You are now entering the Jewish Currents archive.

How Varian Fry Rescued My Elders

July 2, 2013

by David Meyerhof

varian-fryBoth of my parents escaped Nazi Germany and survived the Holocaust. My grandparents, too, managed to escape and survive. Their stories deserve to be told separately, though there are connections among them.

My father, Walter Meyerhof, was a professor of physics at Stanford University for forty-three years. He passed away seven years ago. He wrote three books, one of which was his autobiography, In the Shadow of Love: Stories from My Life (Fithian Press, 2002).

“Hitler came to power in 1933,” he wrote. “. . . When a teacher entered the classroom, we had to stand up and give the Nazi salute saying ‘Heil Hitler.’ I just moved my lips and did not say anything.

“By the end of 1933, a Hitler Youth Group had formed at the school. One very tall boy, whom I can still recognize from a class photo, was their leader. He asked me why was I at ‘their’ school and said that ‘they’ would beat me in gym class if I persisted in coming. I felt terrorized and turned to my older brother, who was in his last year in the Gymnasium, for protection. He said he could not help me.

“In music class, I once kept singing my part of a canon at the wrong time. The teacher got so mad that he came up to me and slapped my face so hard that my nose bled. When my parents complained to the principal the next day, he indicated that he was powerless because the music teacher was a member of the Nazi party.”

My father went to college in Paris. During that time, the French implemented a “Surrender on Demand” policy, which meant that all Germans, regardless of their status, had to turn themselves over to the French authorities. Of course, it was primarily German Jews who were caught, including my father.

He wrote: “[A]ll males 17 to 65 and all females 17 to 56 had to assemble on May 15 and bring with them a blanket, clothing and food for a few days. All males in Paris had to assemble in a sports stadium, called Stade de Colombes. Soon the toilets overflowed. People relieved themselves next to the toilets and the stench of the sewage became unbearable. The situation was inhumane.

“I was assigned to an army camp at Chambaran. I remember that a soldier hit me in the face because he thought I did not climb into the bus quickly enough.”

The village to which they were assigned was 300 miles south, so they had to march. “We were told that we would march only at night, because German fighter planes were strafing roads in France on which they saw moving objects. . . . I had a constant fear that a German army unit might overtake us. I thought I would end up in a German concentration camp, if I had a document on me which showed I was Jewish. My German passport had a large ‘J’ stamped on it. After a couple of nights of marching and thinking about this, I decided to fling it into the bushes, not foreseeing the difficulties my new ‘statelessness’ would cause me in the future.”

After three nights of marching, the group arrived at the village of Le Cheylard, where the commanding officer requisitioned the village school to turn it into a detention camp. There my father noticed that the gate in the back of the school was unguarded. He decided to venture out to the local vineyards and eventually into the village itself. No one bothered him.

“As he did every day after lunch, the sergeant bellowed out the names of the seventy-odd camp inmates. When he called ‘Meyerhof,’ a voice answered ‘Present’ — except it was not mine, but that of my painter friend Max Kaiser whom I had asked to answer for me. I was already at the train station in Valence, having taken the bus from the village of Le Halyard early in the morning. I had escaped by an unguarded gate in the back of the village school where we were interned.”

My father made his way to the Hotel Splendide in Marseille, where his parents had taken a room. That was the location where his parents would meet Varian Fry, the man who would rescue them and their son, along with 2,000 other Jews. They told my father to return to the camp in time for roll call. They were getting forged papers for him, and Fry, they said, would get him out safely.

Varian Fry was a Unitarian from the United States who was given a list of 100 prominent Jewish intellectuals to rescue from the Nazis. As word got out about an American who could save refugees, the list quickly grew to 2,000. He set up his ‘office’ in a room in the Hotel Splendide, but there was a secret room in the back where new identities were created, papers were forged, and escape routes planned. (To view a website about Varian Fry that my father established, click here.)

My father was then asked to find a path for these refugees from France across the Pyrenees to Spain and eventually Portugal. On September 6, 1940 he and two friends set off to find that path. “We each carried only an aluminum water bottle and some sandwiches in a bag slung over the shoulder, as if we were going on a hike,” he wrote. “The sun was very hot as we made our way along fields and vineyards in a direction the Fittkos thought should lead to Spain. One hill followed another, and as it became late afternoon, we thought we would finally reach the frontier if we could just make it through the forest up the next hill. We had not stopped to rest and were very tired.

