Escape from the Nazis
by Emma Behr

This story is differs from most on this site in that it concerns civilians rather than the military evaders that normally feature here but it was sent to me after the author's parents read Edward Stourton's book "Cruel Crossing" and I think it appropriate to include it here.

Germany 1933
Hitler came to power in Germany in January of 1933, with 44% of the vote. Within a few months he abolished trade unions and all other political parties. He methodically worked toward his goal of destroying the clauses of the World War I Peace Treaty of Versailles. He started to eliminate Jews from the workforce. On April 7, 1933 Hitler passed a law excluding Jews from government employment. He then proceeded to prohibit Jews from working in liberal professions or in jobs related to cultural activities, such as music, arts, literature, and filmmaking. Soon he took away their German citizenship. The police started picking up Jews off the streets and throwing them in jail. Jews fled from Germany, away from repression and daily hardships. Thousands of Jews try to flee to democratic countries. Many were stopped at the borders.
My great grandfather, Hans Behr, was born in 1882 in Germany. He married his wife, Edith Behr (nee Sieskind), in 1911 in Berlin. He and an associate established the second largest private bank in Berlin. Their son and first child (my grandfather) was born in 1914. They named him Knut. Seven years later, in 1921, Edith gave birth to a baby girl, Gys (my great aunt). My great grandfather and his family lived very comfortably. They had a large home in a wealthy area of Berlin. The family had a governess, a live-in cook and a maid. Once a week a washerwoman, an ironing woman and a darning woman came in. Although they were quite well to do, the children were brought up to do things on their own without help. They were not spoiled, and Gys' governess was especially rough on her. The early habits of self-discipline were to stand her and her family in good stead in the coming years.
They were Jewish, although not very observant Jews. They went to Synagogue on the two high holidays (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) and Hans was involved in administration of the Synagogue. They were what are called Reformed Jews, as opposed to Orthodox. The family thought of themselves primarily as German, though Judaism was their religion.
Knut attended the Bismarck Gymnasium (high school). He was one of the first Jews admitted to this elite school. Years later, some of his fellow students and teachers were part of a plot to kill Hitler that came close to succeeding. Years later Germany actually issued stamps that commemorated these plotters.
As already noted, when Hitler came to power the police started picking Jews up off the street and throwing them in jail. Hans was one of those picked up in a raid. With help from some non-Jewish friends, he was released after two days. Shortly after this, Hans realized that Hitler's rule was not just another passing thing. The family left Berlin in March of 1933, only a few weeks after Hitler came to power. Gys says about her father: “He foresaw the whole thing.”
France 1933-1939
The family left Germany quietly. Hans and Edith told only two people, his sister and Gys' governess. They then took the children, Knut of 19, Gys of 12, and “went on holiday” to a spa in Czechoslovakia. From there they proceeded by train to Paris. Hans and his banking partner, who had also fled Berlin, set up in business together. They lived fairly well for the next six years, though they had lost a lot of their money. They had a very nice apartment. At that time, before war actually broke out, people like the Behrs were still able to make arrangements to have their furniture moved from Berlin. So they were surrounded by their own belongings. But there was always an element of anxiety about living there for the parents. Every month the French police required them to report to the police station to renew their Residency Permits. For their first six years in Paris, every month there was uncertainty whether their Permits would be reissued or not. They could not go back to Germany. They had no passports to leave France. What on earth would they do if the French denied them their Permits to stay?
Gys was enrolled in a prestigious private high school in Paris. She did not like it much there and was teased a lot. She learned to speak French in a couple of months, “purely out of self-defense.” Later she continued her education at the University of Sorbonne where she majored in languages, learning French, English, Spanish, and German. She got her degree in 1937, by the age of sixteen. In 1938 Gys began work in a lawyer's office in Paris.
Knut was sent to England where he studied at Oxford. It was planned that he become a banker, like his father and grandfather before him. He had a photographic memory, and he developed this gift at school, learning to speak English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Latin, Greek, and Old, Middle, and Modern German. This talent with languages would give him an advantage over some of the other Jews in surviving the coming war. After returning to Paris, Knut obtained work as a financial analyst with the American stockbrokerage company, White-Weld. This firm was eventually to merge with the famous Merrill-Lynch Company.
