Shattered Crystals - Excerpts

TO SPAIN AND BACK (from Chapter 27)

It was October of 1940. I was alone in the kitchen after the midday meal, worrying about the winter ahead, when I heard the door bang open and saw Eva shouting, "Mama, Mama, look!"

What was the child doing here? Why was she breaking Madame Krakowskie's rule and coming into the kitchen in the middle of the day? I turned and for an instant I was immobilized, not believing what I saw. Eva was holding on to Sal's hand, her face transfixed with joy. Was it possible? Only when I heard my name in the voice more familiar to me than any other did I know that my husband had come back.

...  I had not heard from Sal nor had any word of him for five months, not since the day Paris had fallen to the Nazis in June 1940. From that time on, I had no idea where he was; nor could I imagine how Sal would learn how to find us. So I prayed for a miracle.

[OSE officials agree that Sal could remain in Montintin and act as general handyman].

In our room in the evenings after we had finished work and after time with our children, Sale told me all that had happened in the five months we had been apart.

The first and saddest fact he told me was that his father had passed away. Mail deliveries had continued during those last chaotic days before the French surrender to the Nazis in June 1940, and Sal's aunt sent word to him from Poland.

Early in June when it became clear that the Germans would sweep through the Northwest on their way to Paris, the French authorities decided to close Maisona Fitte in Damini, the camp where Sal was interned. When they announced they would move all the prisoners to Bordeaux, Sal had gone on the train willingly. What would have been the point of escaping from his guards when they were taking him further away from Germany?

For several weeks the men were housed in military barracks where they waited uneasily and followed the progress of the advancing Nazi armies. It was there that Sal was handed a letter from his old aunt in Poland. The letter was written in pencil on copybook paper. It said Markus had not been well most of the winter. There had been no doctor and not enough food or medicine. Everything was in short supply. Markus grew weaker and weaker until he died in the night in his sleep.

While Sal was still sitting shivah, France and Germany signed the Armistice. That gave Germany Northern France from the Rhine to the Atlantic. It also stipulated that the Nazis would occupy a narrow strip of land along the western coast to the Spanish border. Bordeaux was the leading harbor for the Atlantic coast.

Immediately after the Armistice, the French guards told their German prisoners, "You are free to go."

The German gentiles, most of them businessmen who had lived in Paris for some years, remained in Bordeaux to await their compatriots. The Jews realized that if they stayed, they would soon be at the mercy of the Nazis again. They packed everything they could carry and began to walk south.

With some twenty other Jewish men Sal hiked along the coastal road, sleeping at night in open fields. The men pooled their funds to buy foods, but the French farmers often refused payment. It took just ovr a week for the men to reach Bayonne, a seaside resort 120 miles south of Bordeaux. Bayonne had once been home to a substantial Jewish population, and the leader of the Jewish community still resided there. He was an elderly but efficient man who arranged for them to stay in a local guest house. His only advice to the men was, "Try to get yourselves on a ship."

It was their first night in a proper bed for many months, but the men woke each other early in the morning. All were anxious for passage out of France. Following the Jewish leader's directions, they reached the waterfront.

The waterfront was mobbed with desperate men clamoring for places on a battered troop ship that was to sail northeast to Cornwall. Men were pushing and shoving, yelling in French, Polish, Czech and Flemish. The crowd was immense and Sal became separated from the men in his group. He pressed forward, always listening to the rumors swirling around in order to learn what he had to do to get on the ship. It became clear that only soldiers who had fought in the French or Allied armies could get transport to England.

"You see, Mia," Sal said, I was not important enough. I was just an ordinary person, one of thousands of nobodies."

For days, Sal had trudged along the ocean with a group of men who had counted on crossing the sea to safety. He had covered 120 miles on foot, bolstered by the knowledge that at the end of the taxing journey would be a boat to England and Safety. The waterfront at Bayonne was just the beginning because Sal knew that he had to get away from the Nazis, and that meant he had to get out of France.

He went back to the Jewish community leader to tell him what he had learned.

"Go to Spain," said the leader and gave him 50 Francs.

Back on the coastal road Sal bartered his valise for a musette. He put his winter coat over his arm and continued to walk South. It took more than a week before he came to the foothills of the Pyrenees, the mountains that divide Spain and France His goal was the border crossing at the mountain village of Hendaye. He reached it on a hot, sunny day at the end of June. A narrow wooden bridge in Hendaye separated France from Spain. On the bridge the traffic was all one way, out of France. Black automobiles inched along the narrow road, with an occasional mule-drawn wagon lumbering forward between the cars, while throngs of people trudged along on either side of the vehicles.

On the French side, in the village of Hendaye, a booth had been erected to shield the border guards from the wind and sun. From a distance, Sal noticed that guards reached out of their booths to collect identification cards. They hardly looked at the documents and casually replaced them with exit permits. They impeded no one from walking across the border out of France.

