Effects of WWII
By Jackie Fishman March 9, 2013
My mom’s baby brother, Bobby, was a captain in the U.S. Army in WWII, being the first to get to the gate of the Mauthausen Concentration Camp, to liberate the Jews – those whom miraculously survived all the horrific inhumane atrocities put upon them.
My gorgeous, blue eyed, personality plus – with a great sense of humor -- Uncle Bobby, never spoke about what happened, then; but told me how horrific it was when they got to the gate, as my dad’s cousin who grew up close to my dad, was being buried at ninety-four years of age. This cousin, who was to become my dad’s business partner, reminded me over the years that he returned from the war the day I was born. His son was handed the carefully folded American flag that had laid across his casket, and was then kneeling down, crying, as he hugged the folded flag to his heart. His dad had received a Purple Heart, and my uncle, standing with me, then quietly told me, “We all received a Purple Heart – all of us” – his words dwindled out, as he couldn’t say anymore…
All of my uncles and my dad’s cousins came home seemingly safe from this horrific war. My dad started building a business, being a toy distributor, and my Dad brought them all into the business -- a business that began behind a Chinese laundry. The only stories that they spoke of, over the decades, was of the Depression -- how they had so very little, and how my dad and this cousin he was closest to, would go to this corner restaurant and ask for some hot water and a bottle of ketchup. They would mix it together, and they were given some crackers.
When I mentioned to my cousin what his dad told me at the funeral, he said, “My dad never told us anything about the war, but every night, in the middle of the night, I would hear him screaming.” My dad had made my Uncle Bobby the president of sales, and they worked so hard, with my dad bringing work home, sometimes working throughout the night. With many years of hard and dedicated work; and not to be dismissed, my dad’s reputation of a brilliant business mind, being kind and honest, while always keeping his business closed on all Jewish holidays, and early enough to get home for the Sabbath, no matter what, they developed their wholesale toy business, to eventually become #1 in the U.S.A. – building a business while building the Modern Orthodox Jewish Community in Los Angeles, together with other individuals and the rabbis of the community. Dad was known in his business field as “The rabbi who prayed for a good Christmas.” We had moved our home – always a bit more spacious -- a few times, over the years, with the last move being into a community of mansions whereby my parents could hold their meetings –whether business or community – at the same time, being in individual rooms, while we kids could do as we wanted; and sleep in quiet. This neighborhood was encrusted with the most hard working individuals, some of whom survived the Holocaust, losing so many family members and friends, and all of their possessions, some of which were priceless, with deep irreplaceable meanings. They worked so hard to rebuild, and build lives in Los Angeles, to bring their children up in safety and dignity, as they helped build the State of Israel, as well.
I, soon after, married, and moved out of the immediate area. I met my new direct neighbors whom had survived Auschwitz. The husband and his first wife had given their baby daughter to nuns to protect her, until they would most hopefully return. The mother did not survive, but the baby’s daddy did. When he came to get his small daughter, they would not give her back. His second wife always credits her mother for saving her life, for she had Typhoid in Auschwitz, but her mom somehow hid her under blankets, and fed her, her own daily allowance of a piece of bread. I became like a daughter to them, as they always watched over my little son and me. I will always remember how the husband would stand at his window, and whistle down to me and my son when we would be outside, and how his wife would come running over to help me whenever I needed her – they, who never removed their cruel #’s.
One family who miraculously survived the camps, that my family became very close with, became very wealthy as the family worked altogether helping one another with building businesses in Los Angeles. Among them, were two sisters who were so kind as all their siblings were. They spotted me while I was looking for a suit to wear for my son’s Bar Mitzvah. They immediately approached me, and sat me down in a most comfortable chair, telling the salesman to bring me everything I need to put the outfit together – that I was not to get up. “Jackie, you sit here and tell the salesman what you need – suit, hat, blouse, shoes, stockings – and tell them the colors you would like, and of course your size (which was a size four, at that time – normally being a size eight). He will bring a selection of all, for you to choose from. Do not get up.” I was very ill then with sixteen years of misdiagnosed gallbladder disease, and with all my make-up on, and dressing so nicely, they saw right through it all. How thankful I was to them for their recognizing how I was suffering, and their sensitivity and kindness in reaching out to me, to help me, at that time. But, no one should ever have been through what they went through to give them this ability.
In 1986, after major surgery, and my son had gone to New York to attend Yeshiva University, I moved to Israel. One day, one of the two sisters who had helped me at the time of my son’s Bar Mitzvah, surprised me with a visit. “Jackie, Abe and Etta (her sister who helped me, with her) are having dedications which we want you to join us for.” I was touched, and accepted with deep heartfelt feelings. I went to each dedication of either buildings, or a wing added on to an existing building, with their names attached, to remember… Tel Aviv University; Bar Illan University; Beit Hatfusot – a Diaspora Museum in Ramat Aviv; Yad Vashem – The Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem; and a park they built over the Mediterranean, alongside the Tel Aviv Hilton. Each dedication, held within a week’s time, was quite an impact for Jewish life – Jewish life to continue, enjoy and prosper; but never to forget!
The last dedication of the park, whereby they had a cocktail party at the Hilton, afterwards -- I stood at the ordeurve table speaking with Israel’s famous general, and Knesset Member, Ariel Sharon, who was to become a prime minister of Israel some years later; and lie in a coma until now. We spoke of when he had stopped at my booth at the Jerusalem International Book Fair, not too long before -- I was asked to help lay the cornerstone, as I was handed a shovel, to represent my family. Thomas Bradley, the statuesque, distinguished, honorable black Mayor of Los Angeles, came in for this dedication, and as we both spotted one another in the crowd, he came over to me. “I was wondering what happened to you.” I was a little surprised, for we never acknowledged one another with all the years he was Mayor of Los Angeles, and we would be at so many events at the same time, for the Jewish community, including when my small son said the prayers over bread at his school’s annual banquet. “Yes, I moved to Israel.”
The dedication at Yad Vashem was excruciating, yet incredibly done, representing the horrors of murdering babies and very young children, too young to work. There is one picture of a 3-year-old baby boy –Etta and Abe’s – just after you enter into a dark, seemingly bottomless pit. Etta was carrying her baby boy in her arms, as the Nazis were choosing who was to live and who was to die. Etta was being begged to give her baby to her mother, for they were going to kill them anyways. They would not kill her, for they needed her to work. She must try to at least save her life – one life… She watched as her mother, holding her grandchild in her arms, walked with all the others in the same very long line, into the gas chamber; and then Etta and all in that long line who were to live by helping the Nazis, heard the screams of torture, until all fell quiet – horrific, horrifying deaths… There is one candle lit, but as many mirrors to reflect the lit candle, as were the at least one and a half million babies and children who were systematically murdered. As we walked silently out of this Children’s Memorial, I saw Etta on the side, crying soooo. This seemingly strong, tough, and always being the most elegant lady, was never to be seen publicly, again…
Letter from Guy Chipman Jr. - Captain of the 20th. Armored Division who rescued Charles just outside of Dachau Prison Camp.
June 20, 2007
Seven Days Like no Other - by Guy W. Chipman Jr.
(A frank recounting of my personal experience during the last seven days of World War II, plus a short background of how I got there).
This day, April 29, 1945, the first day like no other began like many others in the war. Get up before dawn, try and grab a bite to eat at the mess truck or find some K- rations, brush my teeth, if I could remember to, roll up my sleeping bag and throw any lose stuff of mine in my back pack (which I almost never wore), go to the bath room if I could and then go over to the Battalion Headquarters located nearby. I was on the Battalion staff.
I was assigned to the Headquarters of the 20th Tank Battalion of the 20th Armored Division. The 20th Armored Division was one of the last armored divisions to be sent to the European Theater of Operations. Having been organized fairly early in the war, the Division had been given the special mission of training young officers, mostly right out of OCS, and enlisted men, mostly right after completing 13 weeks of basic training. The enlisted men were scheduled to become skilled tank crewmen and support personnel. The officers were trained to be platoon commanders. Those who did the training, (as well as operate the units in the Division), became permanent cadre and very rarely were any of them transferred. Some of us tried hard to get assigned to units getting ready for overseas but to no avail. We were told we were “permanent party”.
The Officers and enlisted men who made up the permanent group really knew their jobs. They did the tactical training, gunnery training and other skills over and over. We all became really good. Above the door to my unit, the 20th Tank Battalion, was hung a sign; “Thru these Portals Pass the Best Tank Gunners in the World”. No one disputed it. The 20th Tank Battalion had made the highest score on the Army Ground Forces Tests of any tank battalion in the U.S. Army, I was told.
My title was Combat Liaison Officer. The duties of that position typically became operational only when the unit was in a combat area. I would then be charged with taking communications, orders, maps and personal directives from our commanding officers, to and from the Commander and staff of the unit we were operating under, which was usually Combat Command “B”. The radio was not suited for such communications. Battalion Headquarters and Combat Command Headquarters were often several miles apart and also on the move. Many times I did not know which was the best road to go down. I had two medium (Sherman) tanks and a jeep at my disposal to help me get from one place to the other. I usually used the jeep because of its mobility.
