Adolf Moritz Steinschneider Archiv

francais english

In April 1938, Eva Reichwein, together with her and Steinschneider's daughter Marie-Louise (called "Musch"), followed Adolf-Moritz Steinschneider from Frankfurt into exile in Paris, where he was after a sojourn in Switzerland. After France declared war on the Third Reich on 3rd September 1939, political refugees and Jews who had fled to France from Germany were treated as enemy German nationals by the French. Steinschneider was, like thousands of refugees, interned for security reasons in various camps, first at Villerbon near Blois (Loire-et-Cher), later Montmorillon and in Montlucon.
When France was overrun by German troops in 1940, the panicky flight of the military and civilians to the South of France began. Adolf-Moritz, who was at Montlucon, and Eva Reichwein and Musch, who were in Blois, were each able to flee to the South of France by a different route. The town of Bellac, where Steinschneider wrote the following letter, would be the exile of the family for the next 4 years.
The letter, written between the 10th and 15th of August, 1940, was addressed to Frieda Kätzler (known as "Pütt" or "Fite"), the mother of Steinschneider's son Stefan (called "Abbi"), who was living in Switzerland.

[- Intoduction above slightly rewritten from the German version by the translator to facilitate comprehension by those more removed in time and space from these events.]

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Bellac, 10-15/8/40


…Now I would like to report to you and Äbbchen about my interesting adventures, which will make him jealous. Of course, I can understand that. In the opinion of yours truly, a human born under an unbelievably lucky star, I have survived all the terrors, somehow well guided, like a sleepwalker, free and easy, unwounded, nearly without any physical effort, calm, unmolested, never having seen a machine gun or a bomb, or even heard one.
However concerning Eva and Musch, the bomb that hit the highway about 50 to 100 meters away from them will not be an enviable memory. Musch had already started to cry and jumped off the bicycle (as Eva told me later). Eva kept calm; both of them escaped uninjured. When I met them, they looked pitiable, small, thin, ill and burned out. And that was not due to the shortage of food. At the moment they are hemmed in again. Eva has always had a weak heart, which, ever since I was obliged to leave them, has caused me to worry a lot about her.

So now the great escape, which brought me from Montlucon to the Pyrenees in 5 days.

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As a boy I often had a nightmare: that the whole of Europe was flooded by a huge wave coming form the North Sea and the Baltic that stopped just at the Alps, or some kind of a mountain range. It was as high as a castle, and you could not [inserted later] escape. (You see that I just forgot the "not".) I managed, obviously, to save myself in my dream. You could call this a presentiment - in any case a dream and imagination - that so often appeared, and [the reality] turned out in the event to be nearly like that dream.
This was the reality: It was on 18th June in the evening. For the last 3 days, whole convoys passed by on the highway below. At times it was blocked by all sorts of cars. Then again there were troops, trains, Red Cross columns, cars with entire households of goods piled on top, mattresses, prams, toys, inside people with worried expressions, or, due to their exhaustion, no expression at all. Children lay on pillows and slept.
In endless queues they waited patiently for hours at the petrol stations. Camions [huge lorries], filled with women and children, babies, unbelievable, a modern migration of nations, then more troops, motorized units of all kind. At first they were coming from the Netherlands, out of Belgium, then from Lille. At the beginning you occasionally saw a few elegant cars driving in the opposite direction. Those came from Nice, Menton, from the Riviera.
But then they were coming from Paris, and the stream was rising and rising and rising. Then suddenly they were arriving from Orléans, 200 km away, then from Moulins, 100 km away. They came from Alsace. From everywhere, it seemed.
There were rumours floating around all afternoon: That they [the Germans-Trans. N.] were already in Moulin. They had fired on some of our people who were coming from N., and arrested some of them. That Blois was being bombed by planes. That they were coming from the north, in the direction of Lyon, but also from east in the direction of Bordeaux. That they must be just 60 km or 20 km from M. What is 60 km or 20 km by plane or even by car? [J'ai changé l'ordre d'avion et voiture parce qu'avec "even", c'est la seul order logique. …"60 ou 20 km ne sont rien para avion, meme en voiture…]
And still no "Order" to leave, although the Sixth was lying in the barracks, prepared and ready to depart. The previous night, a few of the troops who felt particularly threatened, had fled. AWOL. After all, it was a matter of their lives. The captain said nothing. During the day, he stopped a few people who wanted to leave, but they ran off anyway, across the fields. In the evening - we were told - a motorized patrol was getting close to M. In the meantime the citizens of M[ontlucon] had started to evacuate. The whole town. And was the garrison actually still there?

