Anonymous, arrest in Brussels, internment in Malines and escape; testimony recorded by Gerhard Riegner

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Testimony of an anonymous Jewish refugee from Belgium. He was arrested on the street in Brussels in 1942 and interned in the Malines internment camp, before being taken by train to Russia, near Stalingrad. He was forced to work in a camp probably run by the Todt Organization. There were also French POWs in the camp. After a week he became a driver for a Bavarian officer. After two weeks the officer helped him to escape on a train to Paris, from where he made his way to Switzerland. The interview was conducted in October 1942 by Gerhard Riegner.

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  1. English
  2. French
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Escape arranged by a Germanofficer

Report

The following declarations were made by a Jewish refugee who had recently arrived in Switzerland.

The refugee was arrested in the streets of Brussels during a round-up of Jews and was interned in the camp at Malines,1Note 1: Mechelenwhere he was kept for three days with thousands of Jewish men, women and children. Some of them had received an order to report to the camp, equipped with belongings and enough rations for two weeks. The others had been arrested like him in the street, with no advance warning.

At the camp the children under fourteen were separated from the adults, the men over sixty were sent home. He does not know what happened to the women and children.

After three days at the camp he was designated for deportation with many of the men, most of them young. All they had with them was taken away. Those who had received official summonses and consequently had luggage with them had to leave it behind. They were only allowed to keep the food. Those who had been arrested in the street and had nothing with them were given a loaf of bread. At the station, before they boarded the train, there was a second inspection. Each person had to put into a basket any valuables he had on him: rings, watches, etc. From some of them the German inspectors took clothes they took a liking to, handing over in exchange second-hand shoes or clothes.

After this last inspection they were herded into a dozen cattle wagons. Our refugee was shoved into a wagon with seventy other men. They were squeezed in like sardines in a tin. Impossible to sit or to move; they had to stay this way for two and a half days. No chance of answering calls of nature. After two and a half days the train stopped at Königshütte in Upper Silesia and the train was cleared. Several of the weaker deportees had lost consciousness and our informer saw seven of these carried off.

At the station they were given hot soup from large tureens marked with red crosses. It was probably a distribution organised by the German Red Cross. Then the

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fourteen- to twenty-year-olds, who made up about half the convoy, were taken away. It seems they were to work in heavy industry and in the mines of Königshütte and its surrounding area.

Other deportees got back into the wagons where this time there was a bit more space and the train set off towards the east. Our refugee recognised Lvov (Lemberg), then Rava-Russka and a region of the Ukraine. He was too exhausted to notice how long the journey lasted. The train stopped in Russia. The deportees were gathered together at the station. Each one was asked if he was fit to work. Half of them, about 150 men mostly aged between twenty and thirty-five, said they were. The others said they were not and were taken away, whilst the first group got back on the train and continued the journey for half a day more. Our refugee does not know exactly in which region they arrived. It was in a distant region, deep inside Russia – he noticed a signpost indicating Stalingrad 50 km, and whilst he was in this region he heard the noise of bombing and gunfire two or three times, suggesting they were close to the battle field.

As soon as they arrived the men were taken in groups to huts and were given work clothes. These were khaki uniforms as worn by the Todt teams, but without the armbands with the swastika. Our informer was put into a group of sixty men. Other teams worked in the same area as his, and he noticed nearby a group of French prisoners, as he realised when he heard them speaking their language. A German officer confirmed to him later that this observation was correct.

The huts reserved for the deportees were the same as the German army uses for its men. There were bunk beds, in threes.

The work was very hard. They were probably constructing fortifications for the eastern front. The men had to carry over a long distance heavy sacks of cement weighing more than fifty kilos. There were also large iron grids from which they made sort of anti-tank barriers. They were forced to work for ten hours each day and since they had to walk for an hour to and from the huts to the work site, the working day was in reality twelve hours, from six in the morning to six at night. After a few days some of the men were completely exhausted. Supervisors constantly harried the men, as a certain number of square metres had to be completed daily. Talking was not allowed during working hours. They worked on Sundays the same as on weekdays, apparently not being allowed to rest until the fifth Sunday.

