Photo Credit:
Rose Lion

He told of how his father taught him strategies and skills to defend himself. “Use your head, don’t be afraid, and remember – the bigger they are, the harder they fall,” his father would advise. Rosa, on the other hand, cautioned her husband not to embolden the boys to fight. My father remembered that his mother would always look crossly at Philip and say, “Don’t encourage the boy, it will only invite trouble.”

And indeed, with the Nazis firmly in power and many in Ihringen now openly showing their true anti-Jewish sentiments, trouble did come. Several times the Lion home was smeared with anti-Semitic slurs and once Philip scuffled with several older Hitler Youth hooligans who accosted the family as they walked home from a synagogue service. While Rosa was proud of her husband’s actions, she was also alarmed that it could provoke serious consequences.

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Provocation or not, there were consequences simply because they were Jews. After the 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom, Rosa proved herself to be a true woman of valor. Philip and his brothers were arrested and taken to an undisclosed location, leaving Rosa and her sisters-in-law unaware of their fates. The other women were panic stricken but Rosa’s composed demeanor calmed them and she encouraged them to continue on as best they could. She even boldly contacted the Gestapo and learned that the men had been taken to Dachau. (They were held for two months.)

* * * * *

In October 1940, a year into World War II, Hitler deported the 15,000 Jews living in southwest Germany and put them into internment camps run by the Nazi puppet French Vichy government. One year later, amid the horrid conditions and lack of medicine at the Rivesaltes camp, Philip died at the age of 69. After his death Rosa and her son, though forced to live apart in the gender-separated camp, managed to keep their spirits up with snatched conversations through a barbed wire fence.

“You’ll see,” she would say, “eventually we’ll get out and join Irma and Robertine in America and we’ll be together again.”

Three months after Philip’s death, typhus broke out at the camp and Rosa became very ill. Losing her strength and becoming even thinner, she was barely able to lift her head. An older internee, a pharmacist, suggested that beyond the rations, Rosa could be helped by chewing on charred wood because it would sooth her roiling intestines.

Under the French, Rivesaltes was an internment rather than a death camp and charity organizations were allowed to operate there. The Catholic nuns were especially sympathetic to the children at the camp and my father became a valued assistant, helping to prepare and distribute meager rations of watery soup made with rotten vegetables, bits of potatoes, and occasional meat gristle, prepared in big pots over an open fire.

At the height of Rosa’s illness my father was frantic, trying to give her as much nutrition as possible, including doubling her daily soup allotment by giving up his own. He also plucked bits of charred wood each day from the cooking fires and urged his listless mother to chew on them. After a few weeks she began to recover.

By spring 1942, in line with the Nazis’ Final Solution, the camp operators began to disperse the Jewish inmates. Older men were sent away and every week or so the younger men would be rounded up for “work detail,” also not to be seen again. A nurse, Friedel Reiter (who along with her husband would later be honored by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations), forged travel passes for my father and another Jewish boy, urging them to leave immediately because the work details would ultimately mean death at Nazi hands.

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Ed Lion is a former reporter for United Press International now living in the Poconos.