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And the General Staff? Did they intend to abandon us, as they had at N (and at other times and in other places as well)? Again and again we made sure there were still lights burning in the barracks. At 20:00 hours [8 p.m.], I decided I had waited long enough. It was a very dark night. Another 10 people took off.
One of our men was lying there exhausted.. His wife had come to be with him. But she had been arrested by the gendarmes. He had not been able to find her. The Capt. was looking after him. The woman had already been released and he could leave with her immediately.
So I shouldered my load and also left. I had only what remained of my belongings in a single sack. But it was still very heavy. I left behind a uniform I didn't need. Below on the Highway, it was dark. There the woman was, wandering about, desperately waiting for her husband. I told her about him. The 10 [who had gone AWOL-Trans. N.] were marching in front of me at double quick step. I could not catch up with them, so I let them go. The Highway now was rather desolate.
So they were all gone, and I was walking between the two waves of fleeing and approaching people. Often there were cars standing still. People sleeping inside. Or they had run out of petrol. I saw some lying in the ditch beside the Highway, driven there by drivers who had fallen asleep. Partially overturned. One burnt out. Where were the passengers? There was a huge trailer-truck. Crying women, screaming children, arguing men all around. The driver refused to drive on. Did he want more money? Was he out of petrol, had the truck broken down? It seemed it had no lights. I stood there for a long time, in the hope that they would eventually continue on and I could join up with them. But finally they decided to stay and went to a farm nearby.
I crept on, the sack weighing me down, the moon rising. I went down the Highway between wide, empty fields. Now I saw, on the side of the road, in the ditches, in the fields, countless people lying there. They looked like corpses. But they were people like me, who had fled on foot and could go no farther. They had just collapsed, and so they lay there and slept, or sat there and gazed at you apathetically, unprepared for whatever would come next. Now and

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then somebody overtook me or I overtook him. The moon was full and it was calm, very mysterious. It might have been around midnight. How far had I actually walked? 3, 4, 5 km? Now there were three soldiers ahead of me. They were walking very slowly, marching in step. They were not wounded. But they carried no weapons.
Perhaps they had travelled a hundred km, walking like that for days. I could keep pace with them. That was good. I walked in step behind them. Nobody turned round, nobody spoke a word. We walked about an hour. A civilian was now walking in front of them. Suddenly one of them said he wanted a drink.
The other took out his canteen and asked, if somebody had a quart (that is a kind of mug made of metal) [French quart, probably a ¼-? mess-kit mug, not an English "quart"-Trans. N.] Everybody was silent. Then I said aloud, but as if in a dream "I have a quart". All 4 of them turned round. Then they took the quart and the one with the canteen divided the wine among the 5 of us. Each man received exactly one fifth of the wine. Everybody drank, nobody talked.
I went on, alone again. I wondered where Fite [another nickname for Friederike-Pütt, the addressee of the letter] and Äbbchen were now, where Eva and Musch were; were they were still alive? (I had not had any news from Eva for 2 weeks.) Am I still alive myself or is this all just a horrid vision in a dream? I cannot exactly remember what happened then. It was pure coincidence that this road had not been strafed that night. The company that marched along there 12 hours later was heavily attacked.
I remember that I was with some soldiers on a hill over which the highway ran, and that someone said that that was the best place to jump on a truck, because that was where they would drive most slowly. That had not occurred to me, that it was very difficult to jump onto a moving vehicle and that no vehicle that might come along now would stop. The soldiers were all waiting. There were really huge trucks crawling uphill now, full of war materiel and troops.
The people waiting tried to jump up on the back, before the engine had sped up again, but they were roughly pushed off by the people who were already standing on board. "No more room!" It was like the fighting for places in the lifeboats on a sinking ship. I just stood there, unable to run or jump on with my heavy sack. At this moment, a huge truck came up, a straggler, passing very close to me, and, there was nobody on the wide fender (= "wing" in GB-Trans. N.) or the running board of another truck it was towing behind.