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As for food, the men received a 900-gram loaf of bread, that is 225 grams per man, each day. At midday and in the evening, hot soup. In the morning, a blackish liquid called coffee, with a little saccharine. In the evenings they all fell asleep, exhausted. All conversation was forbidden. Writing was not possible.

For a week our informer worked very hard like all the others. Then, as one of the German drivers had disappeared, one of the supervising officers asked if anyone knew how to drive. As he had worked in the Ford factories in Brussels our refugee was chosen and from then on drove this officer’s car, accompanying him on all his tours of duty. They came to like each other and the officer was quite open with him. He was a young German officer of about twenty-five. He was originally from Bavaria, and had already earned three stars; he had lost two brothers in the war and had left behind a young wife and small child. He said he was totally disgusted by the war and everything to do with it. It was his opinion that the war was already lost, and he hated the thought of what had been done, and was still being done, to the Jews.

The information that follows came to our refugee from this officer. Having asked what had happened to the group of Jews who had arrived with his group and who had been found incapable of working, he was told by the officer that they all been executed; the officer added that this was the fate of all those who, through exhaustion, could no longer work. The officer was unhappy with this state of affairs, but could do nothing to prevent it. Our refugee begged him not to keep harassing the Jews at work, but the officer explained that he had to do it, because he was obliged ensure that a certain quantity of work was completed each day.

The means of exterminating the Jews who were incapable of work, said the officer, was to line them up against a wall and shoot them, or if this was not possible, by poisoning their food.

Our man spent two weeks with this officer, who behaved like a gentleman. At the end of this time, the officer told him that a very rare chance of escape was available to him. Every two or three months a train left for the west and the following day was the very day of its departure. The officer insisted he should seize this chance, which would not recur. He himself hid him in a goods wagon full of parcels and sacks, he gave him plenty of provisions (bread, conserves etc) for the journey and two Reichsmarks (the currency of the occupation). He told him not to worry about his uniform, that these uniforms were worn in all the occupied territories. After checking that the wagon was properly sealed the officer notified one of the train employees of our traveller’s presence and it was thus

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that he made for the west, hidden beneath a pile of sacks.

Being in the dark he could not distinguish night from day, he could just see a little light through the gaps in the wagon, so he had no idea of how long the journey took. Amongst the sacks in the wagon he noticed some that contained black [probably SS] uniforms. He stayed like this until the train stopped. When the man who had been informed of his presence opened the wagon he saw that he was in the goods yard of the Gare de l’Est in Paris. He was shown the way out of the station and he went straight to the home of one of his brothers-in-law who lived in Paris. Having got some money and changed his clothes, he left the city that evening and went to the free [unoccupied] zone, from where he left for Switzerland, along with some other refugees. His adventure had lasted six weeks.

I was able to see this man in a Swiss hospital. He was thirty-three years old, of robust appearance, the type who works with machines, of nondescript appearance and average intelligence. He scarcely realises his extraordinary luck. He made a good impression on me, recounting quite simply the things he had seen, adding nothing that he had not seen personally. He often replied to my questions with I don’t know. His accounts of the treatment of Jews in Belgium also accord with those of others who have arrived here. We should note, too, that he made no mention of his extraordinary odyssey to the Swiss authorities when they questioned him. He made no attempt whatsoever to make himself interesting to the Swiss authorities in the hope that he might perhaps obtain some special treatment. Besides all they asked was where he came from. He answered from Lyon. No other question having been asked, he kept his story to himself.

Geneva, 10 October 1942

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EW 3 2865-2868

MASTER - INDEX (P - Scheme)

1. Index Number: P III d.No.633.

2. Title of Document: Escape Arranged By A German Officer.

3. Date: 1942.

4. Number of Pages: 4.

Language: French.

