Hunter College H.S. Holocaust Survivors

Dodging U-boats Crossing the Atlantic

    - Evelyn Konrad

Evelyn Konrad was born in Vienna in December 1928. Her father was a noted soccer champion and professional soccer coach, coaching the Nurenberg, Germany team until the newspaper owned by the Nazi, Julius Streicher published viscious anti-Semitic attacks on him. At the time of the "Anschluss," the family was living in Trieste Italy, from where they were expelled in November 1938 the family was living in Trieste, Italy, from where they were expelled in November 1938. Evelyn and her mother went to Budapest to live with relatives while her father traveled to Paris, where he secured a French visa for himself, his wife and daughter. Unfortunately, neither he nor any other relatives were able to secure an exit permit from Vienna for Evelyn's beloved grandmother, Omutti. Sadly, she perished on a transport on the way to the concentration camp of Treblinka.

These recollections are excerpted from Evelyn's unpublished memoirs.

Evelyn:

Good Bye to Omutti

My mother and I boarded the train to Vienna, to see my Omutti, on our way to France. I began to feel frightened as soon as we crossed the border into Austria, when two SS-men in their stormtrooper uniforms went from compartment to compartment, behind the conductor. I tried to look away when they came into our compartment, but one of them was grinning and making flirting jokes with my mother. I saw her cheeks turn red, and I saw a tight little smile on her lips. I put my hand through her arm, and put my head on her shoulder, and the young SS-man laughed, and they left our compartment. The first thing I noticed about Vienna was that the streets seemed empty, and they looked drab and gray. The only color was on the hated red flags with the black swastika in the white middle. And there were the sounds, the alien sounds, the loud thumping sounds of boots marching on cobble-stoned streets.

When we got out of the taxi, I saw Franz, the projectionist from the movie theaater my Omutti owned, who used to make a big fuss over me on the rare occasions, when I was allowed to go. Franz could not help but see my mother and me, since he had to move out of the way to avoid getting hit by the taxi door. But he turned his head the other way and did not greet us. I looked at my mother. Her cheeks were red, and her eyes were staring down at the change in her gloved hand, as if it held some strange fascination for her.

As we walked toward the huge old wooden door to my grandmother's house, two women in cheap dirndls, never seen in our neighborhood, and with big swastika armbands, came marching along the sidewalk, talking and laughing loudly. As my mother and I approached, they shoved my mother off the sidewalk. I started to go for them, wanting to scream and pummel them with my bare fists and kick them, but my mother pulled me down to the gutter and dug her nails hard into my wrist. "Evi," she whispered sharply. I drew a deep breath and another and another, and felt ashamed, because I had not fought for her.

My mother waited until the women were a half-block away, and then she pulled me along to my Omutti's building. As she opened the door, the janitor stepped over the sill. I started to smile at him, but the smile froze on my face. This man, who always bowed three times to my mother, who loved to tease me and offer me candy I was not allowed to accept, now rudely pushed past my mother, letting her hold the heavy door, rather than the other way around.

We walked up the stone stairs to my Omutti's apartment. A skinny woman with feverish eyes, dressed all in black, opened up the door, face pale and drawn. She pointed to the front hallway and to my Omutti's bedroom, which was at the top of the long hallway. My mother thanked her, and the woman shrugged and walked back into another room, closing the door behind her. There were muffled sounds behind all the doors we passed on the way to my Omutti..

"Who's there?" I heard her say behind her closed door in a strangled whisper, even though she knew that my mother and I were due that day.

"Mutti," my mother said. The bedroom door was flung open, and my Omutti pulled us in, first me, and then my mother. Then she closed the door again and turned the key in the door.

She looked less stout than she had been. Smothering me to her breast, she hugged me and kissed me and said, "Greterl, take the child out of here. Go back and take the first train. Please."

"Who is that woman?" My mother asked.

Omutti shrugged. "They have moved five families into this apartment," she said and quickly added, "They're no problem. They are very nice. We keep each other company."

My mother opened up her pocketbook and pulled out a paper bag with fresh cinnamon rolls and two oranges. "It was all I dared bring," she said.

