On the evening of October 14, 1942, my mother slipped out of the basement of a chateau in France and began to walk through the forest with a small group of people toward the Swiss border. As the United States government stops Muslim refugees at our airports this weekend, I am reminded of this story. My mother and her family were refugees fleeing deportation orders issued by the Vichy government in France. This was their second attempt to cross into Switzerland. Two weeks earlier they’d been intercepted by the Swiss police and returned to France.
My mother, uncle, grandmother, and her husband (my grandfather was struck by car and killed in Belgium before the war) were stateless, having been stripped of their German citizenship. My mom and her mother had been at Dunkirk as the British evacuated, hidden in a hotel filled with Nazi SS soldiers, and escaped into Free (Vichy) France. After living in the small village of Thones for some time, a local gendarme in Annecy warned them that they were on the deportation list back to occupied France and then extermination. A French doctor (who I met in the 1960s) drove them through French checkpoints toward the Swiss border. My mother hid on the floor of his car and my grandmother pretended to be his wife. My Uncle had been imprisoned in the Pyrenees as a German national (by the French) and then as a Jew (by the Vichy government) before being assigned to a work camp in the Alps. As he was about to be deported, he managed to bribe a camp commandant and went underground eventually reuniting with my mother and grandmother near the Swiss border.
On their first attempt to escape, they walked several miles through the woods and crossed a creek into Switzerland. Eventually they came upon a farmhouse where a Swiss beekeeper agreed to let them stay for the night. The next morning they were found by the Swiss police, put in a truck, and driven back to the border where thirty other refugees had been rounded up. A police officer told them they would be shot if they attempted to enter the country again, and they were marched to the French side of the border. Before French immigration officials could begin processing them, my mother and her family slipped into the woods. After wandering for hours, they returned to the Chateau and again hid in the basement. They waited two weeks until members of the French resistance were ready to take them across the border again.
On their second attempt, they took a slightly different route in hopes of avoiding the Swiss police and once again crossed into Switzerland. However, they’d miscalculated and were soon arrested by a member of the Swiss army. They were taken to a military commander who informed them that they would be returned to France. At that moment, my grandmother collapsed. She’d had a serious operation about month earlier and was very weak. A military officer ordered the deportation of everyone in my mother’s party, except my family. My family was placed in truck and driven to a camp near Geneva. They survived, but the rest of the party was never heard from again.
Both my mother’s and father’s families repeatedly sought to immigrate to the United States during the years leading up to World War II. They were rejected despite having sponsorships. It was only though the compassion of strangers, who risked their lives that my dad’s family wound up in an Italian concentration camp and my mom’s family wound up in various Swiss camps. In President Trump’s America, compassion and American values are being extinguished. It’s up to ordinary people to prevent refugees from being turned back at our borders.