5. Author or Source: ANONYMOUS - a Jewish Refugee From Belgium.

6. Recorded: Geneva, 10th Oct.1942.

7. Received: via Mr. Riegner, Geneva, from Dr. H.G.Adler, London, July 1957.

8. Form and Contents: Statements made soon after the author's arrival in SWITZERLAND, in Oct.1942.

Arrested in the street, in BRUSSELS, he was interned in the camp of MALINES. Three days later, after having been deprived by the Germans of all their belongings, a large number of internees were taken under appalling conditions with a DEPORTATION TRANSPORT to KÖNIGSHÜTTE,O/S,(p.l); here the boys aged 14-20 left the train which continued its journey via Poland to RUSSIA; the author noticed a sign-post STALINGRAD 50 km. and occasionally heard the noises of a battle. His group of sixty men worked under exhausting conditions, apparently in the ORGANISATION TODT; the group next to them were FRENCH PoWs.(p.2). After a week's hard work, the author had the good luck to become driver to a young Bavarian officer, who told him, that everybody who was unable to work was shot or his food poisoned, also that he hated the Jews to be persecuted, but could not help to hurry the prisoners, as a certain amount of work had to be done, every day. After a fortnight, he went to great pains to let the author use a unique opportunity of ESCAPE (p.3), so as to reach PARIS dressed in his Todt-uniform, hidden among sacks in a closed goods wagon (p.4).

9. Further References: MASS MURDER (p.2,3).

10. Remarks: The author was 33 years old at the time of the interview. He made the impression of a sober and reliable man.

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P.III.d. No. 633

HAZARDOUS ESCAPE FROM FORCED LABOUR MADE POSSIBLE BY A GERMAN OFFICER

Rapport

Les déclarations suivantes furent faitres par un réfugié juif arrivé récemment en Suisse:

Ce réfugié fut arrêté dans les rues de Bruxelles lors d’une rafle organisée contre les Juifs et interné dans le camp de Malines, où il fut retenu pendant 3 jours avec des milliers d’hommes, de femmes et d’enfants juifs. Un certain nombre d’entr'eux avaient reçu l’ordre de se rendre dans ce camp, munis d’effets et de vivres suffisants pour 15 jours. Les autres avaient été arrêtés comme lui dans la rue, sans aucun avertissement préalable.

Dans ce camp, les enfants au-dessous de l4 ans étaient séparés des adultes, les hommes de plus de 60 ans furent renvoyés chez eux. Il ignore ce qu’il advient des femmes et des enfants.

Après trois journées passées au camp, il fut désigné pour être déporter avec de nombreux hommes, en majorité jeunes. On leur prit tout ce qu’ils avaient avec eux. Ceux qui avaient reçu des sommations officielles et qui, en conséquence, étaient munis de bagages durent les abandonner. On ne leur laissa que les vivres. Ceux qui avaient été arrêtés dans la rue et qui n’avaient rien avec eux, reçurent un pain. A la gare, devant le train, un second contrôle eut lieu. Chacun dût verser dans une corbeille les objets de valeur qu’il avait sur lui: bagues, montres, etc. Les inspecteurs allemands enlevèrent aux unsles vêtements qu’ils trouvaient a leur goût et leur donnèrent en échange des chaussures ou des vêtements usès.

Après ce dernier contrôle, ils furent parquês dans une douzaine de wagons à bestiaux. Notre réfugié fut parqué aved 70 autres hommes dans un wagon. Ils étaient serrés comme des sardines dans une boîte. Impossible de s’assoir ou de bouger; il fallut rester ainsi pendant deux jours et demi. Aucune possibilité de satisfaire les besoins naturels. Au bout de 2 1/2 jours, le train s’arrêta à Koenigshuette en Hauste Silésie et le train fut vidé Plusieurs déportés affaiblis avaient perdu connaissance et notre informateur vit 7 personnes que l’on emportait ainsi.

A la gare, on leur distribua de la soupe chaude dans de grandes cantines marquées de croix-rouges. Il s’agissait probablement d’une distribution organisée par la Croix-Rouge allemande. Ensuite, les

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jeunes de 14 à 20 ans, qui formaient à peu près la moitié du convoi, furent emmeés. Ils devaient, paraît-il, aller travailler dans l’industrie lourde et dans les mines de Koenigshuette et des environs.

