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.