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With my last strength I threw the sack up, jumped on and was safe! Two seconds later the engine accelerated again and the huge vehicle raced downhill. I installed myself, as well as I could, standing on the narrow jolting perch, leaning against the door of the cab and keeping hold of the door handle (this trailer was actually itself a truck that was being towed by the truck in front), or, if you could cram yourself onto the curved fender and the engine bonnet [= "hood" in US-Trans. N.], you could even sit, if necessary.
And so I sat there for 36 hours. Later when I heard the stories of the others [who were riding on the truck], I realized how lucky I had been. There were people, who had walked hundreds of km, who had been shot at, who had no more shoes on their feet or had become footsore, who were ill or half-starved, not to mention the wounded (civilians) and those who did not survive.
That there had been any vehicle at all, that there was an empty place, that I had been able to jump on, that this vehicle had fuel for a few hundred km, and that it had taken a road that was not under fire, at least not that night and the following day, was a strange cluster of luck. Later a young soldier also jumped on.
Then we stopped once; one of the drivers came from the front and demanded that one of us get off again, because the vehicle was overloaded on the right side. That was nonsense, of course. We stayed on board.
The vehicle stopped beside a small town, G. It was very cold. I walked about in the cold for an hour. We could not enter as an air raid warning had been reported. The little soldier had dropped into the ditch and gone to sleep immediately. I spread a blanket over him. At about 4 we drove on southward. The sun rose. It was a little warmer. We joined the swarm of cars and reached the mountains, le plateau massif au centre d[e] l[a] Fr[ance] (le Massif central).

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The little soldier suddenly disappeared, seeming to have reached his destination. I sat alone again. Got to know the men riding in the cab of the rear truck. They were Alsatians fleeing from Bar le Duc, on their way to La Rochelle, to the west, on the way to Bordeaux. Both vehicles were filled with the household goods of many families. Workers of a porcelain reproduction factory.
We came into the nicely situated town of A., a little inland bathing place. Elegant gents stood around the fountain shaving, ditto the ladies performing their toilette. All around the market place, countless elegant private cars . I made myself useful.
As we were nearing the mountains and often had to drive up and down on steep roads, the truck being towed often slid to the edge of the slope or ditch, not because I was sitting on the front of it, but because it was very difficult for the driver to steer and to slow the heavy vehicle down.
Every time there was a lurch, the rope that held the two vehicles together came loose. Then I would jump off, pick up the rope, and help to tie it again. It was getting warm. Often we overtook divisions of troops or were overtaken ourselves. My strange uniform, light rubber raincoat, plus a shawl, blue gaiters and a brown beret (like a hunter in the Alps), often attracted attention and prompted questions. Mostly I was thought to be a cavalryman. The weather was warm and nice, the journey through the mountains actually beautiful. I also had some provisions: bread and butter.
We drove on and on with nothing happening. We were getting close to Limoges, but bivouacked outside a town. I got to know the "citizens" of this travelling house. I ate the rest of my provisions. We were in a little village. There was nothing to buy except a little bit of chocolate and some cheese. I slept well in the pouring rain, underneath the truck on which I had travelled.
The next morning, my 46th birthday, we drove into Limoges with very good weather. I now had the choice to drive on toward Bordeaux, or to get off and register again with the military to straighten out my status. There were rumours everywhere: cease-fire, encroachment to Bordeaux from the north, preparation of an air attack, etc.

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When I reached Limoges, I did not know that Eva and Musch had also arrived here, travelling from Blois, 2 days and 2 nights by bicycle or on trucks. I went to the barracks and registered as isolé [detached from unit]. I was housed with 1000 others from all different forces.
Then suddenly there was an air raid warning. Instead of going into the air-raid shelter, we were led to a huge roofed riding arena, all of us, even the officers and a priest [(military chaplain), so t]heir intentions could not have been bad. Still, we were uncomfortable about it. There was only one exit, the windows were out of reach and barred, lots of straw and hay lay inside; a hit by only one incendiary bomb would have been enough to kill 1000 people.
Just then the commander of the barracks appeared, released the officers and the priest, ordered the rest of us to move further back. It seemed he had something to tell us. At the same time, armed men in steel helmets took positions at the entrance. This turn of events I did not like at all. It did not seem that the others did either. They started to grumble loudly and mutter, everybody all the while pushing toward the entrance.
The commander stood there all alone. I was very much reminded of that scene in the [film] Battleship Potemkin. Then, at that moment, the alert ended and they all calmed down. The commander finally had his say: he complained about the total lack of obedience and discipline, which had become habitual, saying "just ask the chaplain", who would surely agree that obedience was the most important thing. The chaplain nodded in agreement, accompanying the nod with a smile.
At which point somebody whistled. The commander just said, sadly: "maintenant il y a encore quelqu'un qui siffle." ["Even now somebody is still whistling!", in Europe an indication of contempt equivalent in the US to booing or a "Bronx cheer".-Trans. N.] He said he just wanted to say that we should be patient for about an hour, that we would soon be transported, that he just wanted to choose the drivers.
To our surprise, it turned out to be true and an hour later we were transported toward the south, in 100 comfortable new Red Cross vehicles equipped with padded leather seats,