Des autres déportés remontèrent dans les wagons où il y avait cette fois un peu plus d’espace et le train fila à l’est. Notre réfugié reconnut Lwow (Lemberg) puis Rava-Russka et une région de l’Ukraine. Il était trop épuisé pour se rendre compte de la durée du voyage. Le train s’arrêta en Russie. Les déportés furent réunis à la gare. On demanda à chacun s’il pouvait travailler. La moitié, environ 150 hommes, âgés pour la plupart de 20 à 35 ans, répondirent affirmativement. Les autres d‘en déclarèrent incapables et furent emmenés, tandis que les premiers reprenaient le train et voyagaient encore pendant une demi-journée. Notre réfugié ne sait exactement dans quelle région ils arrivèrent. C’était dans unerégion éloignée au fond de la Russie, il remarqua sur un poteau indicateur Stalingred - 50 km, et pendant son séjour dans cette région, entendit deux ou trois fois le bruit des bombardements et des cannonades, ce qui témoigne de la proximité cu champ de bataille.

Dés leur arrivée, les hommes furent conduits en groupes dans des baraques et on leur donna des uniformes de travail. C’était les uniformes kaki que portent les équipes Todt, mais sans les brassards avec le swastika. Notre informateur fut incorporé dans une équipe de 60 hommes. D'autres équipes travaillaient dans les environs de la sienne et il remarqua dans le voisinage un groupe de prisonniers français qu’il reconnut en les entendant parler leur langue. Un officier allemand lui confirma plus tard que cette observation était exacte.

Les baraques réservées aux déportés étaient les mêmes que l’armée allemande utilise pour ses hommes. Il y avait des lits superposés, trois par trois.

Le travail était très pénible. Il s’agissait probablement de travaux pour la construction de fortifications pour le front de l’est. Les hommes devaient porter sur un long chemin de lourds sacs de ciment pesant plus de 50 kgs. Il y avait aussi de grands treillis en fer avec lesquels on formait des sortes de barrages anti-tanks. On exigeait 10 heures de travail par jour et commeil fallait marcher une heure pour se rendre des baraques qu chantier, la journée de travail était en réalité de 12 heures, de 6 h. du matin à 6 h. du soir. Au bout de quelques jours, quelques hommes étaient totalement épuisés. Des surveillants harcelaient constamment les hommes, un certain nombre de mètres carrés devant être exécutés quotidiennement. Défense de parler pendant le travail. Travail le dimanche comme la semaine, ce n ‘est paraît-il que le 5ème dimanche que l’on accordait du repos.

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Quant à l’alimentation, les hommes recevaient un pain de 900 grammes, soit 225 grammes par hommes, chaque jour. A midi et le soir, de la soupe chaude. Le matin un liquide noirâtre appelé café, avec un peu de saccharine. Le soir chacun s’endormait de fatigue. Toute conversation était interdite. Il n’y avait aucune possibilité d’écrire.

Notre informateur travailla comme tousles autres très durement pendant une semaine. Ensuite, un des conducteurs d’auto allemand ayant disparu, l’un des officiers surveillants demanda si quelqu’un savait conduire. Ayant travaillé danslesusines Ford à Bruxelles, notre réfugié fut choisi et conduisit désormaisla voiture de cet officer, l’accompagnant dans toutes ses tournées. Un contact sympathique s’établit entre eux et l’officer s’exprima librement devant lui. C’était un jeune officier allemand d’environ 25ans. D'origine bavaroise, il avait déjà gagné trois étoiles; il avait perdu deux frères à la guerre et laissait derrière lui une jeune femme et un petit enfant. Il se déclarait complètement dégoûté par la guerre et tout ce qui s’y rapportait. Il était d’avis quela guerre était perdue et ne pouvait supporter l’idée de tout ce qu’on avait fait et faisait encore subir aux Juifs.