Back in the states and before entering the combat zone I had many duties. Among the various duties to which I was assigned, were Range Officer, Armor Officer, Gunnery Officer and even sometimes Liquor Ration Officer. Also I usually served as Assistant Plans & Training Officer. Not only was I the senior 1st Lieutenant in the unit, but also I had been promised the next vacancy for Captain, which never seemed to come about because no senior officers were ever transferred out.
The Division, after landing in Europe at Le Havre and processing through Camp Lucky Strike, took a few weeks to gather itself, its equipment and its vehicles before moving on to Germany. Other Allied Forces had already opened holes in the enemy lines to make way for troops to move through to the front. We rolled on to the Rhine River and the Germans on the other side.
Early in our march to Munich and “seven days like no other” we reached the Rhine River and I was able to see and even walk on part of the famous, Remagen Bridge. What a thrill! South of Bonn we crossed the Rhine over a sturdy pontoon bridge built by the army engineers. Before we reached enemy lines, I had touched and sometimes stayed in six countries. After the Division reached Germany, we chased the front lines up and down Germany. Every time we would get ready for a jump-off, we would be assigned to a different army. Sometimes we were positioned to block an anticipated German breakout, like the one at Bastogne, but the Germans never tried so we moved on. Then we had to get set up again. We started out as a part of the 15th Army, became reserves for General Bradley, became assigned to the 1st Army and then we were attached to the 9th Army for administration. We were then transferred to Gen. Patton’s 3rd Army, where we had our mission and orders all set.
At some point we were all gassed up and had instructions to get ready to beat the Russians to Berlin but that changed, of course. Our first mission with the 7th Army was to drive through to Innsbruck, but while we were on the move Headquarters decided Munich was more important.
Somewhere along the way we met the Luftwaffe’s infamous, “Bed Check Charlie,” who would strafe the column as it was getting dark. Fortunately his aim was poor.
The Division had its first combat causalities shortly after we started to move. The 42nd Infantry Division operating nearby needed tank support for an operation. A platoon from the 27th Tank Battalion of our division was sent to help. The platoon was commanded by my best friend, 2nd Lieutenant William (Billy) Grimes Jr. who was the son of Major General William A (Ben) Grimes, one of my father’s best friends going all the way back to “West Point” days.
Billy and his platoon were on a rural road when his tank went over a small bridge and ran over a mine. A track was blown; the tank could not move. Fearing fire from the explosion, Billy and the two other men in the turret hastily climbed out only to be gunned down by burp guns carried by hidden German infantry. The tank driver and assistant driver being further down inside of the tank saw what had happened to the other three and remained inside the tank and were not harmed. However, I very recently learned that one of those remaining crewman, Cy Whatcott, got out of the tank and wiped out that machine gun nest with hand grenades (which were not issued to tank crews). He was awarded the Silver Star metal for this action.
After the war was over I lived near Billy Grimes parents. They wanted a portrait of him to hang over their mantel. They found an excellent portrait painter and a good picture of Billy on which to base the portrait. Wishing him portrayed in the correct uniform they borrowed my Eisenhower jacket with its insignia and ribbons and then put his rank on the shoulders. The portrait was a great success.
One day when I was out I came upon a memorable scene. I drove my jeep over to a small hill overlooking a typical German village where there had been a tank and infantry battle. This action must have been earlier in the day or yesterday because the Quartermaster burial detail had not had time to do their work. It was nearing dark and was quite cool. As I approached I could make out the outlines of two or three Sherman tanks and several German tanks as well; some of the tanks had burned. Upon approaching closer, I saw bodies of dead German soldiers lying there. I felt no emotion and passed them by. I walked up to the damaged American tanks and looked inside. I suddenly became aware of the American tankers bodies slumped over inside. My reaction was quite different. I was shocked; I was horrified at seeing my first American causalities. That experience was one I will always remember, however life had to go on. I drove away in a much more somber mood.
As we drove south on the highways and byways and passed through such towns and cities as Duren, Bonn, Wurzburg and Bad Nanheim, to name a few, there was destruction everywhere. As we drove along the thing I remember most was that we were often looking through open windows of second and third story buildings, which had no roofs or floors, and we were seeing the sky. At night it might be the moon we saw through those windows. It was very eerie, and all of this destruction had been caused by our great air force bombings and ground fire shelling. It was unbelievable.
When we were close to and ordered to move towards Munich from the north, other units were sent there from other directions. No one told us that the remaining German units who were willing to fight were located in the northern part of Munich. As luck had it, I never went down the wrong road at that time while moving around in that area.
While moving south and after several days of small engagements, the 20th Tank Battalion Tank Force was ready to move to Munich. The Tank Force moved along Highway 13, with medium tanks leading the way. The little town of Lohof appeared deserted, (white flags hung on some buildings). No one was visible. The column moved through and around a bend. Across the road lay several large trees, too big for a tank to climb over, while the forest to the side of the road was too thick to drive through. Then the Germans came out of their fox holes, armed to the teeth. Numerous casualties resulted for both sides. Before the 20th Tank Battalion Tank Force finished off the Germans, three medium tanks were lost. Colonel Newton Jones, Combat Command “B” Commander was killed during the firefight.
On April 29th 1945, the first of those days like no other, I had been ordered to take a few items and instructions to Combat Command “B” and to find if they needed to send anything back. I was in my jeep. After finally finding where they were located, I was told by the Chief of Staff, to stay with Combat Command Headquarters until I was needed.
The Combat Command Headquarters had taken over a rather large tavern as temporary headquarters. On the 2nd floor, in a large room in which I had been assigned to sleep, I found many magnificent, giant sized beer mugs over a great big fireplace. Figuring they were fair loot I decided to liberate them. I carefully wrapped six of these mugs in old newspapers and put them in the back of my jeep.
Having time to kill, I took my jeep, and by myself went out to explore the area. I came upon a small hexagon shaped farm building but there were no houses nearby. I stopped and stepped out next to a rock wall and wondered if a German was inside the little building looking out at me with a gun ready to shoot at me. All of a sudden I heard a screech that could only mean one thing, German Artillery fire. I scooted up against the rock wall and hit the ground. The salvo was in more or less a square pattern and included about 12 or so rounds. The German artillery shortened their range about 100 meters and let go a second time. Maybe there was a third salvo, but I am not sure. Then all was quiet. Oh boy, what if they had moved their salvo over about 100 meters that would have been right on top of me. What in the world were they shooting at? Surely they weren’t wasting all that ammunition on empty ground, or one lonesome jeep. All they accomplished was to dig up an empty field. Maybe they were simply trying to use up their ammo and then go home.
Now feeling safe I cautiously moved over to that neat little tack room, complete with built-in benches on the inside. There sat a German backpack, (had it been abandoned by the owner or was he hiding somewhere?). Taking my 45, I cautiously headed toward the other room and shoved the door open, then peeked around the door. No one was there, but the area above was filled with lots of hay. Was some one hiding up there? Taking no chance I pointed my 45 at the ceiling and shot through the hay. I probably emptied a clip, nothing happened, no one stirred, no sound. Certain of my safety I sat down to inspect the backpack that was filled with mostly personal things. Included was a typical neat German gun cleaning kit about the size of a tobacco can, which my son still has. There was also a camera. After the war was over I took many fine pictures with it.
When the film that was in the camera when I found it was developed there were two pictures of what I believe was the owner of the camera. I still wonder about him, a German soldier standing on a rock wall, looking out over the Chiemsee. I hope he got home safely.
Back at Combat Command “B” Headquarters, bad news! The 20th Tank Battalion had been ambushed going through the little town of Lohof on Highway 13, a few miles south of where we were. I learned that some of my friends had been killed. I was sick at heart, but life moves on and I got hold of myself. I was ordered to stay put by the brass at Combat Command Headquarters.
April 30th 1945, the second day, after a fitful nights sleep, I stayed around the Combat Command Headquarters war plan rooms, there in the tavern on the hill. A lot of my time was spent watching developments in the room that had been taken over by the Combat Command “B” Operations Section. The troops in the field were moving too fast and the situation on the ground was changing too often for Combat Command “B” to send me out with any detailed orders. Besides I probably could not have reached the headquarters of the 20th Battalion Tank Force. I was very fidgety all this time. We knew that the tank force was able to move slowly ahead but was facing many spots of fanatical opposition. The estimated strength of the enemy was 1500 or more. They were solidly entrenched in underground emplacements with cover overhead. There were many trenches, World War I style, some being two levels with hidden entrances and connecting tunnels. The S.S. had been training there for years.
There were several anti-aircraft guns depressed for horizontal fire. Of course, the Germans had some 88 mm anti-tank guns there as well.
