World War II survivor tells of childhood dodging Nazis

  • Mon May 11th, 2009 11:29pm
  • News

By Hany Barghout For the Herald

Robert Herschkowitz was 2 years old when his family, escaping the Nazis, fled their home in Belgium.

They went by foot, train and bus, trying to reach France.

“We escaped, hoping that the French army would stop the German army somewhere, but they never did,” Herschkowitz said.

When they finally arrived in France, for all their effort, they were arrested by the Vichy French government and put in a camp with other Jews. They escaped the Nazis only to fall into the hands of Nazi sympathizers.

Herschkowitz, 71, is scheduled to tell his family’s story at Everett Community College on Wednesday as part of the school’s 2009 Holocaust Survivor forum series.

“I’m going to remind people that it wasn’t only the Germans who killed the Jews, but the indifference of the rest of the world which allowed them to do it,” he said.

He hopes those who hear his experience will decide to not stand by and do nothing when people are killed in genocide. Thousands are dying in civil wars in Sudan and Sri Lanka, and the situation in Pakistan is deteriorating between the government and the Taliban.

Herschkowitz, of Bellevue, was recruited to work for Boeing in 1966 after serving in the Belgian Navy, where he was an officer. He has written numerous magazine articles and papers on naval armament, military history and naval operations. He also has served in the U.S. Naval Reserve for 24 years and retired as a commander.

During their escape into France, Herschkowitz, his father Max and mother Irene had to dodge bullets — his parents covering him with their bodies to protect him.

French police arrested them. His father told them he needed to go change the boy’s diaper, and called his wife to help. The couple was able to escape through the fields.

Somehow they managed to stay in the south of France, in Marseilles, until November 1942. That’s when the French government started to arrest Jews, “because they wanted to be more German than Germans wanted to be,” Herschkowitz said.

The couple was arrested and the family’s paperwork was stamped with a red “J.” That told officials they were Jewish.

Herschkowitz said the French government was infected by the Nazi idea of putting Jewish people into concentration camps. They put him and his family in a camp called Rivesaltes.

At the camp, the men, women and children were separated from each other.

A Swiss aid group took care of the children and gave them food, but the adults didn’t get any such help.

Herschkowitz’s family was together in the same camp for a few days before being separated.

When camp doctors found out that Herschkowitz’s mother was pregnant, the government sent him and his mother to another camp. Herschkowitz believes they were allowed to go together because his mother refused to leave without him.

Herschkowitz said he still remembers that moment when he saw his father for the last time before moving to the other camp in the south of France, which was called Gras, Ardeche.

That camp was just a single farmhouse. He and his mother stayed in a stone hut at the farm until September 1943. During that time his younger brother Danny was born.

Herschkowitz’s job at the farm was watching the goats. The farmer used to give him a loaf of bread and goat cheese, and Herschkowitz could get milk from the goats, which he carried in a wine bottle.

“After getting the goats back home, the farmer would sit me at the table and feed me. I gave the rest of the food to my mom and that’s how she survived,” Herschkowitz said. “It was the only food she got.”

Herschkowitz was 5 years old at that time.

He was lucky, he said. The Nazis killed 1.5 million children during those years, about 85 percent of all Jewish children in Europe from newborns up to 16 years old.

Meanwhile, the French government was sending all the Jews from about 230 camps to a camp in Paris called Drancy. From there, 79,000 were sent to their deaths in Auschwitz and other concentration camps.

Herschkowitz’s father was supposed to be sent to Drancy, but looked for an opportunity to escape. His father’s younger brother, who was with him at the camp, refused to join in the escape. The brother later was gassed by the Nazis.

Herschkowitz’s father slid down a rope and ran through the forest, through the mountains. He survived 18 days, but then was in such bad shape he decided to surrender at a farmhouse. Fortunately, the family was Basque and welcomed him.

His father was able to live in the Basque border region between France and neutral Spain. The family contacted the French resistance, who took his father to Vals-les-Bains.

The resistance helped Herschkowitz, his mother and his little brother escape, and the family was reunited in Vals-les-Bains.

Their next move was to cross the Alps to Switzerland. They crossed the mountains over three nights and two days on foot. Herschkowitz’s father had to tape Danny’s to keep the child quiet. He was afraid the German troops on the borders would catch them if they heard crying.

At the border, Swiss police wanted to send them back to France as they did with another 115,000 Jews. The family was lucky, as they had Swiss relatives who agreed to adopt them, though in the end they only took Herschkowitz.

His father was sent to a Swiss internment camp. His mother and his younger brother were sent to live with a minister at a church.

In 1945, at the end of the war, the Swiss government sent all Jewish people who escaped from Belgium back to Belgium in one train.

When they arrived in Belgium, Herschkowitz said, they found that their grandparents survived because the queen of Belgium protected several dozen Jews by using her power as royalty descended from Germans.

She saved 65, he said. Another 29,000 Belgian Jews died.