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always 10 men to a car. A little Polish-Jewish Legionnaire had joined me. We came to Perigueux, which we were not allowed to enter because of overcrowding; we turned left, toward the south, into the mountains. The rumours of an armistice intensified, but it was dependent on consent from Rome.
In the afternoon our whole column of 100 vehicles stopped on a high plateau in Lussac. We lay on a meadow in the warm sun, washed our clothes in a brook. Suddenly the familiar drone of 2 enemy planes was heard. Flew over us, disappeared, returned 10 minutes later with 10 planes. All of us rushed under trees, bushes and brush. They flew over us, made an elegant loop, flew over us again and disappeared again. I do not know, whether the red crosses visible on the roofs of the cars, had saved us by some exception, or if it was just that the truce had finally been negotiated.
We stayed overnight in some farmhouse there. As my digestion had collapsed, I took every available laxative, ate unripe fruit, a big onion and - what refreshment! - the first green vegetable - lettuce - in weeks. The next morning I had relief, but I felt quite sick. I had a terrible stomach-ache and had to stay there, where I had slept, lying on a broad wooden farm loft. The women outdid themselves. There were also refugee families from Alsace, who had arrived before us. Now they at least had a real invalid, who had come with the famous transport. One brought me coffee, one tea, one cognac, one soup, one mashed potatoes. But I quickly felt better and therefore had to disappoint them.

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I obtained a pass to go with the little Legionnaire as far south as we could. I left the compassionate women, who became emotional when I left them my heavy sack containing things I did not need, such as blankets, linen, cookware, books, etc., and set out with the little Pole. We had the luck to catch a supply truck, which brought us to the next railway station. 3 hours later a freight train came through.
We settled ourselves on board as well as we could, and then rode (and that is why Abbi will regret that he was not there, and I also regret it) the whole evening in the brakeman's cab through high, desolate mountain areas. The Massif central is much broader than I had previously thought.
High viaducts, tunnels, steep grades, bridges etc. But we just had one eye on the scenery and the other fearfully scanning the sky for planes. We feared that the sealed coaches contained munitions. If you fall from a viaduct on a munitions train there is not much left. Night fell; we were much shaken..
We moved into an open carriage, where there was a lot of straw; other soldiers and refugees also lay there. We slept. We woke up. The train did not move. It was the darkness of Egypt. The train was standing in a huge switching yard. In the darkness, over the rails, between the rows of trains, stumbling over cables, we finally reached an illuminated platform.
It was the Agen junction. An endless, overcrowded express train stood there. We climbed into a second class compartment, found a spot on the floor, definitely safe. Next morning we arrived in Toulouse. There we finally saw what was happening. That was the southern centre of the whole migration of refugees. The whole station, the courtyard, the streets, had become one big campground: railway carriages, beds, blankets, automobiles, people of every race, age, uniform, indescribable. The whole station full of notices posted by people, who were searching for their parents or friends,