After the family emigrated to Paris, my great grandmother Edith really came into her own. She did not let their new, less wealthy lifestyle get her down. She was “the absolute rock of the family.” Suddenly she had no more servants so she naturally did everything herself, cleaning, washing, ironing, cooking, etc. Many women of their class had been so spoiled that they could not cope with the privations of refugee and prison life that were to come. Edith never complained. On the contrary, she tried to cheer them all up, especially her husband, Hans.
The Behr family socialized with many other German-Jewish families who had also escaped from Germany. Among them were George Bernhard and his wife. He had been the editor of the main Berlin newspaper, ‘Berliner Tageblatt' (Germany's equivalent of the New York Times). He had also been an economist and the Secretary of Economy in the Weimar Republic. He was to become the third person on Hitler's “Top Ten Hit List.” Mrs Bernhard's son from her previous marriage was Herbert Landsberger.
Another German-Jewish family, also originally from Berlin, who the Behrs socialized with were Edward and Gertrude Magnus and their two daughters, Hilda and Eva. Edith wanted her son Knut to meet girls. Knut, however, was only interested in his work and family. Edith and Gertrude conferred, and Edith asked Hilda over for coffee. Afterwards, Knut walked Hilda home. He came back, and promptly announced: “That's the girl I'm going to marry!” Knut was 21, and Hilda only 16. It was June 1934. This, the first day they met, was the “unofficial” date of their engagement. Hilda is my grandmother, and Eva my other great aunt.
Later, in 1939, Hilda was to go on vacation to England, because she wanted to learn English. After the war broke out between England and Germany in September 1939, she was unable to obtain an exit permit to return to France, to join Knut and her family. She was interned in England in 1940 for 15 months. She was to remain in England for the duration of the war. She and Knut would not be reunited until 1943.
French Camps 1939-1940
In 1939 all over France the French began rounding up Jews of all nationalities, German, Czech and Austrian, for their “self-protection.” Non-Jewish Germans, however, were left alone. The French went through lists in Synagogues to find out who was Jewish. The police then asked the Jews to come down to the police stations with an overnight bag. The German Jews, especially, were good, law-abiding citizens, so of course they went. From there they were taken away to detention camps, or what the French called “Camps de Rassemblement.” They took the men first and then later the women. Hans and Knut were among those taken in Paris.
Herbert and Gys Meet
While Knut was in camp, he began to teach English to earn some money. Herbert Landsberger was one of his students. Some of the Jewish men in camp at some point decided to enlist as volunteers in the French Army. Knut was very sick at that time and could not go into the Army. Herbert however was among those who did, joining the French Foreign Legion. The French Army allowed each enlisted man a furlough before they were sent off. Each man was given a train pass to go home. On his two-week furlough to Paris, Herbert contacted Edith and Gys, bringing them messages and news of Knut in the detention camp. He met with Edith and Gys and told them all he knew about Knut. Gys was a naive 17 at the time. Herbert asked her out. Gys remembers asking her mother, “Well, are we going?” Edith replied, “I don't think he wants ME. I think he wants to go out with just you.” Gys still didn't understand! She said, “But he has nothing more to tell me about my brother.” And Edith said, “Well, go anyway.” So she did and they saw each other every day. After a few days he began saying, “When we get married, we'll do ‘so and so'”. Gys said, ‘What do you mean, when we get married?'” He said, ‘Well, we're getting married aren't we?” He never really asked her; he just decided! Forty years later, still married, Gys would tease him about his “non-proposal”!
Blitzkrieg 1939
September 1939 arrived, with the lightning-quick invasion of Poland by the German Army. England and France declared war against Germany, and waited through the days of what came to be known as the “phony war.” British and French troops did not make a move to attack Germany. But Germany kept attacking and conquering country after country. By April 1940 Germany had invaded and occupied Denmark and Norway.