After the fighting had subsided and just before dark my tank battalion commander’s jeep driver found me. I was to go with him, in his jeep, leaving mine behind, and to bring only my weapons, pack and bedroll. I guess someone else would enjoy those beautiful, big beer mugs.
As the Colonel’s driver and I drove down Hwy 13 towards Munich I could see why they had had such a tough firefight. First there was about a mile of open field on both sides of the road on which there were the fortifications, concrete bunkers, trenches and tunnels. On the right at the far end of this big field was a humongous six-storied, thick-walled barracks building I later learned was the Werner Kaserne. I also learned that it was the headquarters of the Nazi S.S. Training Center where they taught their carefully selected youth to be hard fighting very well trained soldiers. On the big fields in front of the Kaserne were the schools solutions of defensive training. Those youths who trained there were fanatical fighters who caused numerous causalities on the American forces. On the left of the highway were several buildings that comprised the Wehrmacht anti- tank training school; another reason it had been hard for our tank units to go down Hwy 13. Naturally it had also developed a school solution for defensive training.
It was just turning dark when the jeep drove up in front of the Kaserne, which our troops had occupied as temporary headquarters. As I recall, the ground floor walls were about four feet thick. There was not a window left in the building. Our 75 and 76 mm tank guns had hardly made a dent in the walls, but artillery had been called on to help. Artillery’s big 240 mm and 105’s did a better job, but none were able to blow very large holes in the building. Years later the spots where the large artillery shells had hit, even though plastered over, could easily be spotted.
The Colonel’s driver pointed to a door I was to go through to find the Colonel. Entering a small courtyard in front of the door, I found about six of our soldiers with about ten teenage Nazi prisoners lined up. Our men were being very hard on them, roughing them up; some started to club the Germans with their rifles or carbine butts. “We’ll kill those bastards for what they did,” I heard them saying. I made them stop beating the youth. “We Americans don’t act that way, now stop!” I just hope they continued to obey after I left. It was cold as kraut in this tremendous now well-ventilated building. I found the Colonel and some staff huddled around fires they had built on the concrete floor. Major Webster was not there. The first joint of his index finger had been shot off and he had gone to a field hospital to get first aid. He was back on duty the next morning.
The Colonel, Lt Colonel James W Duncan, looked up at me and said, “I don’t know if you know that Captain Heiler was killed today. Chipman you have been our senior 1st Lieutenant for well over a year now and I promised you the first promotion to Captain that came along. As you know we have had no vacancies. I have been told Capt. Phil Heiler of Company D was killed by a sniper while his tank was in the anti-tank school area. Do you want to be Company D commander? I am offering you a battlefield promotion. Well what about it?”
Oh, to myself I said. “Oh, my God!” I had never served in D Company. (the light tank company). Captain Heiler, a strong leader, pretty well kept to himself and it had been hard for me to know his officers and men. I didn’t know their radio signals or procedures. I would be lost stepping in and taking command just a few hours after their well respected company commander was killed and a couple of hours before the division was to move out with the 20th Tank Battalion in the lead, with it’s light tanks leading the whole shebang. All the negatives rolled around in my mind. Then I thought, “You have been waiting for this for a year and a half. You are the son of a regular army Colonel who is a graduate of West Point; you can’t be chicken. You have been waiting a long time for this chance; you have to take it”. “Yes, Colonel. I’ll take it.”
Not far away in the Kaserne I found Company D headquarters. Since the officers and non-coms of Company D knew who I was, I simply had to tell them that I was the new commanding officer and that we needed to talk about tomorrow. We talked about company procedure and tomorrow’s march and then I went to bed. In looking back I can see how I could have done it better, but it seemed to work.
On May 1st, the third day, we moved out about 7:30 in the morning, with our eventual destination to be Salzburg, Austria. Company D was in the lead. The other three tank companies had medium tanks and followed behind. Where was I to station my tank? Normally a section of two tanks or a platoon of five tanks would be in front of the company commander in a combat area, but this was different. I had never led this company before. Where should I station myself? I decided mine was to be the lead tank. This probably wasn’t the best place from a tactical standpoint, but it would show the men I had the guts to do the job and do it quickly? I felt I had to prove myself for they had just lost a strong leader.
We headed towards downtown Munich. As we slowly went down the once beautiful wide stresses of Munich, I looked around and saw the most amazing sight. Sgt. Jackson was in a tank behind me and as we went along he was throwing his arms up and scattering German marks in the air. The many German’s on the sidewalk, quickly and fanatically scrambled to pick up the money. While wandering through the Werner Kaserne the previous night Sgt. Jackson had found a paymaster’s satchel full of German marks ready for payday. Fortunately for him, Jackson didn’t throw away all of the money. On a subsequent leave to Paris he received a tidy exchange for some of those marks and sent a big fat money order home. Additionally, the balance of the money came in very handy to buy materials to help make the trip back to the port of debarkation easier for the men in his platoon. The men used the materials to fix up the boxcars they were going to ride in for about five or six days on the way back to Le Havre, France.
After leaving Munich and as the column rolled along, and over the next four days, we had the satisfaction of finding about three or four small POW camps. They contained numerous American POW’s. The German guards had fled, or thrown down their weapons. The POW’s waved and jumped up and down with joy. We told the prisoners to stand by and later troops would pick them up, as we had to keep moving.
This first day with the company I spent trying to learn their procedures, men and as much of how the company operated as I could. Colonel Duncan was not too far behind me as we rolled along. We often had to stop for some reason or the other and the Battalion Command halftrack would move up front where I was located. I felt like he was there to help his new company commander as much as he was trying to see what was up ahead. Night time seemed to come early; we brought our tanks together, (but not too close), posted our guards and spent a fairly comfortable night.
May 2nd 1945, the fourth day. I found that I had inherited a fantastic tank crew. The driver, a bright college student drafted late in the war, was a really great kid. After the war he and I often corresponded until he died at an early age of Leukemia. He was from Arizona. The tank gunner, a sergeant and tank commander, were very well trained and could shoot the lights out with the 76mm cannon. The loader was a sharp young kid, who could not stay out of trouble after combat was over. He could read a map and remember the features we had passed so well that if he said we were at a certain point, even the Colonel did not dispute him. The assistant driver was also a well-trained lad.
As we rolled towards Salzburg our progress was slow but we met no real resistance. There were numerous ex-German troops offering to surrender or just walking home, begging meals from German farmers. My hardest job that day was knowing whether to go right, or left or straight ahead. Colonel Duncan still rode close behind me some of the time.
May 3rd 1945, day five. We continued towards Salzburg. Under other conditions I would have enjoyed the beautiful German scenery more. Our column moved along with the typical army stops and starts. We stopped. Then we sat. After what seemed like an hour without moving, word came over the radio that instead of being the first to enter Salzburg, our Column was being held up to permit the famous 3rd Infantry Division to have the honor. Once the 3rd entered, we could also move into the city.
Since my tank was in the lead and the tanks were 75 to 100 yards apart I could not see the entire unit in my new command. I got in my jeep, which was near by and along with the driver and a machine gunner, started back to check on each tank. I discovered an empty space where there should have been a vehicle. Moving on to the next tank, I asked the sergeant tank commander where was the missing tank. He pointed off over a small hill and said; “See the tops to those farm houses, while we waited the sergeant took his tank over there to inspect the area. He must have been curious and bored. He hasn’t come back. He has been gone a long time.” “Well, I’m going to check on this” I stated as I climbed in my jeep and headed over the little hill.
As I was going over the brow of the hill I saw a confusing sight. It looked like a group of about 100 German soldiers standing in ranks but very much at rest. A big stack of arms lay on the ground in front of them. It looked like a German officer was trying to talk to an American soldier standing next to a tank. So, on we went, down to where this group was assembled and my missing tank was sitting, with a member of the crew manning the turret machine gun. As we drove up the German officer, a Lieutenant of some kind, rushed up to me, saluted and excitedly asked,” Sprechen Sie Deutsch?” “Nein,” I replied. I spoke no German. The sergeant quickly came over and asked,” Lieutenant, do you have any of the German speaking men with you?” I understood we had five in the company, but none happened to be with me. “No” I replied. “Well we couldn’t communicate,” stated the sergeant. “I have been trying to tell him what to do with his men and arms. I am having a hard time.”
“Parley vous Francais?” I can’t remember which one of us asked the question. It seems that both the German and I studied French in school, but neither spoke it fluently. However, our schoolboy French turned out to be enough. I was able to get him to understand that his men should leave their weapons and ammunition on the ground, and then march his men to the rear and then the American troops further back would take over, (I hoped). He saluted, turned on his heels with a flourish and marched his men off to the rear. Wow! I guess there were not many surrenders of German Troops to American Troops that had been arranged in French.
After a while a message came over the radio that the Division and the rest of the column were cleared to move on towards Salzburg. The 20th Tank Battalion with Company D in the lead was still at the front of the entire column. We mounted up and moved out. The company was still spread out at about 75 to 100 yard intervals between vehicles with me in the lead tank.
