A young man's flight
IN THE SUMMER OF 1938, my father (far right) was visiting his relatives in Freudental (and possibly working on the farm). He emigrated to the USA about half a year later. In this photo. Adolf' is just to his left in the back row, standing just behind his father (seated), Moritz Herrmann, my grandmother's brother. Adolf's mother (and Moritz's wife) Sidonie Herrmann, is on Adolf's left. Sidonie's brother is seated on the left, next to his daughter and below his wife.
Of the people shown in this photo, only my father and the neighbor on the far left (who emigrated to New York) survived.
ADOLF HERRMANN was born on June 14, 1923 -- when Adolf was still a popular name for Jewish parents to give their son --in the village of Freudental, Germany.
NOT YET 16, SHAKEN from the brutality of Kristallnacht, Adolf applied for a passport to "North America, Brazil or Argentina." And waited. Meanwhile, the young teacher in Freudental, Simon Meisner, urged him to flee Germany, not to wait for legal passage.
Simon Meisner, who was only 20 in 1933 when he arrived in Freudental to become the teacher of Judaism as well as the cantor who led services in the synagogue, understood the dangers of anti-Semitism only too well. His parents had fled pogroms in Poland after World War I; as a student in Germany he had read Mein Kampf and believed that Hitler would follow through on his threats. At age 25, he helped rescue Adolf's cousin, Suse Underwood, then 12, by making arrangements for her on a Kindertransport that left Germany in January of 1939.
Meisner himself had escaped Germany in February of that year, and though his plan to go to Bolivia was thwarted (his passport had expired), he went to Belgium, hiding as an illegal refugee until, in March of 1939, he obtained a permit and could live legally in Brussels.
SIMON MEISNER TRIED TO PERSUADE his relatives and Jewish friends in Germany to join him or his family in Belgium or in France as illegal refugees. "I had been preaching since 1933 that the end of persecution would be a barbaric mass murder, and have fought for emigration at any price," he wrote in a letter to Suse in 1946.
But only Meisner's mother and Adolf were to take him up on his urgent plea. In April, 1939 -- and very likely with the assistance of escape agents whom Meisner had hired -- Adolf slipped into Belgium as an illegal refugee.
MY FATHER SAW ADOLF for the last time in the summer of 1938, when he had just turned 15. November of that year would bring Kristallnacht, when the Nazis plundered the synagogue next to the Herrmann home, burning the Torah scrolls and prayer books at the soccer field and beating and humiliating Adolf and other Jewish men.
TEACHER AND FRIEND. Adolf Herrmann, on the left, next to his mother Sidonie Herrmann, and his teacher, Simon Meisner, in Freudental. Meisner was to help Adolf escape to Belgium in April of 1939.
"I have witnessed all phases of the great tragedy of many people who were close to me, knowing there was no chance to save them. . .But even in the years 1939, 1940, 1941, when there were ways of salvation, they did not believe me that it is very dangerous for everyone in Hitler's hand. Otherwise, every one in the world would have spent their last cent rescuing siblings or relatives, sacrificed even if in some cases the rescue would be a failure."
APRIL, 1939. JUST A FEW DAYS after his arrival, Adolf registers as a "political refugee" (due to anti-Semitic mistreatment) in the town hall of a Brussels suburb. He indicates (as shown in the documents above) that he has an affidavit for America, a number--10.489--in the U.S. quota for German immigrants, and plans to wait for his hearing in the U.S. consulate in Belgium. And the Jewish Refugee Aid Committee is helping him.
Things seemed to be working out. In May, Adolf receives a temporary permit to stay in Belgium, good until the end of August, 1939. He is still there at the end of September when he registers at Wortel, a reception camp for refugees, perhaps at Simon Meisner's urging. Part of the camp, or colony, is run by the Jewish Refugee Aid Committee, which provides training for emigration, such as language skills, farming and carpentry. In February, 1940, he is transferred to another refugee camp, near the French border.
And in April, 1940 -- one year after Adolf's flight to Belgium -- the good news comes: Adolf receives his U.S. visa from the American consulate in Antwerp. Now, with the support of the committe and Simon Meisner, he can make arrangements for his departure. The Jewish Refugee Aid Committee informs the Belgian police that Adolf can leave Belgium on May 4 "if there is “no obstacle”. The police approve the request.