Sal gave up the temporary identity card he had received when he arrived in Paris in January 1939 and walked slowly into Spain.

He knew he could not be safe in Spain until he was at least three miles from the border. The roads might have been patrolled. If he were picked up near the border he could be returned to France. Briefly, Sal considered cutting through the fields, but he was afraid he would lose his way. He knew no one in Spain. It was different when he had came to France from Germany [after he got out of Buchenwald in January 1939]; Hannah and Herman [his sister- and brother-in-law] were in Paris, and he knew he would find them.

Now he was in Spain, and it suddenly occurred to him that the girls and I were in France. He felt as if he were abandoning us, and realized he could not do this. Resolutely, he tightened the strap on his musette, changed directions and walked back to Hendaye.

At the frontier booth at the end of the bridge, Sal told the guard, "Give me back my identity card."

"Stand aside and wait," the guard said. He completed exit permits for a large family and then said to Sal, "You want to go back? Are you sure? You must be crazy."

Sal returned the permit he had been issued earlier in the day and held out his hand for the rumpled identification card. Then he walked back to France.

Crossing the border into France, he turned east, hoping to reach Nice. The Mediterranean city on the Italian border had been designated a free zone under the June 1940 Armistice between France and Germany. From Nice, Sal intended to begin the search for his family. Coming to the main road, Sal encountered a group of Polish and Austrian refugees. There was one German Jew among them. I would not go to Spain," the man said. They are anti-Semites.

Because it was hot, they walked slowly, moving aside when they heard an occasional vehicle come up behind them. Soon they heard a louder engine of a truck and moved to the side of the road. The truck stopped. Three French policemen got out.

"Papers, papers," said one of them.

One by one the refugees handed over their identification cards, explaining they were Jews and were going to Nice.

"These papers you hold are not valid in our province," the policeman said. "Get on the truck."

"But we are Jews," they protested.

"You have no legal status," the policeman said. "You cannot wander in the countryside at will.

Sal was the one who asked, "Where are you taking us?"

"To the camp at Gurs," answered the policeman. "I am sorry."

When Sal arrived at Gurs, he did what he always did. He walked about the camp seeking information. One of the first things he discovered was that Gurs was an open camp. However enticing this piece of information, Sal saw little point in walking out. He was without identification papers. It was inevitable that he would be picked up again.

The French had constructed Gurs in the mid-1930s to accommodate Spaniards fleeing the dictatorship of General Franco. The camp was huge, and Sal wandered on dusty dirt roads, past block upon block of barracks, past water pumps and outhouses, searching for acquaintances among the inmates and learning camp procedures.

He learned that if an inmate had a place and people to go to, the camp authorities would approve his release and issue travel documents. But he had no idea where the children and I were. Then he saw my sister, Edith. She was thin and irritable and had a vacant look in her eyes. Sal asked what she was doing at Gurs, but the only answer he could get out of her was, "I came on the train with the others."

Sal went to Edith's barracks and explained to the barracks leader that Edith was his sister-in-law and that she was retarded. The young woman replied that they had wondered what the problem was, explaining the only thing Edith had ever said was, "They made me leave Hannah."

Each afternoon Sal brought Edith part of his bread ration. She craved food constantly because of her thyroid deficiency. Sal took her for walks around the camp, hoping to distract her from her ravenous appetite that could not be satisfied in Gurs.

One afternoon in September Edith said, "They are in Villeneuve. They are in Villeneuve-sur-Lot."

"Who? Who is in Villeneuve-sur-Lot?" Sal had asked and Edith had replied, "Hannah and Herman."

When Sal asked her if she was sure, she replied. "Yes, of course I'm sure. I told you already. Didn't I tell you yesterday?"

After that it was simple. In the stone building that was the camp headquarters, Sal waited two hours to make his request to the camp commander. Without a word the commander stamped and initialed two travel permits to Villeneuve-sur-Lot. The next morning Sal packed his musette, picked up Edith from her barracks and led her out of Gurs.

Sal had become used to walking and could have covered the 90 miles to Villeneuve in a week or ten days, but Edith was not strong and slowed him down. "Stop now," she would say when she was weary, and nothing would move her.

When they finally reached the mountain village, they met Hannah's friend, Madame Manyaka, on the main street. Sal was so covered with dust and dirt that she almost did not recognize him. Edith responded to the woman's hugs and kisses by breaking into tears, and Madame Manyaka said, "Come, I'll take you to Hannah and Herman. They live on top of the hill."

Now that he was within minutes of his destination, Sal was overwhelmed with weariness, so that when Hannah opened the door, he uttered three sentences. "Here, I've brought Edith back to you. Where is my wife? Where are my children?" And, of course, Hannah told him.

"I stayed in Villeneuve-sur-Lot just one night," Sal said. "I had at least 150 miles of walking in front of me to reach you. And every step of the way, I thanked Hashem for guiding me in Hendaye, for making me see that if I did not flee to Spain but turned back, we would be reunited."

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