Not knowing what was ahead of us and remembering what had happened to the unit at Lohof and Munich, we moved down the road ever alert for what we might meet up with.
The rest of the day was spent moving forward for a while and then stopping for a time, then moving on some more. Like the previous day there were numerous German troops who had given up the war. However, there were still a few shots fired. At the end of the day we camped along the side of the road with our guards posted, as we still did not know which Germans wanted to fight on.
May 4th, the sixth day. The usual start up. I got the tanks in column and when told, we moved out. No problems developed for about an hour or so. The road began to slope downward into a shallow valley. Down below at about 1500 yards, I could see what appeared to be a tavern and a couple of other buildings. No one was visible but white flags were hanging along the road in front of the buildings. I was leery of white flags; they had just helped to lure the Battalion into an ambush.
Off at a distance of about a couple of thousand yards, at about the same elevation as I was on, I suddenly spotted a German cannon, probably an 88mm anti tank gun, pointing off to the side. I could see no other cannon. I could see no men moving about. It did not look like a trap but who knows. I continued to keep my field glasses turned towards that area as well as the buildings below.
I ordered the 3rd platoon of the company to spread out on the brow of the hill to my left and keep guns trained on the tavern and cannon. Nothing was happening anywhere that I could see. However, being suspicious of the tavern (I was suspicious of any building showing white flags but no people around), I told my tank gunner to put a round in the tavern roof, which was about 3 stories up. Bam! This caused people to run out of the tavern waving more white flags.
In a moment several people carried out on a cart what appeared to be a wounded man dressed in a uniform. They motioned that our shell had caused the wound and to please fire no more shot at them. We held our fire.
At about that time, while I was observing what was happening both below and on the brow of the hill in the distance, the Battalion Commander came on the radio. The Colonel wanted to know what was holding up the column. I explained what was taking place. He stated in no uncertain terms that we had to move out. Division Headquarters wanted the column to move on. When Division Headquarters wanted action, we obeyed. I then told the 3rd platoon located off to my left to cover us as we moved out and then to fall in at the end of the company. I said to myself, “Well, here goes nothing. Let’s go”.
No enemy opposition developed at the tavern or from the guns located ahead and as we rolled past the tavern I could see that the wounded man on the cart was a German soldier. I felt sorry that a man had been wounded so close to what turned out to be right at the end of the war.
While getting close to Salzburg the column was held up. While stopped, a sergeant I knew from the 65th Infantry Battalion, who had been in the other section of the Combat Command column, came by. Upon seeing me he said, “Lieutenant, I have been with the other section of the combat command. We were going down a parallel road when we came upon a German Concentration camp. It was Dachau. What we saw was awful. There were skinny, bonny, starving people and lots of bodies; any German guards that were still there were shot.”
“The 3rd Infantry Division entered the concentration camp. You really ought to see it.” I thought to myself, but I felt I had seen enough gruesome things in my life. I never did go but I soon saw lots of these starving inmates wandering around and begging for food. Months later when getting prepared to return back to the port of Le Havre, in order to return to the States, the company ended up with one of the death boxcars that the bodies had been transported in. The stench in that boxcar was simply awful. We rejected that car immediately.
As the 20th Armored Division moved on into Salzburg we found ourselves sometimes side by side with the 3rd Infantry Division, also entering the city. Passing through the center of the city I noted that the large crowd of Germans (Austrians) standing on the street to be quite friendly, the atmosphere was almost festive. The tankers threw some gum and candy to the children. The children threw flowers at us.
Amazingly, years later, I met one of those Salzburg children as a grown up at a wine tasting party in San Antonio. It was at the “Marin House” and Mrs. Marin had been one of those children who had thrown flowers.
There was not room for both divisions to spend the night in Salzburg. I got the order to take my company up the Salzac River about 20 miles and find a place to camp for the night and to secure the location against any possible attack was part of the order, of course.
Just before dark we spotted a cluster of three or more farm type buildings surrounded by a high wall. A perfect spot! “Rous Schmeissen” (get out), I told the German farm family. Securing the area with ample guards and moving the tanks inside the walls we were ready for a well-needed sleep and a chance to get ready for whatever marching orders we might receive the next day.
Company Headquarters took over the nicest farmhouse to sleep in for the night. Like any good American solder I carefully checked the master bedroom of this obviously well to do farm family operation for something alcoholic. One bottle of Duetschen Whiskey, Scottish Blend was all I could find. Days later when I tried that German ersatz Scotch I found it to be passable. I had checked thoroughly and found nothing more. The men in other parts of the area found some rather green beer, but not much of that.
About 1900 hours (7.00pm), the radio operator on duty rushed up to me and very excitedly said, “Lieutenant, Sir, wonderful news. Word has been received that the German General Von Kesselring is on the way to surrender. He commands the German army charged with defending this treacherous mountainous area. Tomorrow we are going to sign a cease-fire with the Germans.” The war is over, the news spread to everyone, including the Germans who had moved to another farm nearby. Thirty minutes or so later one of my men and a German farmer rushed up; each had a grip on a handle of a five-gallon water can. “Guess what Lieutenant, when the Germans heard that the war was to be officially over tomorrow they called us, grabbed a couple of shovels, took several of us out into a field and we all dug up a whole mess of Schnapps. This water can is filled with Schnapps. We are going to celebrate the end of this war; we are going to have a party together. Want some?” I declined; I knew that I might need to maintain a clear head.
Gathering up the first Sergeant and a couple of the Platoon Sergeants we had a pow-wow. We knew that there might be quite a celebration. I ordered that the soberest of our men be put on guard. (We did not know whether or not some die-hard German might not use the party as a cover for a raid on the company; we were not sure how the Nazi party members might react to the news). It was quite a party. One sergeant fell down the steps and broke his arm. Another man put his hand through a glass door and cut it badly. The rest of the party resulted in a lot of headaches and hangovers the next morning.
The next day, May 5th 1945, the seventh day like no other, was the day of the signing of the “Cease Fire” for this part of Germany; the end of World War II as far as we were concerned. This was a day I shall always remember. Peace at last! V E Day was officially a couple of days later.
Those were seven days like no other I can recall. The best memories are the battlefield promotion, leading my own tank company out of Munich, and ending with “the last day of the war”.
The 20th Tank Battalion was awarded a presidential Unit Citation for its actions at Munich.
Before we moved into Germany there were lots of the men and some of the officers who were critical of Colonel Duncan’s tough leadership but after the war, he was a hero for the way he handled things.
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Thank God for the Atomic Bomb! Much, much later I learned that the next major assignment for the 20th Armored Division was to be the only armored division in the “initial” landings on the mainland of the island of Japan at Tokyo Bay in March of 1946. It was to be called, “Operation Coronet”. Just think what it would have been like to be part of the first group of allied troops to try to land on the beaches of Japan!
Letters from other Holocaust Survivors
in Nazi-occupied France
during World War II
This story is dedicated to the incredible bravery and generosity of the Plasseraud, Giron, Ravaud, Mégoz, and Menthonnex families, who risked their lives to save my family. We are at present engaged in an application process for Righteous Gentiles at the Holocaust Museum of Israel, Yad Vashem, which we hope will include them in a special memorial.
Immediately after Hitler came to power in June 1933, my father received notification that he was taken off the list of patent attorneys allowed to work in Germany as of September 30th. We were living in Berlin at the time, where I was born the year before. My grandparents cared for me during the day, while my father worked, and my mother attended Medical School. Upon receipt of that notice, my parents decided that it was time to leave Germany. My father had colleagues in Paris who had already written to him, inviting him to join their firm, if he had to leave Berlin.
On October 3rd of the same year, my mother received an official note from the University of Berlin, informing her that she was excluded from any further studies because of her “Marxist” activities. My mother was no political activist. All she wanted was to complete her medical studies. She had joined a socio-democratic student group long before her marriage, because she was then able to obtain meals more cheaply, and gain admittance to a large medical library to study and to borrow books for free. She had no money to buy all the expensive books she needed, and was thus able to get access to them. Since the age of 5, when her mother fell very ill, her dream had been to become a doctor, so that she could take care of her. My mother never recovered from having her dream thwarted by the Nazis. The atmosphere on the campus had become unbearable. She once told me that, since March, the two first rows in the lecture halls were reserved for SS students, and, when the Jewish students and professors came in, the SS shouted: “Juden raus”! and everyone clapped.
My mother had just started to accompany doctors in their visits to patients as an intern, and was on her way to do her first delivery. The exhausted woman had been in labor for hours with her twelfth child, and during the night, while they gave her some rest before the final push, the physician she was with and the midwife were talking about the Jews in the most despicable and horrendous way. They did not know that my mother was Jewish; she had blond hair and blue eyes. When the baby boy was born the following morning, they rejoiced because, of course, he was named Adolph.