“Suddenly two French border police (gendarmes) came out of the woods and asked us what we were doing so close to the border. They asked us for identification and saw that we were Germans. Since I spoke better French than the Fittkos, I said that we lived in Banyuls and were just hiking. They did not believe me and said they would take us to the gendarmerie in Cerbere. I pleaded with them to let us go, that we were German refugees and wanted to get to Spain to escape the Gestapo. ‘You can tell that to our lieutenant. Come with us and don’t try to escape or we will shoot you,’ they replied.

“It took about half an hour to reach the police station. The lieutenant was completely unsympathetic and said, ‘We will take you to the court in Perpignan (the main district town) on Saturday. You can tell your story to the judge.’ We were taken to the prison cells for men and women. There were piles of straw to sleep on. For the evening meal, we were given a bit of black bread and a brown brew they called coffee. We had not eaten since lunchtime. That night was the one time in my life I prayed to God to save me. I was sure the judge would have us jailed and that eventually I would end up in the hands of the Gestapo.

“Around noon the next day, the gendarmes took us to a restaurant. Since it was a nice day, we sat outdoors on picnic benches. When I looked around, I recognized the same customs officer with whom my father and I had talked a couple of weeks earlier. He sat at another table, not far from ours. Since we were under guard, I could not go to him, but suddenly I had an idea.

“Public toilets in France lacked toilet paper . . . so before leaving Banyuls, I had stuffed some into my back pocket . . . The paper was very stiff, but better than nothing. Turning away from my guard, I wrote on a piece of toilet paper: ‘Please contact my parents and tell them we have been jailed in Cerbere. On Saturday, we will be taken before the judge in Perpignan,’ Our meal was soon over, and when we left, I crumpled up the paper and threw it on the ground, looking at the customs officer and gesturing toward the paper.

“On Saturday morning, we were driven to Perpignan. Arriving in the courtroom, I was completely overwhelmed when I saw my parents there. While we were waiting our turn, they told me that the customs officer had brought them the piece of toilet paper. The immediately went to see the mayor of Banyuls. He phoned the judge, whom he knew well (both had been members of the Socialist Party) and told him our story.

“When our case came up, a gendarme explained that the Fittkos and I had been caught close to the border, trying to leave France illegally, without exit visas. The judge then said to the gendarme, ‘Thank you for your presentation,’ and, turning to us, said, ‘You are free to go.’ It was unbelievable.”

It would be another ten months before my father was able to attain the papers and work out a way to get to Spain and reach Portugal. All of this was done through the help of Varian Fry. Then my father would find a boat, a small freighter, to take him to the United States. The boat took two weeks to reach New York, going on a zigzag route to avoid the U-boats. It was sunk a year later.

“My father suffered from Parkinson’s during the last years of his life. During the last two months of his life, I wrote a poem almost every night. I would wake up at 3 or 4 in the morning and write. Then I could go back to sleep. This is one of those poems:

meyerhofPoem to My Father

Is the rain washing away the tears or

Is it creating more tears?

Are we breaking our hearts or

Are we having our hearts broken?

Down the gullies,

Through the forest,

Washing, washing, taking away our sorrows?

Do we know what we see, hear, taste, smell, or touch?

Can we be part of this beautiful world,

Or must we carry this heaviness throughout our lives?

Are we facing reality in front of our faces or

Are we running from what will catch us in the end?

Life is precious as every single drop of rain,

Every grain of sand,

Every star in the sky,

Every leaf on the tree,

And every soul on this planet.

20030811006x180Now, my grandfather, Otto Meyerhof, was a world-famous scientist who won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1922. He basically discovered how sugar is converted into energy in the human body.

A 2012 book about my grandfather (Hofmann, Ulbrich-Hofmann, and Hohne, Otto Meyerhof and the Exploration of Glycolysis-Outstanding Research in an Inhumane Era) notes that in 1935 “all Jews in Germany were deprived of civil rights and on December 31, 1935, Otto Meyerhof lost his professorship at Heidelberg University. He was allowed to continue as director of the Institute of Physiology at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Medical Research (until the anti-Jewish pogrom of 1938).”

In that role, he protected his staff from Nazi persecution, and employed young Jewish men and women illegally as members of his staff. Through his persistence, two who were communists were released from political imprisonment and returned to work at the Institute.

