Editor’s note: Long-time Great Bend resident Robert Feldt experienced the Holocaust on a first-hand basis as a child in occupied France. He is the son of a German Jew and a Russian Jew. His mother moved to Berlin, Germany in 1917, fleeing the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia.
My father left Germany to go to France as an engineer in September 1931. He married my mother, Olga, in April 1933. My brother and I were born in France and became citizens of France at birth.
In 1938, my parents renounced their German citizenship and returned their passports to the German Embassy after sensing the unrest and anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany. My parents became stateless citizens.
When war broke out in September 1939, there was considerable confusion in France, and there was an expectation of an aerial attack in Paris. There was a complete blackout of the city’s automobile headlights, which were to be painted blue, and all street lights were turned off.
My mother and father decided it would be better if we stayed for a time with friends in Normandy, away from Paris.
On leaving the city, a roadblock was encountered where additional blue paint was splashed on the headlights. After arriving in Normandy my mother got a room for herself and my brother and me.
Dad returned the same day to Paris, arriving around midnight at our apartment. He was awakened at 5 a.m. by a loud knock at the door. A policeman and two plainclothes men ordered my dad to get dressed and follow them. He was taken into custody as an enemy alien. The ostensible reason was to uncover potential spies. Since my father was a German national, the French government arrested all foreigners who were German that were not naturalized.
Dad was not allowed to call Mother and he was interned in a stadium and had to bed down between the rows of seats. He was then transported along with many others to an internment camp in the countryside. It was located in wine country, and my father volunteered to help pick grapes.
The camp was visited by a recruiting officer, and my dad pointed out that before the war, he had attempted to enlist in the French Army. He was allowed to join the Foreign Legion as a volunteer. He was sent to Algeria.
Up until the Germany invasion, my mother and brother and I stayed with Jewish friends in Normandy. Mom started taking driving lessons and spoke to me and my brother in German.
On May 10, 1940, the German Blitzkrieg or invasion began. People had to take shelter in the open fields. The invasion led to a wave of resentment against Germans, and Mother had become a German by marriage. An order was given to send her to a concentration camp without us since we were French. A policeman came to the house with such an order, but the mayor intervened on the ground that my mother was Russian by birth, and my father was serving in the French Army. The order was canceled, but we were no longer permitted to stay with our friends because we were close to the strategic harbor of Cherbourg.
How to take the car without a driver’s license? There was no time for a road test. My mom hired a carpenter to build a large box which was mounted on the top of the car. We had to move and stayed in another town with an old lady who was outwardly friendly, but actually considered Mom a spy.
When my mother heard that the Germans were approaching Normandy, she decided to try to escape by turning south.
We and another family set out in two cars. The roads were clogged with refugees and retreating soldiers. Gas was unavailable, but by standing on the road with an empty gas can, she was able to obtain gas from passing military convoys. The trip was interrupted repeatedly by German planes which machine-gunned the fleeing civilians. When this happened, everybody had to jump out of the car and take shelter in the ditches. At night, we slept on straw in barns.
We had to stop at a service station because the car developed trouble. In the morning, we were awakened and told, "Don’t get excited — the Germans are here."
Mother then applied for permission to move into unoccupied France. Fortunately, a friendly official arranged for her to be issued new identity papers. He understood that we were in real danger of being shot by the Germans. During this period, my mother stopped speaking German and warned us not to speak German.
We were successful in crossing through a German checkpoint into unoccupied France, and proceeded to Marseille on the Mediterranean.
What would have become of us had we stayed in Normandy can be seen from the fate of our friends who took us in at the beginning of the war. They remained in their home and were transported to Poland, never to return. Their little daughter Claire was hidden by friends and survived the war.
With armistice declared in 1940, father was demobilized and permitted to leave Algeria. He joined us in Marseille.
My parents applied for a visa to come to the United States. Thanks to the help of influential businessmen in the U.S., we succeeded in getting a visa in 1942.
The big problem in leaving France was that there were no direct boat connections from France to the U.S. and because of the submarine war, only neutral ships, mostly Portuguese, went from Lisbon to Baltimore via Casablanca. There was only one ship per month, and it was very difficult to book a passage.
Luckily, we obtained cabin space on a French boat to Casablanca where we were picked up by a Portuguese steamer.
After two weeks’ travel by sea, we arrived in Bermuda where we stopped briefly and then went on to Baltimore. The Germans had declared the port of New York a war zone. Thus, the ship docked in Baltimore. At the entrance to Chesapeake Bay, Dad noticed a number of shipwrecks as a result of German torpedoes.
The entire journey lasted six weeks, arriving in August 1942. But now one of the greatest shocks awaited us.
We were all placed in a concentration camp at Fort Howard, near Baltimore. This was a screening operation carried out by the FBI. My uncle, who had come to the U.S. years earlier and served in the army, came and got us out.
Everybody asked us, "How do you like America?" We liked it fine, but it was not the skyscrapers that impressed us, it was the abundant food supplies in stores everywhere. To our famine- accustomed eyes, it conveyed the image of a powerful and wealthy America.