When Europe Was A Prison Camp: Father and Son Mem­oirs, 1940 – 1941

Otto Schrag and Peter Schrag
  • Review
By – July 24, 2015

On June 13, 1941 Otto Schrag, his wife, Judith, and their eight-year-old son, Peter, arrived by ship pas­sage in New York City after over­com­ing severe obsta­cles and hard­ships in order to escape Lisbon. 

Peter even­tu­al­ly became an accom­plished jour­nal­ist and author, and the elder Schrag also wrote and pub­lished sev­er­al of his own nov­els. What Peter dis­cov­ered, almost sev­en­ty years after his family’s Amer­i­can arrival, was that his late father had writ­ten and hid­den away a vivid man­u­script detail­ing the gru­el­ing process of the family’s escape from occu­pied Europe.

The result of Peter Schrag’s dis­cov­ery is this remark­able and valu­able book. Schrag com­bines his father’s nar­ra­tive with judi­cious research and doc­u­men­tary ref­er­ence to insure clar­i­ty and his­tor­i­cal accu­ra­cy; he also inserts parts of his own mem­oir, which he wrote before dis­cov­er­ing his father’s man­u­script. Otto Schrag died in 1971; he had returned per­ma­nent­ly to his native Ger­many in the 1950s to resume his once-flour­ish­ing busi­ness career.

The elder Schrag’s long undis­cov­ered man­u­script unfolds as a sus­pense­ful sto­ry with the use of pseu­do­nyms and relat­ed changes. 

Otto Schrag had been man­ag­ing a suc­cess­ful fam­i­ly malt busi­ness when in 1935 he moved his home and enter­prise from south­ern Ger­many first to Lux­em­burg and then to Bel­gium. His Ger­man nov­el­is­tic mem­oir, trans­lat­ed by his son, includes per­son­al events from May 1940 through the family’s even­tu­al escape from the Euro­pean prison camp” in June 1941.

At this ear­ly point of the war, Otto Schrag was brand­ed as an ene­my alien Ger­man by the Bel­gian author­i­ties. After duti­ful­ly obey­ing an order to report to the Brus­sels police in May, 1940, the elder Schrag was arrest­ed and sent by train for pro­longed detain­ment in south­ern France. He was trans­port­ed and impris­oned not as a Jew, but as an eth­nic Ger­man. As expect­ed, how­ev­er, his fel­low pris­on­ers quick­ly divid­ed between pure Ger­mans” and Jew­ish Ger­mans. As his son com­ments, the assim­i­lat­ed Schrag fam­i­ly was steeped in the Euro­pean cul­ture of their time. In fact, young Peter had nev­er met a rab­bi and cel­e­brat­ed Christ­mas with a tree and gifts, but took no notice of Jew­ish hol­i­days. While Peter and his moth­er lin­gered in Brus­sels, his father’s Bel­gian and French detain­ment was grim and bru­tal. Trans­port­ed by freight train, he and thou­sands of oth­er cap­tives strug­gled to breathe in sti­fling cat­tle cars with­out air vents or bath­rooms. As Otto recalls this hor­rif­ic jour­ney, he and his fel­low pris­on­ers, some still in their busi­ness shirts,” were help­less­ly bang­ing and shout­ing” while the train moved on incessantly.

What we now admire as a chain of beach resorts” in South­ern France was in 1940 a for­bid­ding gulag arch­i­pel­ago.” Otto Schrag was off-loaded” at one of these prison camps, Saint-Cyprien, where dread­ful con­di­tions spawned such fatal dis­eases as malar­ia and typhus. With only two pos­si­bil­i­ties, escape or stay and die,” Otto and sev­er­al com­rades were able to bribe some pli­ant guards and ini­ti­ate their escape toward Por­tu­gal. In addi­tion to ques­tions about Bel­gian and French con­duct, these father-son mem­oirs indi­cate the cul­pa­ble fail­ures of Amer­i­can poli­cies at that time, with the US State Department’s Visa Divi­sion under the hos­tile con­trol of Breck­en­ridge Long. In June, 1940 Mr. Long issued a depart­men­tal memo urg­ing our con­suls to put every obsta­cle in the way” by using var­i­ous admin­is­tra­tive devices…to post­pone, and post­pone, and post­pone the grant­i­ng of visas.” For­tu­nate­ly, Otto did receive very humane assis­tance from two oth­er Amer­i­can Con­sul employ­ees in Mar­seille. Through the fog of war,” Peter Schrag observes,”little can be seen very clear­ly.” To their great cred­it, these father-son mem­oirs help us see through this very dense and sin­is­ter fog. Bib­li­og­ra­phy, notes, pho­tos, map.

Relat­ed Content:

Peter E. Korn­blum holds a Ph.D. in Eng­lish from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia at Berkeley.He taught Eng­lish in the High School Divi­sion of the New York City Depart­ment ofE­d­u­ca­tion from 1981 through 2007.

Discussion Questions