Effective immediately on that terrible day, October 3, 1933, all the Jewish professors, doctors, nurses, lab assistants and students were evicted. The doctors lamented: “We have to take care of our patients!” or “We can’t leave them on the operating table!” They were told: “Germany would rather see the patients croak than be cared for by Jews! You have twenty minutes to pick up your stuff and disappear!” The doctors who had offices in the hospital had to leave their books, their clothes, everything. There is only so much you can take with you in twenty minutes without boxes or suitcases.
Paris was a good choice, partly because my father was assured of employment there, and partly because it was close to Germany, and my parents hoped to see their parents again, and possibly send for them later, when we were settled. My father left in the summer of 1933, and my mother followed in the fall with me, and with our furniture. Life in a foreign country was not easy for my parents. For one thing, they had to learn French. My mother had read Balzac and Victor Hugo in high school in her French classes, but to buy a kilo of meat at the butcher’s was a challenge. Her vocabulary had not extended to such trivial activities. We lived in an apartment building in Courbevoie, near Paris, which housed many new immigrants from Germany.
My brother, Ernest, was born the day before my third birthday, and in time, we became French citizens. We moved to a villa in Le Vésinet, another suburb of Paris, and my paternal grandparents were able to leave Berlin and come to live with us. This must have been at the beginning of 1939, but I am not sure of the dates. At that time, my mother was expecting her third child for April 1939, to the disbelief and amazement of all my parents’ friends who
said to her: “ Are you crazy to bring a third child into the world in these dangerous times, when war can break out at any time!!!??? How can you be so irresponsible?” None of them ever had more than one child. My parents felt that with three children they would have to be three times more careful and attentive, and they hoped that they would be able to protect us.
My maternal grandparents had come to live in Berlin in the early thirties, from their little town of Driesen, where my mother was born, because they had no longer any customers there. No one wanted to buy jewelry or a watch from a Jew. Even their most loyal customers did not even greet them anymore. They found a minuscule apartment and store in Berlin, and bought a lot of silver items from all the Jews who wanted to emigrate, with whatever money they could take with them. Eventually, they managed to get on one of the last ships to what was then known as Palestine, just before the outbreak of the war in September 1939. Before they left, however, they notified my parents in Paris that they were sending them two trunks with old clothing and odds and ends, which they wanted us to save for them, because they could not take them on the journey.
My mother was by then eight and a half months pregnant with a nine-pound baby, and quite voluminous. One day, she was notified to go to the central Paris railway station to clear two trunks through customs and pick them up. When she got there, the customs official heard her accent and asked her to open those trunks while grumbling about all the foreigners coming to France. My mother got very angry, and shouted: “ How can you be so callous and insensitive? How would you feel if your elderly parents had to leave behind all their belongings, their home, their business, their friends, to save their lives and emigrate to a foreign country? ” My mother got so furious and agitated that the man got scared. He must have feared that she would deliver her baby there and then, and, angry himself at her outburst, bellowed: “ OK, lady! Take your junk and get the hell out of here!”
My mother hailed a taxi and brought the trunks home. After resting a little bit from her ordeal, she opened the trunks. Yes, there were lots of old clothes on the top, but, underneath, she found much of my grandparents’ sterling silver, especially three pairs of tall gorgeous candlesticks, and many other Jewish and decorative items. You see, my grandfather was a silversmith and clockmaker. He had a little store, and he tried to save what he could. My mom found an old kettle; inside, neatly wrapped, were several beautiful jewels. Had she known what really was in those trunks in the midst of all the old clothes, she could never have gotten so honestly angry at the customs man, and she may have ended up paying a lot of duty.
In 1940, the Germans invaded France in the north, and Paris became too dangerous for the Jews. My father was asked to transfer many files and archives from the Paris office to Massay, a small village, about 125 miles south of Paris and of Nazi-occupied territory, and establish a small office there. He took me and my brother Ernest with him, and hired a lady to look after us. I was 8 and my brother was 5. My mother and grandparents, both in their seventies, could not move that fast, and were going to join us as soon as possible.
I remember the building my father rented. It was a small castle, with turrets, and a large bright veranda, in which my father worked. Every so often, we heard the sirens’ alarm, and we took refuge in the basement of the castle while bombs were whistling and exploding overhead. One such day, after we emerged from our shelter, we found a shell splinter on my father’s chair, in front of his desk. It had made a large hole in the roof of the veranda, and landed on his chair. Had he been sitting there, my father would have been killed. He was such a good man, that an angel, certainly, was watching over him.
I remember another event from that time in Massay. One morning, I was suddenly overcome by violent abdominal pains and high fever. The doctor came, and said: “Your daughter has acute appendicitis. You have to take her to the hospital in Issoudun (the nearest city with a hospital) immediately.” I was operated on without delay by a surgeon from Paris who happened to be there that day, and who said to my father after the surgery that I was lucky to make it. Had we waited 24 hours, I may not have survived. I was admitted to a large ward, where most of the patients were soldiers who had been wounded. I particularly remember the young man in the bed next to mine, who suddenly started to vomit blood. The nurse ran over to his bed to draw the curtains around it. The next thing I knew was that he died. I was only 8 and very impressionable. To this day, I see it in my mind’s eye.
After I recovered and came home to Massay, my parents planned to move all of us further south to Lyon, my father with Ernest and me, and my mother with my grandmother and my little brother, Raymond, born in April 1939. My grandfather had passed away suddenly in Le Vésinet and was buried even without my father’s knowledge. While waiting for our furniture to follow us, and while my mother was looking for an apartment in the Lyon area, Ernest and I were in a children’s home in Tassin-La Demi-Lune. I also remember a kind lady who kept us for a few days, and who taught me to knit.
We moved to Caluire, a suburb of Lyon: 2, chemin des Petites Brosses (2 Little Brushes Lane) into a second-floor apartment, above a large carpentry shop. Our landlord, Mr. Giron, was the carpenter. He and his wife were very kind to us. We lived there for a while, then things became ominous there, too, as the German invasion advanced more and more south.
My parents found a children’s home in the foothills of the Alps where my mother took us to live for a while. French children’s homes (pensions d’enfants) do not exist in America. They are large homes which take a number of children, usually in the summer, while their parents take a much needed vacation by themselves. The children are well cared for, go on excursions and picnics, and live quite comfortably. These homes are usually in the mountains, or by the sea, so as to provide a healthy environment for city children. We, the three kids, landed in one of those, in Autrans, in the mountains above Grenoble, where my mother took us. It was called Clairefontaine, situated two kilometers from the village, and directed by a kind and caring woman and her family. All the other children’s homes were full in the whole region, their parents had sought a refuge for them from the war and the scarcity of food in the cities. It was the last one my mother found, that could take us. Mr. and Mrs. Menthonnex were very Catholic. My mother said to the lady: “Madame, I see that you are a woman of faith. Put yourself in my position, about to be separated from your three children for some time. Would you want someone to convert them to another religion?” Madame Menthonnex promised that she would not convert us, and it is probably thanks to my mother that she did not try to convert or baptize other Jewish children in her care.
As my mother was about to return to Lyon, she got a message from my father that she was to stay in Autrans, and that he was following. Even Lyon had become a precarious place for us.
My father arrived in Autrans, and rented the second floor of a nice house, on the main road; my parents were thus able, after two weeks or so, to take us out of the children’s home. Our landlord and landlady, Mr. and Mrs. Ravaud, lived downstairs. There was a swing in the yard, and a large field in the back, where my mother eventually taught gymnastics to the local ladies and their children. And so we settled in “la maison jaune”, the yellow house. It was quite attractive, and stood out in the countryside because of its bright color. From our new home, we could see the church, standing in the middle of the village, and could walk up to the village center in three minutes. French village churches are always standing on a hill, so that they can be seen from afar, and the villages cluster around them. Autrans was no exception.
I was ten years old by then, it was 1942, and I was able to attend a boys’ school, which at that time also admitted girls. The population of Autrans doubled during the war. It grew from 1,000 to 2,000 inhabitants, which meant that half the population were refugees who had fled their homes to hide in our village, for one reason or another. The whole area, called Vercors, sheltered people in hiding.
My mother suddenly had to set up a whole household, taking care of my father and three children, and was lacking some essential kitchen items and others, like saucepans, and, I remember, a large basin to boil the linen (in those days we did not know what a washing machine was). So, one morning she took the train back to Lyon, to get the necessary utensils from our apartment there, intending to return that evening to Autrans. As she was chatting with our landlady, she suddenly realized that it was already very late, and she feared that she would miss her train back.
So she grabbed the things she had prepared, and ran down the road for about three quarters of a mile to the tramway that would take her within five minutes walking distance of the train station. The tramway stopped on the west side of the river Rhone, she ran across the bridge to the station, and just made it into the train as it was leaving. As the train departed, it passed on the railway bridge parallel to the one she ran across five minutes earlier, and as she was still catching her breath and taking off her hat and coat, she saw that the Nazis had cordonned off the first bridge to check everybody’s papers. My mother, of course, had false papers, and heavily laden as she was, she would have looked very suspicious and would have probably never made it back to us.