Then came terrible times in France, when the Jewish women were also rounded up. The women were first put into the Velodrome d'Hiver, a sports palace in Paris. There Gys and her mother, as well as hundreds of other women, slept on the hard benches and on the floors of the stadium. There was very little food and water. One day they were all put on trains, having no idea where they were going. The women were sent off to the one women's camp in southern France, while their men had been sent to various men's camps around the country. The women's' camp was called the Camp de Gurs. It was a huge camp with endless barracks, with fifty to sixty women to a barrack. Gys recalls: “We slept on the floor squished in like sardines, one beside the other. The washing facility was a long thin hose with holes in it. It was turned on every morning and every night. The toilet facilities too, were reduced to a minimum.”
Invasion of France
By early May 1940 the Germans had occupied The Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg. On May 10, using once again their terrorizing and successful “Blitzkrieg” strategy, the Germans broke through the French lines at Sedan in Northeast France. They pushed the demoralized and ill-prepared French and British troops into full-scale retreat, and trapped 350,000 men on the beaches of Dunkirk on the northern French coast. The German Army then pushed south. The French Army was in a rout and seemed to be falling apart. Roads were clogged with fleeing soldiers and citizens. By June, 1940 France surrendered to Germany.
Knut 1940
Meanwhile, Knut had spent some time under terrible conditions in the French men's detention camp. In the spring of 1940, Knut he was well enough to join a French Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps. As already noted, French and British troops retreated to Dunkirk after the German invasion of France May 10, 1940. British troops were evacuated from the beaches to Britain by a huge fleet of large and small private boats. Knut and his Corps were there. Knut, who spoke the best English in his company, begged the British officers to take them to Britain also. The majority of them were Jewish and faced extreme danger in a German-controlled France. His French commanding officer refused their pleas. As the Germans closed in, the French officers all dispersed, leaving the men to their own devices. Knut's company was left two of the trucks the fleeing troops should have blown up with the rest of the supplies. The men of the abandoned Corps then drove these trucks to the south of France. There they ran out of gas and the men all went their own ways.
After the May 1940 invasion by the Germans, the French opened all the camps, and set all the Jews free. The French just didn't know what to do with them. But the refugees were instructed not to leave that particular region of southern France. There were a few villages around this particular area, tiny hamlets with 50-60 houses. The women were posted into various houses in these villages, and waited for their men to find them. Not too long after Edith and Gys got to one of these villages, called Prechac-Navarens, Hans appeared one day. They were overjoyed. Although this was a great stroke of luck, they still didn't know where Knut was.
By then thousands of Jews were on the roads, trying to find their families and loved ones. Many of these refugees handed out hundreds of slips of paper with their names and addresses on them, and the name of their relatives, hoping as the slips were passed from hand to hand that their relatives would somehow get them, so they would be reunited. Gys remembers ruefully: “There were more slips of paper on the road than there was food!” So the Behr family followed suit, also handing out hundreds of slips. Everywhere people met, they would be asking: “Has anyone heard of this person, has anyone heard this name?” Luckily for them Knut was a very unusual Norwegian name. Gys told us: “Knut was on a French army truck one day, when people were handing out slips all over the place. He heard his name and by a miracle he got the paper with our location, so he came to join us.” Finally the whole family was at last reunited, though in perilous circumstances.
Once France had capitulated, the Germans divided France into the “occupied” zone, all the country north of the Loire River to the Atlantic Ocean in the west, and to the English Channel along the northern coast. A “demarcation line” separated it from the south, called the “Free Vichy France”, headed by Marshal Petain. The Vichy government collaborated more and more with the German conquerors and also began to persecute Jews, no longer allowing them to work in professions related to the army, law or teaching. Soon they began to pen up foreign Jews in camps again.
Edith and Hans were interned, and Knut was sent to a separate camp. The head of the camp used Knut as an assistant to help with translation and paperwork because of his wide knowledge of languages. He was sympathetic and later let Knut and some of the other Jews escape. Knut made contact with the American Quakers and did relief work under David Blickenstaff, a man who was later to become very prominent in the UN. Knut worked on a farm in central France, which was a clandestine staging post for escaping allied POW's. He then went underground and spent a year hidden and protected by an elderly French peasant, Marguerite, on her farm near Montauban.
