Seventy years ago last month my father, grandparents, and some 6,000 other Jews were deported from the border region of southwest Germany to internment camps in southern France.
For the next 18 months my father, Kurt Lion, now 84, endured lice, hunger, and deprivation as he nursed his ailing parents first in the Gurs and later in the Rivesaltes camps.
“There was little food, no medicines, and the suffering was terrible,” my father remembered, his voice hoarse with emotion. “It was especially hard on the elderly and sick, death was everywhere.”
His father Philip, 69, died from the horrible conditions; his mother Rosa, 59, was eventually transported to Auschwitz, where she was gassed.
Both had reiterated to him the same burning wish – that someday he make it to America for a new life and a reunion with his two elder sisters, living there since 1937. My father, just 16 then, vowed to survive and avenge his parents’ suffering.
At Rivesaltes he had been forced to hide in crawlspaces to evade the Nazi SS squads that increasingly sought young Jews for lethal work details. Certain he must flee to live, he slipped away, was later arrested, and was taken to a holding depot for shipment to another camp. But that night he managed to escape by squirming through a sewage pipe, then jumping into a nearby river.
|Kurt Lion attended gunnery school to become able to “punish the Germans.” Courtesy Ed Lion|
He lived on foraged food and eventually was able to get I.D. papers for himself under a gentile name. With this alias, he found work as a farmhand for a landowner in a village in east-central France. There he managed to replenish his strength from the camp deprivations.
But with his increased strength, something else within him grew stronger – his desire to strike back against the Germans. “I saw how my parents, all the others had suffered because they were Jews,” my father recalled. “I wanted vengeance, to punish the Germans for what they were doing. I wanted to get them back.”
And strike back my father did, first by attacking German troops and supply lines in the French underground. Later, he served as an aerial gunner in a U.S.-supplied “Free French” B-17 bomber that rained explosives on Germany during raids coordinated by the American Air Force.
After a dozen successful bomber missions, my father’s plane was shot down and he ended the war performing other duties for the French military. His status gave him access to trucks and, with these, he secretly helped in the clandestine smuggling of Jewish refugees out of Germany and en route to Palestine.
Today my father is retired in central New Jersey after a career in textile designing. He lived for 40 years in Dumont, where he raised my two sisters and myself. Age, my mother’s death, and the passing of so many he knew have given my father a philosophical outlook on life.
But when we, his children, ask about his early life, the years seem to melt away for him. He sounds not like an old man but like the teenager he was on Oct. 22, 1940, when he was deported from Ihringen, his birthplace village near the French border. His voice resonates with a gamut of emotions – nostalgia for his childhood, then sadness and anger for the people deported via packed trains to the filthy, flea-ridden Vichy-run camps.
But usually when he is done recounting his wartime experiences, a measure of satisfaction comes to his voice. It is satisfaction derived from the facts that yes, he fought back, and yes, he fulfilled his parents’ wish, reuniting with his sisters and building a successful and happy life in America.
“When I look back on it now, it seems unbelievable,” my father said, commenting on his time in the war. “The chances of getting through the camps and the fighting were so slim.”
My father paused to smile, then added ruefully, “I wouldn’t have bet a dime on my chances of making it.”
But my father indeed made it and, with my mother Giselle, herself a Holocaust survivor, went on raise his family as active members of the old Bergenfield-Dumont Jewish Center.
“I think the fact that we Jews are still here and doing well,” my father said, “is the best revenge against the Germans. It’s a victory for us.”