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Decamping France

By Michel Margosis

During the invasion of Morocco and Algeria in Operation Torch, undertaken by the Allied Forces on the eighth of November 1942, German troops overran the unoccupied zone of France directly. The Nazi military finally and openly occupied the whole of metropolitan France in 1942 because of this new threat from the Allied invasion of North Africa. I found the sound of the Nazi boots marching on the Canebière terrifying, perhaps because the footwear worn by the German infantry were probably Knobelbecher, what are sometimes called jackboots. The standard version of the Knobelbecher in World War II had a leather sole with hobnails and a horseshoe heel.

After the French fleet scuttled itself days later in the naval base of Toulon rather than turning the fleet over to the Nazis, my mother knew that staying on in Marseille—or anywhere in France— would be most hazardous to our safety and our health. Although we were all aware of the frequent small roundups, we could not have even dared to suspect that by that time, 40,000 Jews from France had been deported to Auschwitz via Drancy.

In most German-occupied countries, Jews were herded together into ghettos; but in France and Belgium, they had roundups called rafles. Rafles were, in fact, police operations to gather and arrest people en masse. They basically consisted of sealing both ends of a street so they could identify each individual caught in the net. Those individuals who failed to pass that control were arrested and most likely deported. Because the Germans did not have the necessary manpower to conduct massive rafles by themselves, they used the complicit cooperation of the French police and militia to arrest Jews and other “undesirables.”

Several attacks on the German troops followed their occupation of Marseille that November, and they, in turn, demanded reprisal operations, with the willing participation of the French police force, which executed the arrests and deportation of about 100,000 people to Germany, and the destruction of the “criminal neighborhood.” A few short weeks after we departed from Marseille, a little hell broke loose in the old historic sector where my friend Raphäel lived. The streets of the Vieux Port (Old Port), especially the sector north of Quai du Port called Le Panier (the Basket), were considered most unsafe by the German authorities, so they intended to reshape the whole area. Mandated by Laval, the prefecture of the Bouches-du-Rhône issued a public statement on January 24, 1943, stating, for reasons of military order and to guarantee the safety of the population, the German military authorities officially ordered the French administration to proceed immediately with the evacuation of the north end of the Old Port. For its part, the French administration decided on the grounds of internal security to carry out a vast police operation to rid Marseille of certain elements whose activities posed great risks to the population. 

According to instructions from Himmler, the population would be rounded up and evacuated to concentration camps in the northern zone (particularly in Compiègne), while the district would be torn down by German police with the aid of their French counterparts, then the buildings would be blown up. The Vieux Port was completely sealed and the area was searched house by house. The Germans, accompanied by the French National Police, then organized a roundup of 4,000 Jews and the expulsion of an entire neighborhood: 30,000 people living in older neighborhoods were expelled before the buildings were dynamited; 1,500 buildings were destroyed; 40,000 identities were verified; more than 6,000 individuals were arrested, including several hundred Jews, who were sent to the French internment camps; 782 Jews were deported and exterminated at Sobibor; and 600 “suspects” were deported to Sachsenhausen.

Two hundred inspectors from Paris and elsewhere, 15 companies of Garde Mobiles Réserve (GMR), and squadrons of gendarmes and riot police descended on Marseille to assist the German police, although Le Petit Marseillais on January 30, 1943, said, “Note that the evacuations of the northern district of the Vieux Port were made exclusively by French police . . . ” Those forces dynamited much of the historic old town and the great ferry, or pont transbordeur, transporter bridge. That engineering tour de force, which had become a major landmark of Marseille comparable to the Eiffel Tower in Paris, was destroyed in 1944. Marseille had become the Germans’ main port in the Mediterranean Sea, and they wanted to fortify the city but believed that the French resistance had its stronghold there because of its dark corners and alleys, which were a superior refuge.

The obliteration of Le Panier was accompanied by a big roundup that was, in fact, a device to secure a major source of cheap manpower for the German labor camp, but it also became the beginning of the journey to the death camps for those deemed undesirable.

My mother knew that friends were slowly disappearing even before the arrival of German troops. The Ostreicher family—with two girls, Rose and Mireille, and a boy, Léon, who was elsewhere at the time—just disappeared one day. Historical documents also show that around my birthday of September 1940, a roundup picked most of the Jews in my old neighborhood in Brussels. Another common approach used by the Boches (German soldiers), which was more direct, was for two civilian Gestapo types to knock on the door and ask for papers. If they were not totally satisfied, every occupant of the residence would be removed to their headquarters. The Germans had quietly initiated a program of recruiting young French anti-Communists to fight with them against the Russians and were getting a surprising number of recruits. Many of them had fought with the same Germans and the Italian Fascisti along with Francisco Franco during the Spanish Civil War just a few years earlier.