In all the years gone by, I had never seen Omutti lock any armoires, or drawers, or doors in her apartment. But now she put the bag on the top shelf of her amoire and locked it.

She wanted to hear wanted to hear where we were going in France and whether we had received the affidavits we needed to be considered for a U.S. quota number and immigration visas. Then she gave me the flowered cotton wrap that she had worn over her suit or dress, when her hairdresser used to come in the morning and said, "Here, Everl, now you can play 'Omutti' and remember me."

When our train rolled into France after a tougher than usual border inspection, I breathed a sigh of relief, but on the whole journey my mother sat in a corner crying, quietly, without a sound, and without stopping. I had never known that anyone could find tears for so many hours.

Under Siege in Lille, France

In France we lived in Lille, and on Saturdays, my father coached the Lilloise, a third-rate soccer team, which he was expected to improve. When summer came, and school closed, I was faced with the ugliness of Lille, and the drabness of our lives as refugees.

Suddenly, France was in the grips of a stupendous hatred of foreigners, wherever they came from. My father lost his job as the coach of the Lilloise, even though they had greatly improved even with his few months of coaching. Now we really had no money and lived from the exchanging of our few gold dollars into paper dollar and then into francs. Because we had no money, we lived in two rooms, two flights above a bar on the Avenue de la Liberte. My parents slept in the bedroom, I slept in the kitchen, and there was no running water in those two rooms.

On September 1, 1939, Hitler invaded Poland, and by September 3, the British and the French had declared war on Germany. At this point, my mother packed our trunk, and we lived out of it.

I went to a school near the bar, and by October,our school gave us each our own gas mask. I looked at mine and saw that it said, "Made in Germany." I did not find that reassuring. I was also less than reassured by the wooden air raid shelters the French were building. But when the German planes finally started to come over Lille, mostly on their way to Britain, and only on clear days, my mother and I used the shelter in the basement across the street. Occasionally, they would drop a bomb on Lille, and we could hear the whistle of the bomb falling and then the silence, and then, the loud explosion. One such bomb fell on the house of the grandmother of a school friend. No one was hurt, but the house went up in flames.

One of the horrors of the war was that we no longer heard from my Omutti. There was no more mail between Austria, or Ostmark, as the Nazis called it, and France. There were plenty of rumors, and whenever any new refugees showed up at that cafe, my mother would ask them about news of Vienna. We heard that my Omutti was still in Vienna, and there were more and more stories about atrocities in the streets, and concentration camps for Jews.

My uncle Kalman wrote from Sweden, suggesting that my parents send me to live with him. I cried and begged my parents not to send me away. "Whatever happens, please let's stay together. Let it happen to all three of us."

By February 1940, my parents were desperate to get out of France. Every day there were more news items in the papers about internment of enemy aliens. All of us were frightened by the more and more frequent air raids. Finally, my father got us a one-month visitors' visa to Portugal.

On the night before we left, my mother packed all our necessities into one old suitcase, and my father packed my beloved children's books into the trunk. "What's happening to the trunk?" I asked.

"Our landlord is letting us keep it in the basement," my mother said.

That's when I cried for the second time since the start of the war. This time, my tears did not help or save my books. My father pulled me on his lap, held me close and tapped my head. "It's what's up here that counts," he said. "We will come back for your books after the war."

I watched my mother sew our gold dollars into the hem of my father's striped terry cloth robe, so we could smuggle our money out of France. She warned me not to say anything at the border, but I already knew that, and at the border to Spain, I just kept looking out of the window of the train compartment.

Stranded in Lisbon

Things did not go as well at the Portuguese border. The Portuguese border guard did not recognize the visa my father showed him. We had to get out at Villa Formosa, where the head border guard let us stay with him, his family, and his goats. I was wearing my first silk knee-highs, my birthday present, when I climbed up the steps to our room, and my knee-highs caught on the rough edges and tore, but that seemed unimportant when we were in danger of being deported to Tangiers.

