Roosevelt’s dilemma

In the novel I am writing, Smoke, the Eschen family–Hezekin, Helene, Hannah, and Lili– have just arrived in eastern France. The year is 1937;  the Gestapo have recently arrested their son, Heinrich, and imprisoned him at Dachau.

Under a pall of Nazi-induced fear, the Eschens have decided to risk losing everything–their business and home–by leaving Munich to flee Germany, even though they do not know what Heinrich’s fate will be.

In chapter 14 of Smoke, the refugee family have been taken in by a French family who live across the Rhine border, in the province of Alsace. Now they are sitting at a well-appointed table to share a meal with some newfound friends. We enter this scene at the supper table of the Ravel family and a few of their companions. Helene is describing the Eschens’ situation with the group:

       Helene wiped the tears from her cheek. “What we seek, Madame Leblanc, is a young man, a good man in the very flower of his youth; but he is locked inside Dachau prison—our son, Heinrich. And now it is so very hard to decide what is to be done. Should we stay or go?”

       “Even if you must go. . .somewhere. . .must it be to America? Why not wait here, here in Alsace. You are close here, close enough to respond quickly, if Heinrich were to be released. If you were all the way to the United States, your help for him would be almost impossible.”

       “Our travel visas here are good only for two weeks. But we have relations in New York—they are our people, Jews like us—who are working on our behalf. They are even willing to deposit thousands of US dollars in the banks for us, and send affidavits to endorse for our immigration, so that we can obtain visas to enter the United States and start a new life there.”

      The host, M. Ravel, at the head of the table, inserted, “Peut-etre . . . your temporary visas here can be extended. We may be able to find some help for you with that. Although there is no consulate in Strasbourg, we do know some people are well-connected. Other refugees, like you, have come from Germany and have been able, with a little time, to make better arrangements, to stay in France. Now that you have gotten out, you should slow down and get your bearings, form a strategy to establish communication with Heinrich, if that is possible; there may be more resources here in Alsace that you realize. You really do need to stay close to Germany, Hezekin.” Cartier looked directly into the man’s face, then at his wife. “You do need to stay nearby until Heinrich is released, or at least until you have heard some definite news, or until this whole damned Nazi thing blows over.”

        Henri Leblanc then spoke excitedly, “The Third Reich is not going to go away! They will inflict their German hatefulness on Jews and some others as long as they can! They will not stop until they are forced to stop. Hitler and Goebbels have railed against the Jews since the beginning, even since ’33. It was their intention all along to rob you of your business and then run you out of Germany. But our leaders, Petain or—we need another Clemenceau, or Poincare, maybe that young man, DeGaulle—somebody needs to rise up and intervene la-bas. Every since Hitler waltzed into the Saar last year, with no resistance whatsoever from us, those Nazi brutes who salute and follow his every command without question have been frothing at the mouth to run the Jews out of Germany. That is what the Gestapo is assigned to do, and the Third Reich will not cease its campaign against the Jews—especially the prosperous ones such as you.”

       “But do not despair!” said Henri’s wife. “You have come to the right place. We can help you. We’ll give you sanctuary as long as we can.”

But the Eschens were not the only ones in such a situation as this. There were many others who were fleeing, and would flee, from the tribulation of being Jewish under Hitler’s Third Reich. As the terrible tide of Nazi oppression filled Germany during the next three years, and through the years of World War II, there would be many, many more who sought to leave, and find a new life in places such as Britain, the United States, South America, Africa, and Israel.

What to do with them all? This was only one of many complicated dilemmas that President Roosevelt, as well as Mr. Churchill in Britain and the leaders of the French Third Republic, faced in those tumultuous years before, and during, World War II.

It was the worst of times, even worse than today. May it never happen again to any people group on our planet.

CR, with new novel, Smoke, in progress

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