Start of Main Content

Leaving Nazi Germany

By Harry Markowicz

In 1938, my family was living in Berlin while the Nazis were intensifying the repression and violence against Jews. Late that summer, my father took my two siblings on a train to Aachen, a spa city near the borders of Belgium and the Netherlands. My sister, Rosi, was ten years old and my brother, Mani, was a year younger. I was just one year old, so my mother and I stayed home. During the train ride, Rosi shared with Mani what she had overheard at home: this was not a vacation as they had been told. As a matter of fact, they were going to Aachen to cross the border into Belgium.

They stayed in a hotel in Aachen several days while my father tried to locate a smuggler. Late one afternoon, he took Rosi and Manfred to the lobby of another hotel where 30 to 40 people of all ages were gathered, too many for one trip. However, everyone was eager to leave, so the smuggler—a German woman—agreed to take them all. Before setting out on their journey, they were given instructions: to avoid attracting attention, no one had luggage, at most a briefcase or a small backpack; if questioned by the police, they were to reply that they were going for a walk in the woods.

With the smuggler in the lead, the group started off by taking a streetcar to the edge of the city. From there, they walked on a road for a short while before entering the forest. They spread out and walked trying to make as little noise as possible to avoid alerting the border patrols. By this time, it had become dark, but it was a moonlit night so they could see enough not to stumble and to stay within sight of the other members of the group.

Every once in a while, they stopped to listen for the border patrol as they were getting closer to the roadway that was the German border. Upon a signal from the smuggler, they crossed the road and were then in no man’s land, where they continued walking toward a second roadway which marked the Belgian border. 

They got to the border road and the smuggler signaled that it was safe to cross. While they were crossing the road, two Dutch border guards came out of the forest and arrested them. Evidently, they had strayed from their course and ended up at the Dutch border, where guards escorted them to the nearest town in the Netherlands.

At the time, the Netherlands did not accept refugees. While the men were locked up in the local jail, the women and children were taken to a convent to spend the night. The next day, they were transferred to German authorities who took them back to Aachen where my father and the other adults were taken to jail.

The children in the group were separated from their parents but were not locked up or restrained in any way. Instead, the police turned them over to the Aachen Jewish community. Rosi and Mani spent the next couple of days in a Jewish family’s home.

Meanwhile, the Aachen police telephoned my mother in Berlin and asked her whether she knew where her husband was. She replied that he was vacationing with their two older children in Aachen, the cover story my parents had agreed on before he left Berlin with Rosi and Manfred. The police then informed her that her husband was in the Aachen jail but that she could bring her children home.

Two days later, our mother’s brother Abram came to bring Rosi and Manfred back to Berlin. My father was set free a week later, once the Nazi authorities had determined he had paid all his taxes, including the Reich Flight Tax, which as of June 1938 was set at 90 percent of assets.

Soon afterward, my father returned to the German-Belgian border and crossed into Belgium without getting caught. Then on September 26, 1938, my mother, siblings, and I rejoined my father in Antwerp, Belgium. My father had arranged for a German-speaking Belgian man who lived near the border to drive us into Belgium passing us off as his family. Until the end of World War I, that small region of Belgium adjoining the border had been part of Germany. Although we had entered the country illegally, the Belgian authorities allowed us to stay as stateless refugees.

Within a few weeks, the situation for Jews changed drastically during the night of November 9-10, 1938, in what became known as Kristallnacht. All over the German Reich, synagogues were burned and Jewish-owned businesses were vandalized by mobs of Nazis, members of the SA, and the Hitler Youth. Around 100 Jewish men were killed and 30,000 others were arrested and incarcerated in concentration camps located on German territory.

On May 10, 1940, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and France were invaded by Germany and once again, we found ourselves living under Nazi rule.

© 2019, Harry Markowicz. 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.