Living conditions were difficult for my parents. My father would work at home for his Lyon office. Every week, he would travel over the mountain by bus to Grenoble to meet with his secretary from the office, Mme Mégoz, give her the work that he had completed, and take home new files to work on. Thus, he was able to continue earning a living while in hiding, thanks to the generosity of his employer and friend, René Plasseraud. Our food was rationed; we bought everything with tickets. My father cycled almost every day to some farms, where he could get half a liter of milk here, 3 eggs there and 2 potatoes elsewhere in exchange for his cigarette tickets, and money too. We let the milk sit (it came straight from the cows), and the next day we skimmed it. When we had enough cream, we made butter with it. We listened to the news, we heard that the Germans were in Grenoble, and it became impossible for my father to continue his trips. He scouted the surrounding hills, and found a cave where he hid drinking water, hard-boiled eggs and money, in case he and my mother were to leave their house in a hurry. My parents also found three farmers who were willing to each take one of us in case of emergency, and who would have said that they took in their nephew or niece from the city to feed them properly. On one particular night, we were all three taken to these farmers overnight, and my parents disappeared in the mountain until it was safe to return home. I remember vividly how my little brother Raymond reeked of manure when he came back!
We had French identity cards (there were no drivers’ licenses in those days, my father acquired his first car, a Peugeot 202, years after the war). The cards had my parents and me born in Germany and our name Gutmann was too Jewish. So my mother went to the Autrans mayor’s office, asking to get new cards with different names and birthplaces. She was told that they could only replace these cards if they became illegible. So she went home and “accidentally” dropped the cards in the wash. When they were dry, and, of course, illegible, she took them back and got new cards for all of us. My parents and I were born in Morocco, and we all had a very French family name, Gallian.
From Grenoble, you have to pass through the mountains to reach Autrans and other villages in our valley. Every time the Germans started on their way up towards our valley, the news would spread like wildfire, from post office to post office, and from there to every hotel, church and store, until everyone knew. It just took a few minutes to warn everyone. We had no telephone, everything went by word of mouth. There were several false alarms, because the Germans always had to retreat for some reason. My father decided that if he had to die, it was better to do it with a weapon in hand. So he enlisted into the French underground forces, the FFI (Forces Françaises de l’Interieur), and went with a neighbor and friend of ours, Serge, and his son-in-law, Henri, to where the dissident army was located.
Here I have to talk about my friends. My parents met Claire and Serge Levier in Courbevoie, when we all lived in the same apartment building after fleeing Germany. The Leviers had two beautiful daughters, Michèle and Maggy, the first one ten years older than me, the second one five. Michèle died in 2005, but Maggy is still living in Los Angeles, and we are friends to this day, after meeting in 1933.
At a Passover Seder at my parents’ home in Lyon, Michèle met Henri, the son of another émigré. She was an extremely attractive girl of eighteen and Henri fell madly in love with her. He was about thirty years old. They married, and had a baby daughter, Cathy. Soon therafter, Claire, Serge and Maggy, as well as Michèle, her husband and the new baby, joined us in Autrans and lived in a motel nearby. That is how my father enlisted in the FFI with Serge and Henri.
While the men were gone, the Germans really came. We saw them, at dusk, from our window, dark silhouettes coming over the hill, and we dreaded what would happen. The next day, they went to a sawmill, always looking for people to kill, especially Jews, and they shot a young man of seventeen, who had nothing to hide, but who was overcome with terror and ran through the fields. The following morning, we saw the horse-drawn cart carrying the body to the church and the cemetery. The body was covered, but the legs were dangling at the back, and we were terrified. Two or three farms were burning in the distance...After their departure, bodies could be found in the hills and the woods, of people who tried to escape. To this day, I wouldn’t go into a forest alone, even if it were safe to do so, I’d be terrified.
A Nazi officer and his aide appeared at our landlord’s door, and asked for a bedroom, speaking only in German. Mr. Ravaud called my mother and said: “ Since you know a little bit of German, can you please come down and help us?” So my mother helped, speaking mostly French and she had, obviously, a difficult time, as you can imagine. Since my father was away, Mr. Ravaud asked my mother to give up her bedroom. That was like admitting the lion into the lamb’s cage. She moved into the attic, and from then on, she spent her nights at the window. We had not had any news from our men for several months and we did not even know if they were still alive, but my mother feared that if my father suddenly did come back, probably in the darkness, he might throw a pebble to my parents’ bedroom to wake her up, so that she would come down the stairs to unlock the front door to let him in.
The officer’s aide used our kitchen, one day, to bake a chocolate cake. He was able to get the necessary ingredients, I don’t know how or where, but my mother was furious when he did not even offer a crumb to her for her three children. My mother spoke to him in pidgin German, making mistakes in the grammar, not finding her words, and her pronunciation was terrible. She told him that she learned German in school for two years, and she apologized profusely for her inability to speak better. He never suspected that she spoke as well as he did. She showed unbelievable courage and strength, but it was a matter of life or death, and she had three children to protect. I cannot, for my part, imagine how I could have done what she did. Could you speak pidgin English, and never give yourself away to a native English speaker?
The German officer sat with our landlord in the yard every day. My little brother Raymond was on the swing. The officer, at one point, looked at Raymond, blond and blue-eyed, and said to Mr. Ravaud: “This child reminds me of our lovely German children.” Little did he know that this was a Jewish child, and our landlord was terrified. His life and that of his family were also at stake for lodging Jews. The officer and his aide finally left after two or three weeks.
Several times during the war, we could have been easily betrayed, like so many were, and we owe our lives to many kind and tolerant people. The head and founder of my father’s office, Mr. Weissman, was sold down the river. He had a magnificent stamp collection, and was betrayed by his long-time stamp merchant. The Nazis came to get him at four in the morning, and he was never heard from again.
On one of those somber days, my mother went up to the village to do some shopping. When she came back, Ernest and I said to her: “Maman, the priest came to see you!”
Here I must insert my mother’s account of our main story. In 1968, she was walking on a Paris sidewalk, in broad daylight, when she was brutally accosted by a motorcyclist who passed by her and snatched her handbag. She tried to hold on to it, and was thrown to the ground, breaking her hip. My mother was recovering after surgery, and facing a long stay in the hospital. I said to my daughter, Ilana: “I have asked my mother so many times, to no avail, to write about the war years. Why don’t you write to Grandmi and ask her to write her recollections of the war, while stuck in her hospital bed? If you ask, maybe she will do it, if she realizes you are really interested.” Ilana wrote to her grandmother, and the following arrived, in French. Ilana offered to translate it into English:
August 31, 1944
A day unlike others
By Charlotte Gutmann
Until now, 34 years after the events, and despite the pressing and repeated requests of my children, I could not bring myself to write this story—I know not why. But my recent ordeal which forces me to rest for months will not be totally unproductive if I put myself to it. And then, the request of my granddaughter Ilana who wishes to have the story for the family, and even for her future children, moves me all the more that she has just become engaged to be married. The narrative is therefore likely to become a great-grandmother’s tale, but with the distinct difference that it relates a real and true event. Even a skeptical reader will have to admit that there are events where reality surpasses fiction. To understand the 31st of August 1944, a brief introduction is necessary.
It was November 1942. While the Germans occupied the major part of France, leaving occupation of the Midi (Southern France) to their Italian allies, we had taken refuge in Grenoble, more precisely in Autrans, a village in the heart of the Vercors, at an altitude of three thousand feet. For a year, we lived there relatively undisturbed, and especially, better fed. In September 1943, Italy concluded a separate armistice with the Allies, and the Italian troops retreated from the Midi. The Germans replaced them and imposed their harsh regime on the Midi also. During the winter 1943-1944, they made dreaded incursions into the Vercors, a high mountainous plateau between the Isère and the Drôme, whose abrupt slopes could be reached by eight different roads. It is a true natural fortress. At the time, it was being held by the FFI. (Forces Françaises de l’Intérieur), a small army composed of resisters to the enemy and to the Vichy government. It was much talked about and the Germans themselves thought that it was much larger and better armed than it in fact was. On June 6th 1944, the Allies landed in Normandy, and we prayed for their success from the bottom of our hearts. I advise my descendants to go see the Arromanches museum with its audio-visual reconstitution of the landing, and the American cemetery. It will be well worth the trip.
The Germans fought desperately, but were forced to progressively retreat. In Russia as well, their situation was becoming catastrophic, and we were filled with a wild hope that the moment would arrive when the Allies, coming from North Africa, would also land in the Midi.
