by Claudine Bacher
Not long before the Germans invaded Paris in the summer of 1940, my mother Berthe and I abandoned our home and friends in Paris to seek safety with my grandparents, my aunt Mignon, and my cousin Jeffie in the town of Royan, France. My grandparents, Mignon, and Jeffie had fled to Royan not from Paris, but from Antwerp, Belgium where they were well established and respected in the decades before the War. In an instant, they found themselves in the same situation as my mother and I in Paris, at the peril of an imminent German invasion.
Born and raised in Antwerp, my mother had moved to Paris upon her marriage in 1933 to my Romanian born father, who was practicing medicine in Paris at the time. I myself was born in Paris and enjoyed a very happy childhood going to puppet shows and playing in the beautiful Parisian parks with other neighborhood children, under the care of my beloved nanny YeYe. Jacques, my father, was a well-liked doctor with an office conveniently located in our apartment. It thrilled me to play dress-up in my nurse costume and greet the patients when they rang the bell.
In the early days of the War, my father became a medic in the French army, and my uncle a medic in the Belgian army. Back in Paris, our idyllic life was shattered when we suddenly began going to bed fully dressed, ready to run to the nearest subway shelter when the air raid sirens blasted through the quiet streets of Paris. I recall my fascination with the huge searchlights that illuminated the Parisian sky, as the city lay below in complete darkness, anticipating German bombs dropping down on us from above. After the Germans conquered Holland and Belgium so easily, the French were terrified they would be next. And indeed, they were. When the Germans marched into Paris in June, we had already joined the rest of our family in the occupied town of Royan.
By this time, both the French and Belgian armies had capitulated to the Germans, and Berthe and Mignon had not received any news of their husbands’ whereabouts. The War was still in its early stages, and the Germans lulled the citizens of France with their “correct behavior.” They were good looking, friendly, polite, and paid willingly for lovely French goods and services. Royan was teeming with refugees who had escaped from Belgium, most of whom were in the diamond business and members of the Jewish community. Many of these Belgian Jewish refugees felt that the war wouldn’t last long and were biding their time until they could return to their lives back in Belgium. They frequented cafes and gossiped much as they had done in the close knit, provincial atmosphere of their native Antwerp. Even the German Kommandant of Royan had strategically met with the leaders of the Antwerp diamond community. “We will need your services,” he said, “and we wish and hope that you will return to Antwerp.”
The Germans even provided trucks for families who were willing to return. As friendly as the Germans appeared, my grandfather, who himself was a distinguished leader of the Antwerp Diamond dealers, did not buy into the Germans’ song and dance. He had traveled often enough to recognize what was truly going on in Nazi Germany and knew of many German Jews who had escaped to Belgium with grim tales of their own. In Royan, rumors had already begun to spread of Nazi atrocities against Jews in Poland, though most refused to believe them. My grandparents decided then and there to leave Europe for a neutral country, preferably America. They left for Lisbon to acquire exit visas, and finally obtained safe passage to Brazil. Although the United States had yet to enter the war, the US State Department was known to be anti-Semitic, and their quota for US immigrant visas was very small.
When word finally reached my mother and aunt that their husbands had arrived in the unoccupied zone, it was clearly time for us to depart Royan and join them. As Mignon was packing up the last of our things, Berthe returned from her rounds of goodbyes to friends to find that our exit visas, issued by the French Mayor, as well as our safe conduct ID cards, or “Ausweis,” obtained from the German officials, were nowhere to be found. Horrified, they realized that Mignon had mistaken the precious travel documents for last minute errand lists and had torn them up and discarded them. We quite easily obtained new exit visas from the French Mayor; however, the Nazi officer in charge of issuing the Ausweis cards wasn’t nearly as accommodating. He asked Berthe what her nationality was, and she showed him her passport. “Here it is,” she told the officer, “I was born in Belgium.” The officer responded curtly, “Not all people born in Belgium are Belgians, you know.” He continued, “Also, your maiden name sounds Jewish to me. I won’t be issuing you any new papers.”
At this point, the sisters were truly frightened. My mother decided that they should return first thing in the morning, with the hope that a different officer would be more lenient. The next day, the line seemed endless, and there was anxious talk that the office might soon close for lunch. Berthe understood German, and overheard two German soldiers say, “Get a load of the two beauties.” The next thing they knew, the two sisters were ushered to the head of the line, where a different German officer was in charge. “What happened to your papers?” he asked. Mother, too embarrassed to admit the truth, replied “our children tore them up.” He looked up at her and said, “Madame, you should teach your children better manners,” and then miraculously reissued them their precious Ausweis cards.