Gys & Herbert 1940-42
After Gys had gotten out of camp she found out that Herbert, along with all the foreigners in the French Army, has been sent to Algiers in North Africa. This was done as a military precaution before the Germans invaded France, as the French Army commanders knew the Germans would kill all foreign Jews or send them off to concentration camps. Later when Herbert got out of the Army, he was demobbed (demobilized) in Marseilles. He knew where Gys and her parents were, and called them, but even though he was still in French uniform, he could not get a travel permit to come and get Gys to be married in Marseilles. She, however, did obtain a travel permit, although her parents were unable to get them.
Herbert's mother and stepfather, George Bernhard, later fled France, going on foot over the Pyrenees mountains to Spain. From there they went to Portugal and were taken to the US. The US State Dept., under Varian Fry, had made great efforts to get the German intelligentsia and people most wanted by Hitler out of France. The Bernhards were able to get into the US on a special “danger visa” due to Bernhard's precarious status on Hitler's “most wanted” list.
Gys and Herbert were married in January of 1941, and lived in Marseilles for a short while. But the Mayor of Marseilles, who was very pro-German, began rounding up all the Jews to hand them over to the Nazis. Gys and Herbert went into hiding in the house of a French Colonel (Commandant) who was part of the Resistance. He was one of the many exceptional French people who hid Jewish refugees, at the risk of their own lives. There were ten or twelve people hiding there. Edith and Hans were also in hiding somewhere near Pau, a French village in southwest France, as was Knut on Marguerite's farm near Montauban. They must all have been so frightened, as betrayal was a constant reality for Jews and others in hiding.
Flight to Spain 1942-1943
The Civil War in Spain came to an end in March 1939 and Francisco Franco was in power. Many Spaniards who didn't like Franco, or opposed his rule, escaped to France. Many, to make some money, later acted as guides, helping people escape from the Nazis by going over the Pyrenees mountains to Spain. It cost money, but it was the only way out for desperate refugees. In late 1942 Gys and Herbert finally managed to get Knut to Marseilles where they were hidden. Then Gys and Herbert paid for a guide to take the three of them over the Pyrenees. It was now autumn. They were told they could each take a suitcase. Their guide said, “We will walk one night and a bit of the next morning and then you will be in Spain, and there you will be taken care of.” There was no way of checking this. So they took a train to Banyuls-sur-Mer, a small station on the French side of the Pyrenees and in the later afternoon they started walking. There was the three of them and one other couple. At around two in the morning the guide said, “Oh look, there is Spain. Excuse me one minute.” That was the last they saw of him. Gys remembers: “You see, we didn't realize, they had fled Spain. They couldn't go back. So we walked, then we heard dogs barking and thought it was the police. We walked on and on. Altogether we spent four nights and five days in the Pyrenees. We threw away all our suitcases because we couldn't carry anything after a while. We each kept a little bag. We had no food. On the second day we found a little pond, so we could drink some water. We drank some, then realized this was where cows and animals come to, you know, ‘do what they do.' But we didn't die from that! On the third or fourth day we walked through some vineyards. The grapes were not very ripe, very small, but we were very hungry. So we kept eating grapes, with the results you can imagine! On the fifth day we decided we couldn't go on like this. So we just walked into the next Spanish village and walked to the church. We saw the priest. He spoke French and explained that there was nothing he could do for us except feed us and let us rest. Then we would have to take the train out and just risk it. So we took the local train. At the next station the Spanish Police or Guardia Civil got on and asked for everyone's papers.” They had no identification papers, no exit visas from France and no entry visas for Spain. (Literally since the time they had fled Berlin in 1933, they had been stateless. They were no longer German citizens, and did they did not have French citizenship either). Immediately they were handcuffed and taken off at the next large station, which was Girona. “We were brought to the police station. For some reason my husband and I were allowed to stay together, but my brother was taken someplace else. We stayed there overnight. It was terrifying. The police were beating people; there were people screaming all night. The next day they separated the men and women and put the men on a train. No one knew where he or she was going. All the women were put on another train.”
