, were two green eyes personifying the superior race. He was the image of the pure Aryan—at least to those who ignore that the true Aryans were the Persians. His expression was distinctly one of polite eagerness. He assuredly did not expect an unauthorized person to invade his office.

I lifted my right arm in a Nazi salute and exclaimed "Heil Hitler" while I passed him the passports. "I have come to request authorization for this family to go to Nice," I said in an even tone, trying to control my emotions and avoiding the words free zone.

Suddenly, the disdain military men feel for civilian-political officials showed on his face. "We do not authorize journeys to the unoccupied zone," he said. Then, glancing at the Austrian passports, he added: "Wait a moment; I will consult." He took the documents, got up, and left the room.

I don’t know how long I had to wait for his return, but it seemed like a long time. I had placed my own passport at the bottom, below the others, so my picture wouldn’t betray me immediately. Chances were that the officer he would consult and who would examine the passports would not come out to see me.

I had probably given the impression that I belonged to one or another special service, and I could not avoid trembling at the thought that he might come back and ask me what department I belonged to. I appeared very young, and perhaps he was suspicious.

Left alone in the room, I was now panic-stricken. Maybe I should leave the passports and run?

The door opened.

Without looking at me, the officer handed over the passports and casually said, "Here are the visaed papers."


I left the Kommandantur in a hurry. My father, mother, and Renée were delighted. Needless to say, so was I.
Whatever misgivings I may have had, they melted away under the bright southern sun after an uneventful, comfortable, and—above all—legal train journey to Lyon, Marseille, and finally Nice.


 

END OF SAMPLE



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