The next day, there was a soccer game between the Spanish and the Portuguese border guards, and my parents and I went to watch it. The sun was in my eyes, so I raced around the field to stand in the shade. I heard frantic whistling from both sides. It turned out that I had run into Spain.

On our third day in Villa Formosa, Salazar, the dictator of Portugal, prompted by my father's many influential sports fans, sent along a one-month visitors' visa for us, and we went on to Lisbon, not to Tangiers.

Our stay in Lisbon seemed endless. Every single day, I had fresh pineapple, to the point that I swore I would never, ever again eat fresh pineapple, a promise I kept.

One night after we had been in Lisbon for three months my father picked me up out of my bed while I was asleep, and carried me to a car that took us to the pier. There, I heard my mother say, in terror, "That small a ship?" and heard my father say, "No, that one."  I sneaked a peek, and next to the small ship I had seen my mother point to, I saw a tiny little ship.  "But it’s smaller than the little bateau mouche that runs up and down the Seine and never leaves Paris," she said. I squeezed my eyes shut, hearing all the good-byes between my parents and my Uncle Freddie, and I fell asleep again.

Dodging U-Boats

I'm not sure whether it was the sun through the porthole or my mother's moaning that woke me up. On the bunk bed across from me in the cabin, I saw my mother writhe and heard her moan and beg to die. Her cheeks had lost their rosy color; they were all sunken and grayish-white. The door to the cabin opened, and my father staggered in, moving like someone who has had too much to drink.

"What's wrong?" I asked, jumping down from my bunk bed.

"Don't you feel it?" My father asked. I shook my head. "Thank God," he said.

I got dressed and went up on deck. A skinny little Portuguese steward boy with a yellow, pock-marked face followed me. With me using hands and feet, we managed to talk to each other. I found out we were on the San Miguel, a Portuguese cargo ship carrying cork, and on its maiden voyage to the United States. It seemed that my mother and I had the captain's cabin, and my father had the first mate's. The steward also told me that we would stop for a few hours at Santa Maria in the Azores, so I went below to ask my father to take me sightseeing.

He agreed and we went in a tiny whaler with a bunch of sailors, while my mother stayed on board and in bed. Father got us a couple of tiny donkeys that took us up through the small, cobbled streets up the hills between the old houses of Santa Maria. I wanted to go on, but my father said, "It was only through sports fans that we were able to get this passage. I'm not about to miss the boat."

The very first day out of the Azores, it was pouring rain. In the morning, when I woke up, my tummy felt as if I had left it behind in Santa Maria. I felt like throwing up, but I have never been able to throw up, and all that awful feeling stayed inside me.

At night I did not sleep well, not because I was seasick, but because I was desperately worried about the German U-boats, that we had read so much about in the German and French newspapers in the Lisbon coffee houses. They were said to control the Atlantic, and no ship could escape them. So, during the day, I would go up on the deck and look out at the gray, rough ocean, searching for periscopes, so that I could warn the captain. After all, now that he did not sleep in his own cabin, he might be too tired to keep a careful watch on the bridge. The only thing that reassured me about our ocean crossing was that we were carrying cork, and cork floats. I was a very strong swimmer and thought that if our boat were torpedoed, I would swim to one of the floating stacks of cork. I would pull my mother and father up with me, and we would float until we got to land or to a convoy from America.

But, even though I had that escape route in mind, I found the trip interminable. If our stay in Lisbon had seemed endless, our ocean crossing on the San Miguel was more cruelly boring and frightening, without any end in sight. After nearly two weeks of seeing nothing but the gray sea, sometimes calm, more often rough, choppy, wavy or turbulent, we came into a quiet zone of calm ocean, wrapped in a thick, thick fog. It seemed to me that the San Miguel did not move at all. Every hour or so, she let out the mournful sound of her fog horn. I thought we were sitting ducks for the U-boats, and I prayed more often and more multi-lingually than ever before.

At the end of the second day, the fog lifted, and in the distance, but clearly visible, was New York harbor, with even the Statue of Liberty showing. My friend, the little steward, told me that the captain had stood still in New York harbor for two days, because he could not find his way through the fog.

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