The authors of Otto Meyerhof document that in 1935 the leader of the Nazi-controlled university teacher’s organization wrote to the rector of the university: “Professor Meyerhof is 100 percent Jewish and in the last few months has become increasingly active politically. There is evidence of not only scientific but also political contacts which he has with foreign countries. Therefore, Professor Meyerhof is highly dangerous, and an offer of an appointment from abroad offers an ideal opportunity to be rid of him. Despite his fame abroad, he is likely to vanish in the mass of other emigrants.”

The Heidelberg Nazi party organization also wrote: “it would be generally unacceptable for a cultural center such as the Kaiser Wilhelm Research Institute to come even temporarily under the leadership of a Jew. The available documents which speak against Professor Meyerhof unfortunately cannot be substantiated, because Meyerhof’s staff refuses to bear witness against him under oath.”

On November 29, 1938, about three weeks after Kristallnacht, my grandfather was dismissed as Director of the Institute of Physiology of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute. By then, he, his wife Hedwig, and their three children had already escaped from Germany. But escaping from Vichy France proved extremely difficult. Arrangements were made through Varian Fry to escape by foot across the Pyrenees to Spain. This description of the escape comes from my father’s letter:

They were to go to a hotel in the neighborhood and take a room there and the smuggler would get them shortly after midnight. Just a small handbag was all that was allowed as far as luggage was concerned. There were two or three other persons in my parents’ party. They went in a single file and were not permitted to talk. As they approached the borderline, they once had to hide in the bushes because the smuggler thought he heard someone coming. After that, everybody had to take off their shoes until they were in Spain. Then the guide showed them the way to the Spanish border control house and left them. This was early in the morning. The Spanish border officers were extremely arrogant and generally returned people to France if they did not have a French exit visa, although they had a Spanish visa. People without Spanish visas were jailed. On that Sunday, too, when my parents had to wait in line to be examined, everybody was returned to France. By pure coincidence, though, an American vice consul was passing through Spain in his car and happened to stop at this border patrol house. My mother begged him to influence the Spanish officer on their behalf and the vice consul did what he could. When my parents were called in to the officer, he refused to let them pass. Indeed, he refused about twenty times whilst my mother tactfully and insistently invoked all arguments from the United States to the Nobel Prize. Then suddenly the officer said they could pass. My parents went to Barcelona by train and rested for a few days. From Madrid they flew to Lisbon and there were no further difficulties.

My grandparents sailed from Lisbon on October 16, 1940 and arrived in New York on October 25. My grandfather was offered a position sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation at the University of Pennsylvania. “Whatever happens,” he said, “they can never reach our souls.” My grandfather went on to make more discoveries from his work in the United States. In all he wrote or collaborated on over 400 papers. He was the youngest (38 years old) recipient of a Nobel Prize in recent history.

My mother Miriam survived the Holocaust. She is 92 and lives in Menlo Park, California. About a year ago she fell and broke her hip. Since then, though it has healed, she has 24-hour care. She stills reads everyday but does not leave the house except for doctor’s appointments.

When my mother was 17, she was in training to become a nursery school teacher. She was living in an apartment in Berlin. One night in November, 1938, the young men living next door to her told her not to go out. That night was Kristallnach, when the Nazis attacked every Jewish person walking on the street, threw over 30,000 Jewish people in concentration camps, and smashed every window in every Jewish home, school, business, and synagogue so that the ground was filled with so much glass it looked like crystals. Within three weeks my mother was able to go on the Kindertransport to England to safety and a new life. During World War II she took care of young children in Anna Freud’s Children’s Center in London.

Here is a poem I wrote about my mother:

My Mother

As the glass shattered,

Lives were scattered.

Survive is what mattered

Even with souls battered.

She was seventeen.

It was time to leave.

The list of what she could take --

Fill two suitcases -- make no mistake.

The boat of life

To escape the strife,

To begin anew

With so much to do.

Seventy-four years have passed.

The memories will always last.

We must strive

To keep alive

All we have learned, all we know

And teach the world how to grow.

Our words must carry weight

To proclaim our fate.

So let us all do our part,

And give our hearts

To the people.

David Meyerhof was a teacher for thirty-three years in the Los Angeles Unified School District, teaching math and science to sixth-grade honors students at Florence Nightingale Middle School in Highland Park. Since his retirement two years ago, he has been writing poetry and has published his first book, Look Beyond.