My mother and I soon found my father in Cannes, which by then was teeming with desperate refugees. Meanwhile, Mignon was reunited with Uncle Sam in Aix en Provence, and the tedious and frustrating process of obtaining our new exit visas began. My father traveled continuously to the various consulates located in Marseilles, where he pleaded our case. He and my mother had resigned themselves to join my grandparents in Rio, as America was clearly out of our reach. Then came the day when an elderly neighbor in the pension where we were living suffered an apparent heart attack. My father came to his aid and was able to stabilize him.
As luck would have it, we learned that the gentleman’s son in law was connected with the Spanish embassy, and in his gratitude, he inquired whether there was anything he could do for us in return. Within days, exit visas to Spain were issued to my parents and I, as well as to Mignon, Sam, and Jeffie. It was from Cadiz that we all embarked across the Atlantic Ocean to finally arrive in Rio, where my parents and I would remain for one year.
In short order, my grandparents, Mignon, Sam, and Jeffie received their visas to the U.S., although there were complications for my parents and me. My father had been born in Romania, and because the Romanians were allies with the Germans in 1941, the U.S. State Department considered him to be a risk, as he or his family members could potentially be spies for enemy forces. While we were stuck in Brazil, my grandfather made frequent trips to Washington to convince U.S. State Department officials to grant immigrant visas for us. Although my father was not permitted to practice medicine in Brazil, he became good friends with a wonderful doctor in Rio who invited my father to volunteer at his hospital. This act of kindness kept my Father’s spirits up as we awaited news from Washington.
At last, in July of 1942, our precious visas were finally issued to us. Our plane tickets had been obtained for a flight from Rio to Miami. Back in the U.S., there was much anticipation for my parents’ long-awaited arrival to America. My parents and I were about to board the aircraft, when the loudspeaker summoned my father to immediately report to airport officials. My typically stoic mother burst into tears, certain that we would be detained from leaving Brazil, when the uniformed official spoke, “Doctor, we are very sorry, but there has been a mistake.” He went on, “You owe us a couple more cruzeiro for your overweight luggage.”
The plane ascended into the clouds above Brazil, and the sensation of utter relief washed over us for the first time in years as we flew onward towards our new lives in America. Having grown accustomed to the heat in Rio, we were nevertheless overwhelmed by the intensity of that particularly hot July in 1942, when we arrived at last in New York City. I can still see my father Jacques sitting in his underwear, trying to cool off with an electric fan as he studied English in order to pass his U.S. medical boards. That same summer, I was shipped off to a children’s camp where I grew terribly homesick for my family. The intention was for me to learn English to better prepare me for an easy transition to the 1st grade in September.
As soon as I started public school on the West side of Manhattan, I immediately longed to be an “American.” I hated my French name and envied all of the Janes, Carols, and Barbaras in my class. I was also mortified when my parents spoke French on the streets, or English with their heavy French accents. As time went by, my father’s great charm and medical knowledge enabled him to cultivate a thriving medical practice, and my mother was thrilled to be accepted by her American peers, who did not look down on refugees. To the contrary, I soon realized that even my schoolmates and friends found my parents to be interesting and worldly. My grandfather never stopped beating the drum for America. He loved to drink milk, which was very popular at that time, and I can still hear him exclaiming, “Ah! I’ll drink a bottle of American milk over a glass of French wine any day.”
My family were among the survivors to escape between the raindrops of the War. We weren’t hauled off to concentration camps, forced to wear the yellow star, or suffer the other horrors that the Nazis inflicted. Our challenge was the transient nature of our lives, leaving the Paris that my parents had so loved, then moving to a strange and tropical country like Brazil while anxiously awaiting our visas for America.
Recently, I came across a box that I acquired when my parents passed on. It was full of many documents, passports, visas, and letters to various consulates requesting permission for exit papers from Europe. One document was sent to my father in October of 1940 from the Vichi government, commanding him to cease and desist from the practice of medicine immediately. The work Jew, or Israelite, was never mentioned by name, only a strong message hidden within bureaucratic jargon, yet clearly directed at Jews, ordering them to leave certain professions. The document that struck me the most, however, was our naturalization paperwork issued to us in 1947, which identified us as certified American citizens.
About The Author
Claudine Bacher is the Founding Chair and Immediate Past Co-Chair of The Eleanor Roosevelt Val-Kill Partnership. Her organization aims to promote and sustain Eleanor Roosevelt's ideals as one of the world's most courageous leaders for social justice so that future generations can be inspired through her example.