Seventy years ago this autumn, the Nazis rounded up my father, grandparents and some 6,000 other Jews, shipping them from southwest Germany to the Gurs internment camp in southern France.
The deportation in packed railway trains cast my family into an anguished struggle for survival and spelled the disappearance of an oft-forgotten segment of German-Jewry – the observant country folk of the Rhine River Valley.
To this day my father, Kurt Lion, now 84, remembers the 7 a.m. pounding on the family door, the cries of “Raus! Raus!” and his mother’s terror as they found six Nazis screaming on the doorstep.
It was October 22, 1940, and the Nazis had begun an operation to deport Jews from the Franco-German border region – including Germany’s Baden province where my father was born.
The Nazis shrieked for the Jews in my father’s village of Ihringen to assemble on the main street within twenty minutes – and each was only allowed to carry a small suitcase of belongings.
My father remembers that a crowd of the gentile villagers had turned out to gape at the expulsion of Ihringen’s last remaining Jews – but some did more than gape, seeing them off with cruel jeers.
Vibrant Jewish Life
At my father’s birth in 1926, the village of about 3,500 people had some 250 observant Jews, engaging mostly in farming and commerce. Most of Germany’s half million pre-war Jews lived in the bigger cities and were decidedly assimilated.
Not so with the country Jews farming along the Rhine River. But because of their small numbers, history has largely overlooked them and their lives characterized by cattle and vegetable farming, wine-making and small-scale commerce mingled with Torah observance.
In his earlier years my grandfather had been a kosher butcher and chef who had worked in a hotel in Karlsruhe – a German equivalent of Grossinger’s. By middle age, he engaged in cattle dealing and farming in Ihringen.
His brother Benjamin ran the kosher butcher shop in the village. He even exported kosher meat to nearby Basel, Switzerland because the Swiss restricted kosher butchering.
My father’s maternal uncles ran a large kosher wine- and vinegar-making business. Their father, Jacob Guggenheim, had, in his younger years back in the 1800s, single-handedly saved Ihringen’s important grape crop from a blight threatening the region’s vineyards. Knowledgeable in agriculture, he grafted hardier stock onto the vines, ensuring they could withstand the disease.
For the rest of his life, he was honored with the nickname “The Master” by area Jews and gentiles alike who gratefully remembered his rescue of the village’s grapevines.
My father’s earliest memories are of friendly interaction between Ihringen’s mostly Protestant population and its Jewish community, one of the biggest among the region’s villages.
Ihringen’s concentration of Jews was reflected in its large well-kept Jewish cemetery filled with Hebrew-inscribed gravestones, the final resting place for some 1,000 souls.
My father remembers his early childhood visits there, the tidy plots and grave markers studded with piles of small stones, a sign of the living honoring the dead in a tradition linking the generations.
The most visible marker of Ihringen’s thriving Jewish community was its century-old three-story synagogue, one of the most prominent buildings in the village. My father remembers gazing up at its stained glass windows and depictions of the twelve tribes of Israel when he prayed and studied there with his father.
During my father’s earliest years, Jews continued to enjoy prosperity and peace in Ihringen and throughout the region.
Persecution, Deportation and Death
But that all changed with Hitler’s rise, with Nazi laws stripping Jews of all rights, and with Kristallnacht, when the synagogue was burned to the ground. My grandfather and his brothers were held for several months in Dachau. My grandfather, then in his late 60s, never recovered his health though his spirit remained unbroken.
During this terrible time, Ihringen’s Jewish population had steadily shrunk as many moved to the anonymity of bigger towns and the more fortunate secured visas to emigrate. By 1937, my father’s two elder sisters were among the latter, managing to relocate to New York City.
But on that fateful morning of October 22, 1940, my father, grandparents and the other Ihringen Jews were subjected to an ordeal that remains vivid in my father’s mind.