Spanish Prisons 1942-1943
Over the next four months the women, including Gys, were shuffled from one prison to another. The men all ended up in one big camp, which was called Miranda, at the northernmost part of Spain on the Ebro River. Gys remembers, “We were sent first to the Barcelona Prison, then to a couple of other cities and we ended up in Madrid, in the Women's Prison. There was no correspondence during that four months, because we were not allowed to send or receive mail unless we were in a prison for more than six weeks. And we were never more than a few weeks in a prison. We had heard the men were all in Camp Miranda. But the men didn't know where we were. On one of our train transports there were about twenty of us women and children. We were all kept in these open wagons, or cars. We were kept in a special section and the rest of the people on the train were Spaniards who were traveling. They kept looking at us to see what was happening. I took a piece of paper and I wrote down all the names of the women in this convoy and I addressed it to my husband in Camp Miranda. I crumpled the paper in my hand and I said to the police, ‘I have to go to the bathroom.' It was at the other end of the train, so they had to walk me to it, past the Spaniards, and I just dropped the piece of paper. Somebody picked it up; it got to my husband.”
This was the first sign of life the men had received from any of the women since they had been separated. Gys knew where they were going and wrote that they were headed to Madrid. So the men at last knew where the women were. With all the tragic things that happened, there is always a moment when one believes in humankind again, Gys recalls. “One day when I was in prison in Madrid, I was called to the office. They said I had a visitor. I knew no one in Madrid. I saw this man there. He spoke French, and I said: ‘who are you?' He said, ‘I'm the one who picked up your paper. I put it in an envelope and I sent it to your husband. I am here to tell you that I am willing to marry you.' I said, ‘I beg your pardon? I'm married! ' He said: ‘That's not the point. If you marry a Spaniard you can immediately get out of prison. And we can get an immediate divorce. Then, you and your husband, when he comes out of camp, can leave.” Gys thanked him profoundly, but refused the offer.
Prison was, in Gys' terms, “conducted hell led by Catholic nuns.” Spanish Catholic nuns were not good, “It was terrible, terrible. They were especially brutal to the Spanish political prisoners. We were forty foreigners in a special big room looking out over a courtyard. It was winter and so cold. The children had all been taken away as the nuns said prison was no place for children. The women were frantic as they didn't know where their children were. We slept on the floor with only a thin cotton blanket each. I had peritonitis. We were starved. My wedding ring fell off my hand. Twice a week in the courtyard there were executions, and women were shot there.”
Free from Prison
From the men's prison at Miranda, eventually Herbert was somehow able to write to his parents in the USA. They knew some friends in Portugal, who knew a lawyer in Madrid. One day Gys got a visit from this lawyer. He said he could get her out of prison. When she asked how, he said that she was to pretend to be mentally unstable. She said that wouldn't be difficult for her to do, as she was so debilitated from prison life, and he got her out of prison in January 1943. She stayed in Madrid with his wife and son. After a few months, in March, her husband and brother were freed from the Miranda de Ebro Camp.
Once freed, Herbert and Gys contacted Herbert's mother and stepfather, George Bernhard, in the US. They were able to assist the couple in arranging for two American sponsors so they could get visas to go to the States. In August 1943 they sailed from Lisbon, Portugal, under the auspices of the Joint Committee Hyass, which paid their passage to the US for escorting five children separated from their parents by the war. Upon arrival it took five days for them to be processed through immigration. They were the last off the boat. When the guard came to get them, he asked, “Do you have any children?” Gys said, “No but I'm expecting.” The guard was dismayed, “Why didn't you tell someone, we would have gotten you off right away!” “It had just never occurred to us to tell them” Gys remembered. This is an example of the American kindness that greeted them, for which Gys has been forever grateful.
Once he was freed from Camp Miranda in March 1943, Knut went to the British Consulate in Madrid, where he arranged to go to England, as a “Prestataire” or a foreigner who serves in the British Army. There he was reunited with his fiancée, Hilda. They were married in London in January of 1944. The war ended in 1945. Gys and Herbert in America had spent two years working to get them get visas, and finally in 1946 they were able to emigrate to the United States. Their only child, Peter Leslie, my dad, was born in New York, in 1947.
