April 21, 2020 was observed (“Celebrated” would be an inappropriate characterization.) in Israel as Yom HaShoah, or, in English, Holocaust Remembrance Day. The purpose of the day is to commemorate the approximately six million Jews who were murdered by the Nazis in the Holocaust. The initial observance took place in 1951. By Israeli law the official commemoration date is the 27th day of Nisan on the Hebrew calendar. Typically, the date corresponds to a date in April or May on the Gregorian calendar. As I said, this year the day fell on April 21; next year, it will fall on April 8.
It is difficult to comprehend the scope of the Holocaust. The mind simply cannot imagine six million dead persons. Therefore, for purposes of this blog I have chosen to profile the struggle of one family to survive, the Maier Family of Kippenheim, Germany. As you read about them, be aware that their story was replicated millions of times by other families, in some form or another during the late 1930s and early 1940s. The names and locations may have been different, but the facts and circumstances were eerily similar. The Maiers were no better nor worse than millions of other Jewish families. Why did they survive when others perished. Often, as in their case, it was a matter of luck and happenstance.
The Maiers’ story began shortly after dawn on the morning of October 20,1940 when some policemen banged on their front door. There are few things more terrifying than the police banging on your door first thing in the morning. They told the Maiers they had two hours to pack up all their belongings and leave the house. This was part of a Nazi government-ordered ethnic cleansing. All Jews in the area were being summarily evicted. This was not an uncommon occurrence. You may recall a similar scene portrayed in the musical, “Fiddler on the Roof.”
The family included a father, Siegfried, a mother, Charlotte, two young children, Kurt and Heinz, and two grandmothers. Ironically, the Maiers, like many other Jewish families, had feared this day was coming. They had applied for US immigration visas, but they were still on the waiting list.
Siegfried had served in the German army in WWI, and he had a pin identifying him as a veteran. After the war he had become a successful merchant, but his family was now poor as a result of a series of government-sponsored sanctions against Jews. He wore the pin on his coat hoping it would get the family special treatment. However, that day, one of the German officers told him to take it off, asserting “it won’t do you any good where you’re going.”
They were taken to a train station and stuffed into crowded railway cars. The train dumped them, along with other “unwanted” Germans at a refugee camp named Gurs in Vichy France.
As one can imagine the conditions in the camp were horrid. Food was scarce; medical care was virtually non-existent; and rats and disease were rampant. Sickness and death were common, which, doubtless, was the Germans’ intent.
Remaining in Gurs would have meant certain death either from the conditions or from a transfer to one of the concentration camps. However, leaving was not so easy. It would require one to navigate through a bureaucratic nightmare consisting of (a) the French police, (b) the American consulate in Marseille, (c) various foreign relief agencies, and (d) a difficult and circuitous passage across the Atlantic Ocean.
At every stage there was frustration, long lines and bureaucrats who do what bureaucrats the world over are famous for – being arbitrary and making things as difficult as possible. American relief worker Varian Fry described the process thusly in a memo written in February 1941: “The visa rigmarole here [Marseille] is inhuman. It is almost killing the refugees… They have to wait in corridors and [on] long lines over and over and over again, until their very souls must be shriveled and shrunken by the experience.” We complain about the lines and quality of service at places like the DMV. Think DMV times a hundred.
Obviously, in situations like this money and influence are very helpful. Being poor and Jewish the Maiers had neither, so their application was relegated to the back of the que. It didn’t look promising.
After some four months the Maier’s exit visas were finally approved, but that only meant they could leave Gurs for Marseilles. As some of you know, Marseilles in southern France was the main debarkation point out of France. That was merely Phase 1.
Next, they had to interview with a US consul on May 1. That meant another long line and more frustration. By this time, Siegfried and Grandma Sofie were very ill and barely able to function. Here is where the family got lucky, very lucky. They were accompanied by a relative who had been wounded in WWI fighting for the French. Apparently, he had a special pass that entitled the entire family to go to the head of the line. Furthermore, they were able to produce some crucial documents: (a) US visas that had been issued to them in May 1940 but never used, and (b) an affidavit from a relative who lived in New Orleans. Based upon this the consul extended their visas for four more months.
They steamed from Marseilles to Casablanca where they were delayed further. They were supposed to continue on to Martinique, but Vichy France had closed down that escape route for Jewish refugees. By now, the expiration date on their visas was becoming an issue. If they were to fail to reach the US by September 8 their visas would become worthless, and they would be back to square one. They needed to find another route and fast. At this time, Casablanca was chock full of persons trying to escape to somewhere safe.
At this point Lady Luck intervened again. A Jewish relief agency was able to secure room for them on another ship, which was headed for NY. One final issue: Upon arrival, as their ship steamed up the East River its mast clipped the Brooklyn Bridge. This was not a major problem just a footnote to their perilous journey. Their arrival was memorialized in the next day’s “NY Herald Tribune,” which noted the arrival of “two hundred refugees from Casablanca” who had been in a “race against time to reach the US before their visas expired.”
As the Maiers were being rounded up a neighbor took a photograph of the scene. The photo was found some 30 years later in an old shoebox, and a copy of it accompanies this story.
Of the 6,500 or so German Jews who had been sent to Gurs about 25% perished in that hellhole. Moreover, almost half were deported to Auschwitz. I don’t know what happened to the Jews who were stranded in Marseilles or Casablanca, but, likely, it was not good.
Yes, the Maiers were fortunate. Kurt, now a cataloguer of German books at the Library of Congress, acknowledges as much. He pointed out that the back of the visas was adorned with a plethora of stamps and signatures. He remembered that the absence of even one of these required stamps would have condemned his family to bureaucratic purgatory, which, all too often, meant death. He called the visa “the most precious American document I ever possessed.”
If you would like to read the unabridged story of the Maiers and/or any other stories of Holocaust survival you may contact the US Holocaust Memorial Museum at <firstname.lastname@example.org> These stories are most inspiring to read, especially since they are true.