While waiting feverishly, we celebrated a memorable 14th of July with a hike to Bellecombe, a grassy mountain top from which we had a superb view on Autrans, and on the other side, on the valley of Lans, and Villard-de-Lans. Down below, all the houses were bedecked with flags; happiness reigned. While we ate our picnic, planes hummed above us; we thought they were Ally planes bringing the promised reinforcements impatiently awaited by the FFI of the Vercors. However, when the first shells seemed to hit Autrans, we packed up our picnic and raced down to the edge of the forest. They were in fact German planes, anxious to dismantle the FFI army, so that it would not be able to join the Allies when the time came, or even before that, harass the German troops returning towards the north. The Vercors range became a target, and, a few days later, we were to experience great anguish. On the way down from Bellecombe, my husband said:
“The net is tightening; if the Germans catch me, I want to have a weapon in my hands to defend myself to my last breath!”
On July 15th, together with our friend Serge Levier and his son-in-law Henri Bamberger, he left to join the underground forces via Rencurel. He did not leave to become a hero, nor did he presume to help victory along; later, he never claimed the title of “résistant” (resister), although he had fully participated in the battle of the Vercors, at once the first and the last combat of the small army. The Germans had landed their gliders in the vast area of Vassieux, and unloaded their troops among the dismayed members of the Résistance ready to salute their Allies… The Germans massacred all ninety inhabitants of Vassieux, from the youngest to the oldest; they discovered the cave of the Luire, and slaughtered all the wounded, their doctors and their nurses; they destroyed scores of farms, savagely killing the farmers,“FFI accomplices”; they fought violently against the Résistance in Herbouilly, Valchevrières, and the Barraques. The casualties were heavy: 500 soldiers, 200 civilians.
The headquarters of the FFI then ordered the dispersion of the troups into the dense and wild forest of Lente which rendered all combat impossible, and the Germans left the Vercors. If the Vercors army, some two thousand to four thousand men, did not achieve victory, they had nevertheless, at a crucial moment, detained two German divisions—which were thus missing in the south. My husband and his friend Serge, trading their alpine soldier uniforms for civilian clothing found in the camp, decided to leave the mountainous Vercors in the direction of St.Martin d’Août in the Drôme where Serge had a friend. They felt that the Vercors was still dangerous. Henri was in a hurry to rejoin his young wife and daughter, and first joined a group going towards Autrans, but, in Rencurel, he decided to go directly to Autrans across the mountain, alone. It was to be a shortcut. He fell into the hands of a German patrol which executed him on July 24th, along with three “suspects” found in the surrounding area. The group he had left followed their more careful route, and arrived safely in Autrans. On August 12th, I had a terrible foreboding, and sure enough, was informed of Henri’s fate. I went to Rencurel with one of Eva’s schoolteachers to exhume his body, and place it in a coffin, while Maggy Levier was on the look-out to warn us, should a German patrol arrive. I could only recognize Henri’s body by his perfect set of teeth! To this day, I cannot say all that I experienced and felt at that moment. Except this: Perhaps, just as I am doing this horrifying task for my friend, someone else may be doing this for my husband….One spoke much in Autrans of the savagery of the battles, the atrocious agony of some, the uncertain fate of others left to die of hunger and thirst, the skirmishes everywhere, and I still had no news of my husband…Grenoble was liberated on the 23rd of August 1944; for the Vercors the war was over….
On August 31st, my children were playing in front of the house. When I returned from my shopping, I was greeted with:
“Maman, the priest was here, he wanted to speak to you, he left a message upstairs”.
I climbed the stairs with legs suddenly made of jelly. On the kitchen table lay a piece of paper, quickly torn out of a pad, without a date, no doubt written by the priest. It said:
“M. Gutmann and Cdr. Levier are in St. Martin d’Août, in the Drôme. Lacking money and civilian clothing. Asking one of their wives, preferably Mme. G. bring them money and clothing…”
To this day, I cannot understand why I did not dash out to see the priest to find out how he happened to possess that piece of paper, or that information, how old the message could be, and to thank him. Instead, I ran to Claire Levier’s house to tell her:
“Our husbands are safe, they need money and clothes, I must go immediately by bicycle towards St. Martin d’Août to bring them those items”.
Her daughter Maggy, 16, insisted on coming with me. We quickly found two bicycles, and I did, however, go to ask the advice of Dr. Chauve, and the butcher, Mr.Barnier, who had both been of invaluable help to FFI. How can we reach St. Martin? Through Grenoble? A road map? Was the Grenoble area already safe? “Careful”, they said, “there are still skirmishes here and there! Go towards Grenoble to the Red Cross. If they tell you that you can continue,fine! If not, entrust your package and the money to them, with name and address, and they will deliver it if and as soon as possible.”
While feverishly preparing the clothing and a snack, I packed the children off to Clairefontaine. For a long time the Menthonnex had told us: “In case of hardship or difficulty, send the chidren to us, simply with their suitcase”. Roland and Geneviève Menthonnex (we called Parrain and Marraine)—may they rest in peace—had a few papers in their safekeeping and the name and address of our friend in Paris, Mr.Plasseraud, who would have done what was necessary to send our children to Palestine, to my parents in Gedera…after the war, if anything happened to us..
My mind at rest on that score, I leave with Maggy on the road to Grenoble. As we start climbing to the Croix Perrin pass, we push our heavily laden bicycles to the top. We eat our sandwich and begin the descent towards Lans. After the first few hundred meters, Oh My God, my brakes don’t work! How will I arrive safely to the foot of the mountain? In case I fall, should I keep to the left, the rock, or to the right, the cliff? I brake furiously with my bulky hiking boots. I release the brake, and here we go again. Bend after bend, and once more, no brake. Then, at top speed, on the road, a little wider before the oncoming very narrow hairpin curve, the fall. Dragged dozens of meters on my stomach, my right hand clinging to the useless brakes of the handlebar which pulls me with it, I remain sprawled out in the middle of the road, the left side of my face skinned and bleeding, my blouse ripped, my left hand, elbow and knee encrusted with pebbles, my left ankle broken, my right thumb completely dislocated, the flexor tendon torn, the first joint hanging on by skin…Maggy falls at the same time, with a big part of the brake stuck in her forearm…Our expedition is over, and I can only lament incessantly:
“My husband…my husband…how will I reach him now, my husband…my husband…”
People suddenly appear out of the forest, where they were picking berries and mushrooms.
‘’What can we do for you?” they ask.
“Please find us some kind of transportation in Lans (2 or 3 kilometers away), you see my foot, and our bicycles…” One man dashes towards Lans, others transport us as gently as possible into the hollow of the curve, and set us down on the embankment. One man even has brandy on him, and a sugar cube. I insist he give it to Maggy, who is in a state of shock. After some time, the man returns from Lans with a bottle of fresh water, and says that a vehicle will arrive shortly.
While they are carefully taking out the numerous pebbles embedded in my skin, and washing my wounds with some water, I let myself go and the tears roll down my cheeks. Who should arrive but Mme. Blanche Menthonnex, on her way to Autrans and Clairefontaine? I beg her to say nothing to the children…Frightened, she continues her climb, pushing her bicycle towards the Croix Perrin…And I hear in the distance the trot of a horse approaching, approaching, and finally, finally, a cart appears around the bend. In a few moments, which seem like an eternity, the wagon stops close to us and a man’s voice startles me: “Charlotte!” It is my husband, perched on the cart, next to the farmer….
Our two men had set out towards Romans and the Drôme. Relentlessly they walk, throwing themselves down in the fields at the approach of German patrols, sleeping in barns, receiving a piece of bread here, a glass of milk there, from compassionate farmers. From one such farmer they borrow a wheelbarrow filled with hay to hide their knapsacks, in order to pass under the noses of the German soldiers, walking very slowly, pushing their wheelbarrow like farmers returning from the fields. Our men are older than the average members of the Résistance; they slowly cross a well-guarded bridge at Romans without arousing suspicion, their eyes fixed on their mountain boots…Finally they reach St. Martin d’Août.
They are cared for, they rest, they chat at night with the mayor, the priest, with the inhabitants, thirsting for news of the Vercors up there. They are taken for officers of the Résistance, coming perhaps from England because of their accent…They tell the young priest, Father Petit, of their worry for their families in Autrans, where the Germans could have killed like everywhere else. Father Petit is full of initiative:
“Listen”, he says, “I will go to Grenoble, and from there to Autrans, to reassure your loved ones and to bring you news of them”.
“Father”, they respond, “we cannot accept this. The area is still infested with Germans, they will take you for a priest of the Résistance, you risk too much. And…we are Jews…”
“That does not matter, I would even say on the contrary! Leave it to me; I will plan my trip before going off to Grenoble. If the Germans stop me, what could I tell them?”
“There is a large sanatorium for 300 to 350 children in Autrans.”
“Good! I’ll tell them that my parishioners who have children there are anxious about them, and I would like to get news of them”.
