Another Story that Resonates Today
My family had been within days of receiving permission to immigrate to Canada when the Germans invaded Belgium. On May 10, 1942 the Germans began the invasion of Belgium. Nonetheless my uncle, Fred Rosenberg, got up and went to work. In a report he wrote in 1945, my uncle said nothing usual happened in the morning. However, by mid-afternoon his boss told him he needed to register with the police. My uncle was a German Jew working in Brussels, Belgium. Within forty-eight hours, my uncle and his stepfather were sealed in a cattle car on their way to an unspecified destination.
Initially, my uncle wasn’t arrested because he was a Jew and it wasn’t the Germans who detained him. Rather the Belgians and then the French had him arrested because he was from Germany. Although my uncle and his family had fled Germany to avoid persecution, the Belgian police rounded up male German Jews because they might be German spies. As the United States government singles out Muslims in order to “protect” America from terrorists, I hear echoes of my uncle’s story.
After sleeping on the track of the local sports stadium on the evening of May 10th, my mom and grandmother watched helplessly as my uncle was crammed into a truck for the ride to a military barracks. He wouldn’t see them again for almost two years. My uncle describes being jeered by crowds for being a German and a Jew. He mentions being kicked by guards and prodded with rifles. Remember we’re talking about Belgian citizens and police, not Nazis.
Within a couple of days my uncle was sealed in an overcrowded cattle car without food or water. The train would travel for a bit and then sit on the tracks while the prisoners listened to the Luftwaffe dropping bombs. At some point the French took control of the train. Here’s what my uncle recalled:
For two whole days we remained in the cattle car; we could neither sit nor lie down, nor could we stand properly. It was terribly cramped. We were dehydrated from the burning sun, which during the day shone directly over the roof of the cattle car. There was absolutely nothing to drink or eat. When the train stopped, we pleaded for water. But the only response we received was the smack of a rifle butt on the cattle car door. Simply put, it was terrible. I don’t need to make any more precise remarks about the sanitary conditions. To describe this would be disgusting.
After several days, my uncle was removed from the train and placed in a temporary camp where he reported that as many as thirty men shared a single tin can in order to eat and drink. He said the latrine was an open ditch and the men tried to bathe in puddles. After six days they received some tin plates and utensils. For the first time in his life my uncle knew what it was to be hungry. By chance my uncle had a significant amount of money on him that he hadn’t had a chance to deposit on May 10th. He had the foresight to hide the money in the lining of his suit, so when the French confiscated all money, my uncle didn’t lose his cash (this cash became essential in the coming months). At this point Germans and Jews were separated, and after a few days later the prisoners were crammed into cattle cars.
Hungry, dehydrated and sun burnt, my uncle wound up at St. Cyprien, a concentration camp along the Mediterranean coast. My uncle was welcomed to the camp by a massive sandstorm and the knowledge that his mother and sister were now behind German lines. After the Germans conquered the northern part of France, the Vichy government released Germans, but not Jews from St. Cyprien. My uncle survived St. Cyrpien, Gurs, and work camps in the Alps before escaping to Switzerland.
My uncle’s story illustrates how quickly fear and prejudice can transform a life. Rather than enlist the Jews in the war against the Nazis, the Belgians and French immediately decided to dehumanize them.