On Erev Pesach 1945, about a month before V-E Day, my father wrote another tender letter of missed Yom Tovim stolen by the Nazis. “Today is Pesach and for me it is the fifth time that I don’t feast with the family.”
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May 8, 1945 marked the Allies’ formal acceptance of Nazi Germany’s unconditional surrender. Crowds cheered under the onion domes of the Kremlin in Moscow, and across America church bells pealed as throngs gathered in town squares. In London, tens of thousands jammed Trafalgar Square up to Buckingham Palace where the Royal Family and Prime Minister Winston Churchill greeted the crowd.
Jews who had been liberated but still found themselves in the many camps set up by the Nazis were also joyous – but so weakened by their ordeal that their response seemed muted. Their lives had been destroyed, their families decimated – and yet they remained on the very grounds of their persecution, fully aware of the intense anti-Semitism around them that under the Nazis had exploded into the Holocaust.
All they wanted was to get out of Europe, and an informal Jewish underground was quickly formed to achieve that end. Jewish Allied servicemen and members of Britain’s Jewish Brigade from Palestine, all acting independently along with the Haganah, set about transporting these survivors to the Holy Land in Aliyah Bet smuggling runs.
When France was liberated in 1944, the French Resistance had been reconstituted into a conventional military and after V-E Day my father’s unit became a part of the Allied occupation forces in southwest Germany. As a serviceman he had access to military trucks and so he joined the Jewish smuggling network, carrying Jewish survivors from Germany’s Rhineland over the French border to Strasbourg where they would continue their journey to Eretz Yisrael.
On several occasions he even managed to obtain a lorry for longer periods and was able to drive survivors to Marseille in southern France where the Aliyah Bet network had arranged boats for their passage to Palestine.
My father too felt a burning impatience to get out of the “graveyard of Europe.” He recalled that the gentiles there continued to “prove their hatred for us and I couldn’t tolerate being around them.”
In a series of letters to his sisters, he joyously recounted that in Strasbourg he ran into their first cousin Walter Bloch after a three-and-a-half year separation. Walter had also escaped from a camp, joined the Resistance, and was now in the regular French army. My father told of how he and Walter, having applied for visas to emigrate, were making their way through paperwork at the U.S. consulate in Paris. He asked his sisters “to do what they could” from their end in New York.
“You know that Walter and I have been like brothers and he also lost his parents. We don’t intend to stay here and we want to be together.”
My father continued, “I ask you to prepare the papers also for him. Once we are in the States, we won’t need any aid. We are young and we have learned to work for our living.”
At the same time they applied for American entry visas they also sought to be discharged from further French military duties lest they be sent to Indochina where war still raged. “God has helped me until now,” he wrote in another letter, “and there is no reason that He would suddenly leave me. I know I will be safe as I have been.”
Charged with maintaining order as part of the Allied occupation, my father’s unit was based about 30 miles from his childhood home village of Ihringen. Sporting his military uniform and driving a jeep, he traveled to Ihringen where a crowd of fearful onlookers gathered about him. My father remembered a few of them remarking that he looked familiar and one exclaiming, “I remember you. You are a Jew. Philip Lion’s son.”