C'est de cet officier que notre réfugié eut des renseignements qui suivent. Ayant demandé ce qu’il était advenu du groupe de Juifs arrivé avec le sien et qui s’étaient déclarés incapables de travailler, l’officer répondit qu’ils avaient tous été exécutés et il ajouta que c’était le sort de tous ceux qui, épuisés, ne pouvaient plus travailler. L'officier était malheureux de cet état de choses, mais ne pouvait rien pour l’empêcher. Notre réfugié le pria de ne pas harceler constamment les Juifs au travail, mais l’officier expliqua qu’il y était contraint, parce qu’on exigeait de lui qu’une quantité déterminée de travail soit accomplie chaque jour.

Comme moyens d’exterminer les Juifs incapables de travailler, l’officier indiqua qu’ils étaient collés au mur et fusillés ou, lorsque ce moyen ne pouvait être employé, qu’on empoisonnait leur nourriture.

Notre homme vécut pendant un quinzaine de jours avec cet officier, dont la conduite fut celle d’un gentleman. Au bout de ce temps, l’officier lui annonça qu’une chance très rare se présentait pour lui de fuite. Tous les deux ou trois mois, un train partait vers l’ouest et le lendemain était précisément jour de départ . L'officier insista pour qu’il saisisse une occasion que ne se représenterait plus. Il l’introduisit lui-même dans un wagon de marchandises plein de colis et de sacs, il lui donna d’amples provisions (pain, conserves, etc.) pour le voyage et 2 Reichsmarks (monnaie d’occupation). Il lui dit d’être sans crainte au sujet de son uniforme et que ces uniformes Todt étaient portés danstous les territoires occupés. Après avoir vérifié que le wagon fût dûment scellé, il le recommanda à l’un des employés du train, et c’est ainsi

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aue notre voyageur se dirigea vers l’ouest, caché sous un amas de sacs.

Plongé dans l’obscurité, il ne pouvait distinguer la nuit du jour, il ne percevait que peu de lumière à travers les interstices du wagon, aussi ne put-il se rendre compte de la durée du voyage. Parmi les sacs du wagon, il remarqua que quelques uns étaient remplis d’uniformes noirs (probablement ceux des SS). Il resta ainsi jusqu’à ce que le train s’arrêta. Lorsque l’homme qui avait été informé de sa présence, ouvrit le wagon, il découvrit qu’il était à la gare de marchandises de la gare de l’Est à Paris. On lui indiqua le chemin pour sortir de la gare et il se rendit directement chez un de ses beaux-frères qui habitait Paris. Muni d’argent et ayant changé de vêtements, il quitta la ville le soir même et se rendit en zone non-occupée d’où il partit ensuite, en compagnie d’autres réfugiés pour la Suisse. Son aventure avait duré au total six semaines.

J'ai eu l’occasion de voir cet homme dans un hôpital suisse. Il a 33 ans, est d’apparence robuste, du type de ceux qui s’occupent de machines, d’apparence quelconque et d’intelligence moyenne. Il réalise avec peine la chance extraordinaire dont il a bénéficié. Il me fit bonne il impression, racontant avec simplicité ce qu’il avait vu, sans rien ajouter qu’il n’ait pas vécu personnellement. A mes questions, il répondit souvent : je ne sais pas. Ses récits concernant le traitement des Juifs en Belgique coincident du reste avec ceux d’autres gens arrivés ici. Notons encore qu’il ne fit aucune mention de son extraordinaire odyssée aux autorités suisses lorsqu’on l’interrogea. Il ne chercha aucunement à se rendre intéressant dans l’espoir d’obtenir peut-être quelque faveur des autorités suisses. On ne lui demanda du reste que d’où il venait. Il répondit: de Lyon. Aucune autre question ne lui étant posée, il garda pour lui son histoire.

Genève, le 10 octobre 1942.

References

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The United Kingdom declared war on Nazi Germany on 3 September 1939, after the German invasion of Poland. After the defeat of France in the spring of 1940, the British Expeditionary Force withdrew from the European Continent. Although the Channel Islands near the French coast did fall into German hands, from the summer of 1940 until 1945, mainland Britain resisted German invasion and became a refuge for many governments-in-exile and refugees of the occupied countries in Europe. At the outbrea...