SS officers backed by rifle-toting soldiers escorted the Jews to the village hall and announced their expulsion while their neighbors looked on. My father remembers that a number of them showed sadness, but none said a word of protest.
Others in the crowd shouted anti-Semitic slogans. The most hateful were the teen-aged boys, proudly sporting Hitler Youth uniforms and taunting the deportees. One spit at my father and jeered, “You’ll be dead soon, Jew!”
At this point, when my father recounts the scene, his voice seems to change from that of an old man to the teenager he was seventy years ago. He proudly recalls that he spit right back at the German and answered, “I’ll be back to bury you!”
My family and the others were forced onto a truck and driven to a nearby town where the Germans had gathered up another thousand Jews from the area. Without explanation they were crammed into an old passenger train with blacked-out windows.
So began a terrifying four-day journey with little food, pails for toilets and conditions so crowded that many had to stand or sit in the aisles. Today my father’s voice grows hoarse remembering the suffering of the sick and elderly on that train and the stunned faces of people who had ridden that same rail system in times past, times of normalcy that were now gone forever.
The stop-and-go journey, plagued by numerous delays, ended some 800 miles to the southwest in remote southern France. There, the French Vichy government had set up internment camps on the orders of the Germans.
For the next 18 months, my father endured lice, hunger and deprivation as he nursed his ailing parents, first in the Gurs camp, later at Rivesaltes two hundred miles away. His father, Philip, 69, died from the horrible conditions; his mother Rosa was eventually transported to Auschwitz where she was gassed. She was 59.
Both had reiterated to him the same burning wish – that someday he make it to America for a new life and a reunion with his sisters. My father, just 16 then, vowed to survive and avenge his parents’ suffering.
Escape – and Striking Back
At Rivesaltes, he was forced to hide in crawlspaces to evade the SS squads that increasingly sought young Jews for lethal work details. Certain he must flee to live, he slipped away with falsified papers provided by a Swiss nun permitted to do charity work at the camp.
The nun vowed to save as many lives as she could and the papers classified my father as “French-born.” This enabled him to secure a place in an agricultural school run by the Jewish refugee charity ORT (Organization for Rehabilitation and Training) on a farm 300 miles to the north in La Roche.
After four months, my father was suddenly arrested and taken to the Casseneul holding depot for shipment to a concentration camp. But that night, he managed to escape by squirming through a sewage pipe and jumping into a nearby river.
Attaining freedom, he lived on foraged food and eventually was able to get identity papers for himself under a gentile name. With this alias, he found work as a laborer for a farmer in a village in East-Central France.
There, he managed to replenish his strength. But with his increased strength, something else within him grew stronger – his desire to strike back against the Germans for their crimes.
And strike back my father did, first by attacking German troops while fighting in the French Underground. Later, after D-Day, when the underground was formalized into a reconstituted French military, he served as an aerial gunner in an American-supplied “Free French” B-17 bomber that rained explosives on Germany in raids coordinated by the U.S. Air Force.
After a dozen successful bomber missions, my father’s plane was shot down and he ended the war performing other duties for the French military.
Conquering the Shoah
With Germany’s surrender, he returned to Ihringen in a French military jeep and found the Jewish cemetery there vandalized.
The villagers were wary at seeing a uniformed French military man. But their wariness turned to outright fear when they recognized him – a Jew deported from the village five years before but now returned with the conquering Allies.
With a hand on his rifle, he ordered those who had gathered around his jeep to clean up the cemetery. A few had been there jeering at his expulsion and now they trembled, their faces drained of color.
“You’re not so big now, are you?” my father said. “Go clean up the cemetery. I’ll be coming back to check.”
The villagers, still white-faced, nodded in wordless fear.
He was stationed in the area and returned several times to the village over the next few weeks. And soon the cemetery was indeed cleaned up.