Hans & Edith in France
In France, the German Army took control of Vichy France, or the “free zone” in November 1942. Hans and Edith were still in hiding near Pau, waiting to hear how Knut, Gys and Herbert had fared in their attempt to get to Spain. Herbert had also paid the guide to take them over the Pyrenees. But, of course, no word came, as the prisoners could not write from their prisons. One terrible day the police came to Pau and rounded up all the men. Hans was handed over to the Germans. I have a newspaper article about his heartbreaking letters to Edith that he had smuggled off the trains and cattle cars as he was transported further and further away from her. He was sent to one of the most notorious extermination camps, in Madjanek, in eastern Poland. He was one of the 1,500,000 people, mostly Jews, Poles and Russians, who were killed there.
Edith, left alone in France, continued to hide, working as a maid for the people who were protecting her. When France was liberated in 1944, Edith was able to get Gys' address in New York. Gys and Herbert started immigration proceedings to bring her from France to the US.
Finally reunited, Gys and Herbert, and their mothers, Edith and Mrs Bernhard all lived in the same apartment building, in Queens, New York. Knut, Hilde and Peter Behr also lived in Queens a bus ride away. Gys speaks about her first experience and impressions of Americans: “... And they were so nice and so open. It was like a dream ... You can't generalize, but if you generalize, as a people, Americans are much nicer people, they really are. I mean you have bad people here, I know that. But I think that overall, it's just more open, and they give you benefit of the doubt. In Europe, at the time, it was never the benefit of the doubt. You were the enemy right away and then we'll see if we get together. It was just the other way around.”
They had survived the worst war in human history, World War II. They were some of the lucky few who escaped the Nazis.
Peter Behr's comments
My family rarely spoke of the difficult events in Europe hoping to reestablish a normal life in the USA. They also were from a generation that believed in not telling children things that children may not have been able to handle. So the very few stories I remember were positive ones I overheard at parties when these German Jewish immigrants would gather and occasionally laugh at some of the anecdotes from that time.
My father and his friends Hani and Claire hid at an old French peasant's home. Some soldiers came by and of course the Jews were terrified of being found and turned in. Claire was hiding in the loft of the barn along with my Dad's friend Hani. Hani, a known lady's man, suggested they pretend to make love so if the soldier's found them there would be an obvious explanation for their being in the loft and they might not be asked for identification. The modest Claire refused to entertain such a lascivious proposal evidently prizing her virtue more than her life. I remember this story causing peals of laughter at my parents' parties.
Another favorite was also about Hani. He and my father were traveling through France trying to escape the Nazis. They came to a town and asked the local priest for some food. He sternly asked them what they had done during the German invasion. The priest wanted them to deserve his help by having heroically fought the Nazis. Hani replied honestly: “J'avais peur.” (“I was afraid”) Evidently this honesty disarmed the priest and got them the help they needed.
In the mornings my father would shave in the bathroom and I would sit on the edge of the bathtub listening to his stories. It was a long session as his rheumatoid arthritis made shaving a slow and painful affair. He used to talk about the good old days living on Marguerite's farm. He would feed the geese every day and enjoyed that. He liked the simple peasant life. She had gold buried in the yard. Though she was 80 she still had her wedding dress on a wooden mannequin in the attic. She didn't like the Nazis. She went to town infrequently and lived a life similar to her predecessors in the Middle Ages. My father came from a sophisticated, well-educated, urban family. He had been to top schools and could discuss profound philosophical issues and see many points of view. Marguerite's simplicity was appealing to him.
The other story I remember was about his escape from a detention camp in France. This story seems to contradict my Aunt's somewhat. This camp held the prisoners until they could be shipped to an extermination camp like Auschwitz. The Red Cross and other relief organizations were allowed access as no atrocities were occurring there. The American Friend's Service Committee sent a representative named David Blickenstaff to the camp. His assistant had died of a heart attack. He made my father his assistant due to Knut's command of many languages. Knut assisted for 3 months. My father was a charming, humorous and gentle man and Blickenstaff helped him escape. A train came through the area and Blickenstaff got Knut a ticket out. Blickenstaff gave him the papers of the deceased assistant: one Felix Porter, an Englishman. My father with his fluent English was able to pass as an Englishman. I do not know why he could not continue using these papers. This is an old memory. I had totally forgotten this story for 30 years and only remembered it the morning after seeing the movie Schindler's List.