April 13, 2024
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April 13, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Part 3

(Continued from last week)

On October 22,1940, uniformed police notified all Jews living in Baden area to pack within two hours and to bring enough food for a journey that might take a few days. Each person was permitted to take only 100 Reichsmark (about $30) and had to sign a paper handing over any remaining property to the Reich. Although the regulations stated that Jews currently bedridden would be exempt, actually, no exceptions were made. A 97-year-old woman was declared “transportable” and loaded on a truck. In total 6504 Jews were subject to the deportation order from the state of Baden and the neighboring region of Saar-Palatinate. The Kippenheim Jews were taken to the railway station at Offenburg where they had to list all that they owned. After several hours, a train arrived. The train moved slowly southward in the direction of Switzerland. At Freiburg the train headed west toward Mulhouse in occupied France. Here the Jews were allowed to exchange their Reichsmark into French francs.

Waiting for the trains, packed with expelled Jews, to arrive at the border between occupied France and unoccupied France, was Adolf Eichmann, who needs no introduction. He overruled any objection from the French, who had not been informed in advance. As testified after the war, the initiative of the deportation came from the Gauleiter (regional Nazi party leader) of Baden. He had been charged with incorporating the newly acquired Alsace into Germany and had already cleansed Alsace of “undesirable elements,” including Jews, gypsies, criminals and the mentally ill. Over 3000 Alsatian Jews were loaded onto trucks and dumped across the border in unoccupied France. Another 17,000 Jews who had fled ahead of the German invasion were barred from returning. The Gauleiter of Saar-Palatinate took similar steps. The task of ridding these two areas of all Jews was assigned to Reinhard Heydrich. He presented the French with a fait accompli. Soon nine trains each with 500 to 1000 Jews were backed up at the border. To solve the problem for the French, they declared the occupants “German Army Transports,” which under the armistice were allowed to cross the border.

The two regions were the first in the Reich to become officially “Judenfrei” (Jew-free). The French later said that they believed the trains contained French citizens expelled from Alsace. By the time they realized their mistake, it was too late. The French, lacking suitable accommodations, directed the trains to an internment camp that had been created to house defeated soldiers of the Spanish Civil War. The camp was near the village of Gurs in the shadow of the Pyrenees Mountains. I had heard of Gurs but never in connection with German Jews expelled into France. That is when I learned for the first time what Gurs was.

The train took three days and three nights with little to eat or drink, the passengers squeezed on wooden benches, with no room to stretch out. They passed the French pilgrimage town of Lourdes. Rain was falling and the wind was blowing off the mountains when they arrived at their destination from where they were trucked to Gurs. The camp consisted of a single gravel road, nearly a mile long, on either side of which stood a collection of flimsy wooden huts floating in a sea of mud. In order to reach the hut, one had to wade through a swamp of glutinous clay that sucked up everybody and everything.

The Baden Jews joined about 3000 existing inmates including other foreign Jews. Men and women were assigned huts on opposite ends of the camp. Most had to make do with straw and a single blanket. Instead of windows there were leaky wooden trapdoors that had to be closed during the frequent rains. Rats and mice ran around the floor.

The first meal consisted of soup with hard peas and sweet potatoes boiled in water, hardly edible but the deportees were happy to finally have something in their stomachs. Next morning, they received a small piece of bread and a watery soup for lunch. Lacking dishes and spoons, inmates used old sardine cans to drink the watery mixture. After one month in the camp as many as 20 Jews were dying of disease and malnutrition. Please remember—this was not a German concentration camp. This was France.

In order to use the makeshift latrines, the people had to go from their hut, in the endless rain, climb up a ladder to a wooden platform suspended over a garbage can. Due to the mud around all the huts, older people sometimes got stuck, and were too weak to pull themselves out.

At least there were no Nazi guards, only French gendarmes assisted by relief workers to maintain order. The escaped Jews were glad to be out of Germany despite the hardships they had to endure now. They were allowed to write letters as long as they had money to buy stamps and they begged their children and others to send money so that they could buy some warm clothing and shoes whenever the opportunity would come.

(To be continued next week)


Norbert Strauss is a Teaneck resident and Englewood Hospital volunteer. He frequently speaks to groups to relay his family’s escape from Nazi Germany in 1941.

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