Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Escape

Opa's Journey
When I was a freshman in High School, Opa gave a talk to my older sister’s European History class. I remember getting to skip out of my class and see his talk. I remember feeling kind of like a rock star afterwards because everyone was so amazed at his story. Sadly, as I was about 13, I didn’t remember a huge amount of what he said until I could read it in his memoirs. Opa included his manuscript of his talk in his memoirs; it details his escape from Nazi Germany. Each step I take deeper into this story, I recognize the incredible miracle it is that my little life exists at all.

Opa remembered the day his father announced the news: Hitler was elected Reich Chancellor. He remembered the day his passport was stamped “for identification only.”  He remembered the day he tried to leave Germany.  All italicized quotes in this post are from Opa’s memoirs, “From Nazi Germany to a Career in Freedom.”

An attempt to trace Opa's smuggle across the border
It was about July 1938 when I packed a suitcase and took a train to a town close to the Holland/German border. Naively, I walked toward the border, mostly open field with some haystacks but all I saw was Nazi blackshirts marching up and down, guarding the border. So I hiked about ten miles south toward the Belgian/Dutch border. No guards in sight, so, with great apprehension, I walked across a wooded area, and it was a pleasure to see the Belgian road signs. I walked on until I found the German/Dutch border station, and told my story to the Dutch border control. They listened but told me that they had strict orders to refuse entry to anyone who didn’t have valid papers... they said they would help me get back to Germany without the Nazis catching me. They took me close to the German border, where a streetcar crossed the border. We waited until the streetcar was in no-man’s land, to take on passengers to Aachen, Germany. At the Dutch guards’ signal, I ran toward the streetcar, flashed my German passport to the Nazi guard, who waved me on- I was back in Germany. Now what?

I’m going to be quoting a lot in this blog because the story is best told in the first person. 

We left off with Opa as he snuck safely back into Germany with no plan.  He checked into a cheap hotel in Aachen, Germany, and wrote his father, hoping.
Postcard from Aachen, Germany
A long week passed; I spent my time in the library, reading mostly math books, and learned German shorthand (which I never used), to have something to concentrate on- and waited.

An aside- Opa mentioned the uselessness of learning shorthand until very late in his life. He must have wasted a lot of time learning it. I kind of laugh thinking about how annoyed he was about it.
Finally, when I returned to my hotel one day, there was a Dutchman who asked me in broken German whether I was Tom Doeppner. He then showed me an old picture of my sister and myself, and on the back, in my father’s handwriting, it said, “This man is a friend of mine; trust him.” What I learned later was that my father- at quite some expense- had hired a smuggling organization that smuggled refugees across the border.
That’s when Opa took the first step towards freedom.  Was he scared? Was he excited? Did he trust the man?  Did he worry about his mother? Whatever was behind him must have been real enough to invoke enough fear or courage (or the mingling of the two) to push him forward.  
I checked out of the hotel, and we took off. First, by train to some place near the border. There my father’s “friend” left me, and told me that a motorcycle with Dutch license plates would pick me up and take me close to the border. I was to wait there for a “farmer with a wide-brimmed black hat” who would take me across the border to a place in Holland where the motorcycle would pick me up. The motorcycle would also take my suitcase. Indeed, it wasn’t long until the motorcycle arrived and we rode a few miles. I got off, and soon the farmer appeared. He was an older man who walked very slowly and never uttered a word. Possibly he didn’t want to give away his nationality in case I was captured. (He probably was anything but a farmer.) We walked on for what seemed like an eternity to me- but was probably only twenty minutes or so- until we came to the border. We saw the German guards marching slowly along the border. We waited for I-don’t-know-what, when the “farmer” motioned for us to go on. I was going to run, but he slowed me down; we slowly just walked across the border into some woods. I imagine some German guard or guards were in on the scheme, but of course I didn’t know that then. The “farmer” showed me where to wait (a crossroads deep in the woods) and left. Soon the motorcycle showed up with my suitcase, and we left. Back on some highway, I was transferred into a car, and we headed for Maastricht, in Holland.  As we drove into the city, I suddenly realized we were being followed by another car. I paled and told the driver. He smiled, and said, “look who is driving the car.” It was my father...
I don’t know about you- but I get knots in my stomach reading that. For some perspective: he had just turned 18. Do you remember being 18? Opa’s ability to walk across that border at the guidance of the calm, slow “farmer” is nothing short of a miracle. I bet the man seemed slow because Opa could hear his heartbeat four times in every step he took. Can you imagine the emotional roller coaster that ensued when he feels the freedom of being contained in a car in a foreign country, only to notice a car following you? Then to reveal: Dad. August’s shortcomings as a father aside- he literally saved Opa’s life with his costly plan.

The journey was not over yet. He hid inside his father’s house until he could become a legal, if temporary, resident. It was imperative he obtained these papers. They would enable him to take the next step: crossing the Atlantic ocean to freedom. He also had the task of getting a scholarship in some American college... Find out in the next blog how he managed to move from an escape to a journey towards freedom!

No comments:

Post a Comment

I would love to hear feedback! Share your thoughts and your stories.