Archive for September, 2017

In their stead: Seeking forgiveness of the dead

September 26, 2017

Cousin Gus once wrote to me that someday he would tell me the story of how my parents and older brother were able to escape from Belgium to the United States in 1940. Gus was 84 when he wrote to me. But though he lived to be 100, he never followed through on his promise.
He had, however, fulfilled a much greater promise in his lifetime: to get my parents and brother out of Antwerp and safely on a ship headed for the United States. And this week, Gus’s son Lewis told me what he knew of the story.
My parents were living in Vienna when the Germans invaded in March 1938. Like many other Jews, they had good reasons for staying and hoping for the best. My mother was six months pregnant; precarious travel was out of the question.
But my father was arrested on November 9, 1938—Kristallnacht (known in English as the Night of Broken Glass)—a pogrom against Jews throughout Germany and German-held areas. He would have been deported to a concentration camp had not a guard let him escape in exchange for a gold watch.
Unable to return home, my father hid in the home of a non-Jewish employee of my grandfather. And as soon as he could, he fled Vienna, making the exhausting trip on foot to Antwerp, which was still free. My mother and three-month-old brother remained behind.
Eventually, my mother received false papers provided by British Quakers, enabling her and my brother to travel to Antwerp and join my father. There my parents wrote to all their relatives in the United States, asking them to provide an affidavit, the document without which they would not be admitted to the country.
They waited in Antwerp for more than a year. At last, it was cousin Gus who came through for them. I still have two copies of the original affidavit. They show that Gus worked in the film industry, had a very good salary, and owned two cars. If necessary, he could support them and they would not be a burden on the state.
But an affidavit was not enough. Everyone was trying to get out, and my parents’ papers were low in the pile of requests. And this is approximately what Lewis told me this week: Gus knew an executive in Columbia Pictures who was in Antwerp, and he knew the U.S. ambassador, and the ambassador knew another diplomat. Gus asked the film executive for a favor, the executive asked the ambassador, and the ambassador asked the diplomat. And so, through this chain of favors, my parents’ papers were moved up in the pile.
My parents’ names appear on the passenger manifest of the S.S. Pennland dated March 21, 1940, as does the name of my brother, already then anglicized to Harry. The Pennland was the last passenger ship to leave Antwerp before the Germans overran Belgium. Had my parents not been on it, they and my brother might have been murdered by the Germans and their henchmen, as were nearly all the members of my father’s family. I would not have been born.
And now I can’t help but wonder whose places my parents and brother took. Did those unlucky people survive the Holocaust? I will never know, but it is not very likely. This week that ends with Yom Kippur (the Jewish Day of Atonement, when one must ask forgiveness of people before seeking forgiveness from God), I (more…)