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reporting their whereabouts, whom they had lost, whom they were searching for. Heartbreaking little notes, each one a catastrophe. I went to the Jewish community's building, it was closed. There was a nice elderly lady standing in front. She talked to me. She was looking for her two sons, twins, asked if I could not tell her anything about them.
What were their names? She told me a familiar name: my own. She was the wife of a cousin of my father's from Vienna whom I had met when I was 10. They were very rich merchants in Vienna. I went with her to the hotel, greeted my father's cousin once again after 30 years; he gave an impression of reduced circumstances, but could still live in the best hotel in town.
In a generous way he invited me to have a cup of coffee (without milk or sugar) and offered me ten French francs. In a kind way he remembered the error of my parents, who had served him and his father a goose "à la manière de Prague" on their visit to Berlin in 1910, but that this experiment had been unsuccessful, since geese would have been prepared quite differently in Prague. I made an appointment to meet his wife once more the next day in front of the Jewish community building. The rabbi refused to talk to the refugees.
Instead we met a young Viennese lawyer, whom I had known slightly in Paris-Colombes on September 3, (1939), the day of our internment. He was engaged to a Viennese lady, daughter of a lawyer, and both she and her father also bore my name, distant relatives, but I do not know them. He was desperately seeking his fiancée, who would have fled from Orléans during the most difficult days. He was with the impressed labour brigade, who had been dispatched by the English in a convoy of 15 huge trucks and about 900 men, which had arrived in a small village near Toulouse, where they bivouacked, and might drive on at any moment. He asked, if I would like to go with him and join him. I was very glad, because that was nearly the only possibility for getting to the south from there.

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I stayed in Toulouse until evening. Of every 10 people you asked for directions, 9 would have just arrived themselves and also wanted to know the way. I did not know that the last electric tram to this village 6 km away would depart at 7 o'clock. At 8 o'clock I found one last tram heading in the approximate direction. Anyway, I took it. On the way, a farmer from Toulouse, whom I asked the way. He did not understand a word. I did not understand him either. He made gestures, laughed, chattered and it was suddenly clear to me that he was amused by the huge backside of the lady conductor and wanted me to join him in his mirth. When a citizen of Paris talks to a farmer from Toulouse, it is just like us Berliners trying to talk to a farmer from Mecklenburg."Ick bin en tofräden Minsch". "I am a satisfied man."
I got off, was given directions, found the street. I had to cross a river somewhere. A thunderstorm poured down on me. Night was falling, I was heavily loaded. I was wandering in what was for me a completely unknown area. Had no more money. When leaving, I had left our joint travel permit with the Pole. He was surely already gone. If I could not find the column now in the darkness…. But I found it. In a daze. It was still there. It was leaving the next morning at 6 o'clock. With much effort I found a place on one of the vehicles, each loaded with 50 people and huge amounts of luggage.
Vehicles, provisions, uniforms, marvellous equipment, they had got everything from the English, partly issued, partly requisitioned, when the English had fled headlong to the coast. They did not tire of praising the provisions, the comfort, the tidiness and the care, and I must also say, after all that I have gone through, it was understandable! I have written to you only a sketch.

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I was just happy that I had escaped that slave camp alive. What must Cayenne or Fr. Congo be like! We drove on another day, reached the foothills of the Pyrenees. Then we bivouacked. After 2 days we received our certificate of discharge.
I hitchhiked with the Viennese lawyer to Gurs, the notorious [French] women's camp, where all German women, also the wives of labour conscripts, volunteer legionnaires, etc. (!) were imprisoned. He was looking for his fiancée and I thought I could perhaps find Eva and Musch there. I met a lot of acquaintances. Eva was not there. I found out that she was in Limoges. His fiancée was not there either.
There were people, looking for their wives, who had been there 3, 4 days, who were being told that their wives were not there, but they found them after all. But he did not find his fiancée. 5000 women were still there. We stayed for 3 days. While we were there, the enemy appeared (…) in the middle of the unoccupied zone.
As I stood on the village road of Gurs one evening, I saw two German officers passing in their car, I had an unpleasant feeling. The next day they came with 40 buses and fetched the German women who wanted to return to Germany.
They were Alsatians, weeping when they heard that they would not return to Alsace, but would be interned in a re-education camp. There were Jews, who had had enough of Gurs, who wanted to return to Germany, but who were refused. There were women hysterically yelling "Heil Hitler" and others, also hysterical, who replied "Down with them." Then there a scene that must have been embarrassing, when a German officer explained to the French commander that they would not have treated even their Jews in Dachau as the French had the German women.
The next day they would transport the Germans and the Jewish refugees from the Dax internment camp at Bordeaux to Gurs in the unoccupied zone. The next day I parted with the Viennese - he was very sad - and hitchhiked to Limoges, where I really did find Eva and Musch.

That was the story of the memorable escape.

[Translated from the German by S.Muzster with the assistance of David M. Fishlow, Washington DC, USA, a distant relative of Adolf-Moritz´s mother Léopoldine, née Fischlowitz.]