Seventy years ago this October 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 and living in Monroe Township, 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 recounted recently, his voice hoarse with emotion. “It was especially hard on the elderly and sick; death was everywhere.”
His father Philip, then 69, died from the horrible conditions; his mother Rosa, 59, was eventually transported to Auschwitz, where she was gassed.
Both had repeatedly told him their same burning wish — that someday he make it to America to reunite with his two older sisters, living there since 1937, and to create for himself a new life. My father, just 16 then, vowed to survive and avenge his parents’ suffering.
At Rivesaltes he was forced to hide in crawlspaces to evade the Nazi SS squads that increasingly sought young Jews for lethal work details. Certain he must flee in order to live, he slipped away, was later arrested, and was taken to a holding depot for shipment to another camp. But that night he escaped by squirming through a sewage pipe, then jumping into a nearby river.
Attaining freedom, he lived on foraged food. Eventually he got ID 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 physical strength, something else within him grew stronger — his desire to strike back against the Germans. “I saw how my parents and all the others had suffered because they were Jews,” my father said. “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 as a member of 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 Corps.
After a dozen successful bombing missions, my father’s plane was shot down. 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 lives in Greenbriar at Whittingham after 40 years in Dumont in north Jersey, where he raised my two sisters and me. Age, my mother’s death, and the passing of so many he knew have given my father a philosophical outlook on life in general.
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 fact 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. “The chances of getting through the camps and the fighting were so slim.”
Smiling ruefully, he added, “I wouldn’t have bet a dime on my chances of making it.”
But my father did make it and, with my mother, Giselle, herself a Holocaust survivor, went on to raise his family with Jewish pride.
“I think the fact that we Jews are still here and doing well is the best revenge against the Germans,” my father said. It’s a victory for us.”
Ed Lion is a writer who lives in the Poconos. A former reporter with United Press International, he covered many stories in his career, but, he says, none as extraordinary as his father’s.