Another victory for my father in those months after Germany’s collapse was the help he was able to provide Jewish refugees newly freed from the concentration camps. Jewish soldiers from among the Allies, most notably the British army’s “Jewish Brigade” drawn from Palestine, had set up a smuggling network; my father worked with it to help refugees escape the graveyard of Europe.
With his French military status he had access to military vehicles and “borrowed” them for what he called “unauthorized refugee transport.” In concert with the smuggling network, he made numerous trips taking refugees, hidden under blankets, from inside Germany across the Rhine River to the French city of Strasbourg.
During a furlough, he revisited the ORT school in La Roche, where the Nazis had arrested him. Now he happily discovered it was being used as a place to prepare freed camp inmates for transport to Israel. A Zionist shaliach lived there, teaching Hebrew and farming skills.
My father had a French military van at his disposal and was able to transport a number of the refugees to a beach outside Marseilles, where they awaited boat pick-ups for clandestine crossings to Palestine.
A few months after that furlough, in April 1946, my father immigrated to the United States.
Just as his parents had wished, he reunited with his sisters. In the ensuing years, he married my late mother Giselle, herself a Holocaust survivor, raised my two sisters and me in northern New Jersey and crafted a successful career as a textile designer.
In 1969, my father visited Israel for a joyful reunion with a man who had been in the camps with him.
At the reunion, my father was amazed and delighted to see several familiar faces – a few of the other boys who had been at the ORT school with him. They had been bedraggled refugees when he knew them. But now they were Israelis, citizens of the thriving Jewish state, which gave my father enormous satisfaction.
Three years later in 1972 my parents traveled to Europe and visited Ihringen with a dual aim – my father wished to show his birthplace to my mother and also “to show the Germans in the village that I was still around and doing just fine.”
They immediately paid their respects at the Jewish cemetery and discovered it choked with weeds. My father angrily stormed into the village hall and confronted the burghermeister.
“You Germans made sure there weren’t any Jews left here to take care of our graves,” my father fumed. “So now the responsibility falls to you to do it, to treat them with respect.”
Stung, the burghermeister nodded his assent. As he did, my father suddenly noticed a carved wooden clock hanging on the wall above the desk. It was the very same clock that had hung in his parlor throughout his childhood, a century-old timepiece that his father had carefully maintained.
Reaching up, my father lifted the clock from the wall and pointed to marks on the back identifying it as “Lion property.”
My father brought that clock back home with him. Ever since, it has had pride of place hanging in my father’s living room, its hourly chime poignantly cutting across the years.
When my father had arrived in America, his only pre-war possession was a small Hebrew-German prayer book, a memento of his lost Jewish life in Ihringen.
Five years ago when his grandson, Sam, became bar mitzvah, my father brought our family to tears by presenting the book to him with a heartfelt message.
My father explained that his bar mitzvah had occurred less than six months after Kristallnacht when German Jewry was perched on the very brink of extinction.
The tiny prayer book, inscribed “from the Jews of Ihringen” was the sole present my father received for his bar mitzvah – and he cherished it. So much so that on that terrible October morning when his family was expelled to the camps, he took the prayer book with him. Throughout the war, he managed to keep it safe.
He hid the book in his clothing, stashed it near where he slept or buried it.
After he landed his farm laborer job, he hid the book under a loose brick in the farmer’s wine cellar.
The book remained there undetected until the war ended. In early 1946, preparing to immigrate to America, he returned to retrieve it.
For most of his life here, my father kept the book in a night table by his bed. But five years ago he decided to pass it along to his grandson to mark the boy’s bar mitzvah.
In an emotional note, my father told Sam that “All of our relatives, the living and even those who passed long before” would rejoice at his bar mitzvah. “They would be proud,” he said, that Sam would be carrying the family into a new generation, the latest link in the chain of Jewish continuity.
And then, with a smile of love and pride, my father presented his grandson with the book, an embodiment of his own survival and, in a wider sense, that of the Jewish people.
Ed Lion, formerly a reporter with United Press International, is a writer who lives in the Poconos.