Father Petit takes his bicycle, and sets out for Grenoble. On the way, he sees horrors, the cruelty exercised by the Germans near Voiron on those they suspect… He goes to St. Joseph’s church in Grenoble, and spends the night at his colleague’s. The following morning, he begins the climb and arrives at the home of the priest of Sassenage. From there he continues his ascent towards St. Nizier. Suddenly he is surrounded by German soldiers who ask him threateningly where he is from, where he is going, is he part of the Résistance, and they take him to their officer who asks the same questions.
“I come from the Drôme”, he says, “and exercise my ministry at St. Joseph’s in Grenoble. Because it is so close, I would like to go to the sanatorium in Autrans to get news of the children of some of my parishioners who are very worried”.
A phone call is made to St. Joseph’s, where the priest confirms that his colleague Petit said mass there, and wishes to go to the Autrans sanatorium. The officer becomes more accommodating and says to Father Petit:
“You do not need to go to Autrans. The sanatorium has been evacuated, and the children have been placed with the inhabitants. You can reassure your parishioners, their children are fine. I would even have you taken up there by car, but it is not necessary. Go back.” (This was not true; the sanatorium had not been evacuated.)
There was nothing left for Father Petit to do but to retrace his steps with a heavy heart. He passes once more by the church of the Sassenage priest where he eats something, and, before departing, writes a few words in his notebook and tears off the page. He gives it to his colleague and asks him to have it brought to his Autrans colleague as soon as possible. Father Petit returns without incident, and recounts his adventure immediately to our men.
They thank him for his good will and his great courage, but my husband says to him:
“The only thing that worries me is the message you left with the priest in Sassenage. Imagine that he succeeds in passing it to someone, and that it reaches my wife. If I know her, she will dash out immediately, and if ever she falls into the hands of the Germans, on her bicycle laden with men’s clothing, she will be accused of supplying the Résistance, and her fate will be sealed. I must get to Autrans at all costs, to prevent my wife’s departure…” He leaves at dawn the following morning. Serge Levier cannot go with him; while helping to bring in the hay, he hurt his foot, the wound got infected, and he could not walk. At the price of a thousand difficulties, my husband walks relentlessly, rides a train part of the way, falls into the hands of a group of FFL (Forces Françaises Libres, communist rivals of the FFI); he is suspected of being a German in civilian clothes because of his accent, and threatened to be shot. But he can give details of the FFI, and is released, even provided with a pass. In another group, he is recognized by one of his former companions who identifies him. He finally arrives in Sassenage, where he is told:
“You are lucky…the cable railway towards St. Nizier has been working again since this morning.”.
He walks the last 5 or 6 kilometers which separate St. Nizier—totally in ruins by now—from Lans where he arrives in the afternoon, exhausted. He recognizes an inhabitant, standing on the threshold of her house, and asks her:
“Is there any way I can get to Autrans before nightfall?”
“Here is Mr. X”, she answers,” he is leaving with his cart towards the Croix Perrin. Apparently two women have had an accident! This will help you for part of the way anyway…”
and he hoists himself up next to the driver.
This is how we found each other. Without our accident, Maggy and I would have been far away already, close to Grenoble. My husband would have found an empty house and known terrible anguish. He took us to the Lans infirmary. A young surgeon, Dr. Fabre, who came from Marseille, took care of us. With his delicate hands, which fascinated me, he washed and disinfected, stitched and bandaged our various wounds, sewed the tendon of my right thumb, immediately warning me that it might not hold. It did, in fact, tear a few weeks later, and to this day I have a stiff thumb. He put a cast on my left ankle and recommended that we go to Villard-de-Lans the following morning to have my swollen left elbow and knee X-rayed. Luckily, we found transportation that took us to Villard-de-Lans. When we got out of the carriage, a man passing by recognized us as residents of Autrans. Impressed by Maggy’s large arm bandage, and by my numerous ones, he returned quickly to Autrans, and the first person he met was Claire Levier.
“I saw your daughter with another person, both seriously hurt, there was one man with them, not your husband…”
From this remark it took one step for Claire to believe that her husband was no longer alive, otherwise wouldn’t he have wanted to return to Autrans too? The poor woman was in inexpressible anguish. But Serge joined us in Lans, where we were resting, for a few days. Then, together, we returned to our loved ones in Autrans.
This is how my mother retold those events. This miraculous accident saved my mother’s and Maggy’s lives. They would not only have missed the two men, because they were going to take a different road, but would most probably have fallen into German hands and looked suspicious enough with men’s clothing and money on their bikes to be executed on the spot. The area was still full of Germans.
Isn’t truth stranger than fiction sometimes?
A few anecdotes:
While at Clairefontaine, I had been very influenced by the Catholicism around me. I went to mass with all the children on Sunday mornings, and learned the Catechism. Like many others, I wanted to become Catholic. I was obviously searching for some peace and serenity in the Church, in contrast to the tumultuous and scary outside world.
One morning, in Autrans, my father asked my mother if she needed help. She replied: “Oh! thank you! Why don’t you grind the coffee, that would be great!” My father sat there, slaving over the manual grinder, and asked while churning the coffee beans: “ You do that every morning?” “Yes”, replied my mother. “Well, in that case,” he said, “when the war is over, I’ll buy you an electric grinder!” He had done it just once, and that was already too much.
My mother had several friends in Autrans; I remember two, in particular, whose husbands had also joined the Résistance and whom she saw regularly. While drinking a smelly cup of a sorry excuse for coffee, made with chicory, they chatted, laughed and dreamed. One of the ladies said: “Oh! When the war is over, I will take a bath in real coffee!” Another said: “I’ll buy myself a new girdle!” They all worried about their husbands. In her desperation, Madame Babonneau went to see a psychic. The lady asked her for her wedding band and clasped it in her hand. After some concentration, the psychic said: “I see your husband. He is wearing a ring with the initials R.B. He is neither dead nor alive. I see him lying down with a white thing around his head. It is very hot there”…. Roger Babonneau (R.B.) came back to his wife eventually. He had lain in a coma after an extensive wound to the head in a tent in the Sahara desert.
Paris was liberated from Nazi occupation in August 1944. Shortly thereafter, in the fall, we moved back to our upstairs apartment in Caluire, the Lyon suburb where we had left all our furniture. We were welcomed back by Madame Giron, our landlady, who lived with her husband downstairs. She had returned to our apartment our radio which she had kept for us in her home, and our silverware which she had buried in the vegetable garden, in an effort to save those things in case the Germans ever came to our place. They did, in fact, come once, and, as they were going upstairs, they received the order to retreat. Had they been able to get into our place, they would have seen all the Jewish books, candlesticks and other items, and they would have, without a doubt, burned the whole place down.
Not only did Madame Giron return the items mentioned above, she had also washed and rehung our curtains, and a huge dish of steaming spaghetti and meat sauce greeted us on the dining room table….
She also gave us a postcard which arrived at our address in her building while we were living in Autrans. It read: Mr. and Mrs. Gutmavor. The name looked falsified to disguise the Jewish name Gutmann by someone who, probably, thought that this postcard would betray its addressees as Jews. The card came from my grandparents residing by now in Palestine. We found out much later that they sent this postcard to us, because they had heard that the Red Cross would send cards to people in Europe, and my grandparents were very worried about us. They had no news from us for a long time and did not know if we were still alive. This special postcard asked not only for our name and address in France, but for our religion also, as well as the name and address of the sender, and his or her religion. We were all indicated as “Semitic”, and the text of the card was already predetermined, like:
1. we are well
2. are you alright ?
3. we have no news from you, we are very worried
4. please let us know where you are
This card was a true denunciation of Jews in Europe, and it looked like it was a message arranged by the Nazis with the International Red Cross, which knowingly (or unknowingly) helped the Germans find European Jews. Someone, somewhere, who was smart, alert and kind, saw this postcard, read it, understood how dangerous it was, and changed the two n’s of our last name into ‘vor’. That way, the card aroused no suspicion, and arrived safely at its destination. When my grandparents heard of this card years later, they were appalled because they realized that it could well have spelt our demise. The card was a true denunciation---made possible by and sent through the Red Cross!
It was wonderful to be home again. I was able to return to a more stable and peaceful environment and schooling, and also started to get some Jewish formal education, mainly studying with a Rabbi and learning the main Hebrew prayers.
We owe our lives and our gratitude to many French people who helped us. We heard of countless friends who were betrayed as Jews by acquaintances, and picked up by the Nazis, never to be seen again; not to speak of all our friends and relatives who were found in France and in Germany and exterminated, people I never knew. My mother kept a long list of them in her Yom Kippur prayer book, and took it out at every Yizkor service (prayer for the dead) until she passed away.
The Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Israel has asked for names of righteous Gentiles who helped Jews during the war. I am sending in the names of all the good French people to whom our family owes an incredible debt of gratitude.
Several miracles, like the above, happened to us during the war, that saved our lives; to this day, I wonder why we came through unhurt, while so many perished. Why were we preserved?
To what end? We will never receive answers to these questions, but we must strive daily, with great gratitude, to deserve our lives.