This chronology, compiled and interpreted by my friend, the German journalist and historian Steffen Pross (who is writing a book about Adolf), is based on documents that both he and I have collected. The story becomes confusing here. The Jewish Refugee Aid Committee, having made the arrangements and paid for Adolf's ticket, closes his file as if he had left Belgium on May 4. Yet on May 9, Adolf is still in Brussels, perhaps waiting to meet his parents there (as they too plan to emigrate to America). But his parents, still in Germany, are unable to leave.
ON MAY 10, 1940, the very day that Germany invades Belgium, Adolf is arrested in the streets of Brussels. Soon after, he is sent with other prisoners on a deportation train to France. There will follow the hideous concentration camps of France. In May, he is in St. Cyprien; in October, Gurs; in February of 1941, Les Milles.
THESE TWO PAGES, HANDWRITTEN by an official who interviewed Adolf at St. Cyprien camp, gave much more detail to his story, and answered what happened in the period between May and October, 1940, information Steffen had been searching for. I waited months (and wrote countless requests) to receive the French documents about Adolf and other relatives; when the copies finally arrived in the mail, I scanned them and sent them to Steffen.
"This is one of these days of schizophrenia," he wrote me, after reading them. "--really satisfying for the researcher and deeply depressing for the human being."
Despite everything -- new affidavits provided by Adolf's relatives in Washington, D.C., money sent by Meisner, the help of refugee aid organizations like HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) and the American Friends Service Committee, Adolf's request to renew his visa or to be released to go to Simon Meisner's sister in St. Suplice, France -- the hope of emigration, so close on May 4, 1940, slowly drains away.
More than one year after his arrest in Brussels, on June 25, 1941, the Vichy Government decrees that refugees from abroad who have entered France after May 10, 1940, may not be released from the internment camps.
"Moreover, the U.S. launched new visa restrictions in Marseille," Steffen explains. "The allocation of a U.S. immigration visa was now dependent on the presentation of a transit visa from Portugal, which itself was dependent on the allocation of a U.S. visa. And Adolf just didn’t have the money to escape. The charge for the voyage from Lisbon to New York increased steadily and culminated at $320 in early 1942."
Suse Underwood, the girl that Simon Meisner rescued with the Kindertransport arrangements, wrote me after reading Steffen's account of Adolf from the newly unearthed documents. She is now 88 and lives in London. "The recent information from Steffen has played on my mind, as I still see Adolf as an early adolescent, which he was when we last met," she wrote. "According to the extract from the official records, on his arrival in Belgium he may already have faced situations which are beyond my imagination and certainly his experience."
ON AUGUST 11, 1942, Adolf was deported from Les Milles to Drancy and from Drancy to Auschwitz.
Convoy 19, made up of 911 Jewish internees from many French camps, included children as young as 5. It arrived in Auschwitz on August 16, and Adolf was one of 115 men selected as slave laborers, prisoner # 53309. All the others were gassed immediately.
Also in August of 1942-- though Adolf wouldn't have known --his aunt Frieda had been gassed in Auschwitz (just days before Adolf's arrival) and Adolf's parents were deported to Theresienstadt. They would be sent to Auschwitz and to their deaths in May of 1944.
Adolf Herrmann was murdered in October, 1942. How he was killed will forever remain a mystery, though Steffen has gone to great lengths to discover the true answer.
There are two death certificates for him. One says he died by a sudden cardiac insufficiency in the early morning of October 3. "Fictitious," Steffen says. Nineteen-year-olds simply didn't die of cardiac arrest; this was a common Nazi euphemism for medical experiments.
Another document says that Adolf was shot trying to escape. "Fictitious as well," Steffen says. Sometimes Nazi guards forced prisoners to run, then shot them, so as to justify their killing.
Yes, even with all the killings, the mass shootings, the burnings, the unbelievable number of gassings -- when it came to a slave laborer, the Nazi bureaucracy still needed a false document to cover the crime.
Simon Meisner, in a letter to Suse Underwood, April, 1946