My mother immediately and unhesitatingly undertook to leave the area as soon as possible. The cash she had accumulated from the black market paid for forged laisser-passer for the four of us, which allowed us to go to a mountain resort in the Pyrenees for “health reasons,” citing that my sister Anna had been afflicted with polio. Later information indicated that between the autumn of 1940 and summer of 1944, the Pyrenees provided major escape routes for thousands of Jews, downed pilots, and many of the Allied military—Belgian, British, Polish, members of the French Resistance, and Gaullist volunteers.

According to Anna, a priest my mother had met during her “business ventures” gave her the name of a colleague to contact on arrival in Toulouse. We planned and decided to ride by rail to Toulouse, with transfer toward the Pyrenees Mountains. And so, on November 11, 1942, we trudged to the Gare St. Charles, each with a light suitcase. I also toted a huge unabridged Larousse dictionary.

As we climbed aboard the train, we noted with apprehension that German soldiers had also boarded, but we guardedly ignored them as we sat down in one of the third-class coach compartments. My siblings and I chatted to one another in our natural voices, which were in the local Southern French dialect; but Mother could not speak French at all except for a few words spoken with a pronounced Russian accent. A short time later, probably to allay suspicion, she began gesturing, pretending to use sign language, and we, of course, carried on with that strategy. At one railroad station, a pair of presumably French civilian secret agents slowly examined our papers and luggage, while cold sweat was trickling down my armpits.

Sometime later, as we still felt quite uneasy, we got off in Toulouse to contact the priest previously recommended to us. He suggested another contact at the southern border village. We received clearance to check in with the Axelrods, and after a splendid roast goose dinner, we uneasily went to sleep until sunup. We scrambled to move on as quietly as possible. We returned to the railroad station, boarded another train, and arrived, without further incident, at the mountain town of Latour-de-Carol, in the department of Pyrénées Orientales, province of Languedoc-Roussillon, near the eastern slope of Andorra.

We stayed at an inn on the outskirts of town and savored the new luxury of quality and quantity of food served there. On the second day of our stay, though, as we had finished our evening meal and stepped out for the refreshing mountain air, two gendarmes approached us and demanded to see our identity papers. As they were handed over and examined, one of the gendarmes turned to my mother and asked softly if we intended to steal over the border. Of course, we denied that was our intention and stated simply that we had accompanied Anna so that she could benefit from the health cures for polio available in the region. As we continued to protest, one gendarme was somehow identified as the contact man named by the priest in Toulouse, and after a quick glance around, he offered to guide us with his partner through the wilderness of the mountains into Spain for the small fee of $10,000 in American currency per individual or $40,000 for the family. I do not know if there was any haggling, but with hope and shaky confidence—and seeing no better alternative—Mother accepted the offer.

We returned to the room at the inn to pack the few effects we still possessed and met with the guides about an hour after dusk that same evening. We were advised to dress warmly, as we were to trek through wintry weather in snow and woods. I was still witlessly toting that prized heavy unabridged Larousse dictionary that I had acquired in Marseille strapped to my belt. We also pocketed chocolate and grape sugar to provide quick energy if and when needed during the trek in the mountains.

At about ten o’clock on the evening of November 26, the six of us met about 100 yards behind the dimly lit hotel, and Mother turned the money over to the gendarmes. It was really cold, but we then launched what I thought might turn out to be an adventurous and perilous journey toward the safer haven of Spain. One of the gendarmes took the lead by stepping into the dark and striding toward the woods as we followed, one by one, barely able to see what we were plodding on. The other gendarme closed the line at first, but after an hour or so, he joined the leader, and they both cleared the path ahead. We trod and climbed on dirt, snow, and damp leaves through the woods and occasionally found and briefly followed a path and even a blacktop road at one point.

After several hours, as we kept climbing into deeper snow, we heard distinct barking and a German’s voice tossing invectives and commands to dogs. Apparently, either the new French establishment wanted to prevent illicit border crossings or the Spanish had reinforced their border guards to better safeguard their military noninvolvement. We froze in our tracks, and after a brief dialogue, our guides turned about 90 degrees and began a steeper climb. The noises of civilization grew fainter and finally died as we furtively moved at a fair pace. We were one step closer to freedom.

©2017, Marcel Margosis. The text, images, and audio and video clips on this website are available for limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only, or for fair use as defined in the United States copyright laws.