Book of Life Stories

The Escape (1942) – Martin Spitzer

In 1989 I published a book in Adelaide called “Storm over Tatra”. One of the reasons why I wrote the book was that I had the feeling that in some ways the attitude of the Jews who were subjected to the Holocaust is misrepresented. Very often we hear that they went like “lambs to the slaughter”. In fact, there was a substantial body of especially young Jewish people, who from the earliest time, saw the writing on the wall, and decided to offer resistance, however hopeless it might have been. The thrust of my book is not what they suffered, as victims, but what they did in combating the misery imposed on them, in an attempt to remove the passive attitude, which is very often assumed to be of the Holocaust.

I am using for this purpose my own life story.

When the German army entered Prague in March 1939, I was in a crowd in the center of the city. The people were shouting, cursing, crying and praying. With tears in my eyes I was bemoaning Czechoslovakia and Prague so dear to me.

A few days later the traffic direction changed from left to right, the street name signs became bilingual, the tram conductors had to announce the stop first in German and then in Czech, and the street clocks had to show the correct time. None of us fathomed what was in store for us.

A few months later in November, after an anti-German student demonstration nine students were taken and shot, among them a Jewish friend of mine.

The same early morning some colleges were broken into by the German police and many hundreds of students were deported to the concentration camp Oranienburg-Sachsenhausen and all Czech Universities were closed.

I managed to return to Slovakia where my parents lived and found employ as assistant surveyor. Soon my designation would be “an economically needed Jew” and my pay was less than half paid to my non-Jewish colleagues.

Already in 1940 the future for Jews in Slovakia was characterized by a law that not only prohibited them to attend public schools but also to attain schooling beyond the primary level.

Though the laws forbade Jews to meet in groups larger than four persons, we, a group of some 20 young Jews, managed to meet secretly and discuss ways and means to combat the ever-increasing persecution.

When, in June 1941, the German-Russian war started, we considered the possibility to cross the comparatively near frontline and join the Russians. The early successes of the Germans soon pushed the front deep into Russia thus we had to consider an alternative to fight the Nazi’s. Essentially emerged only two possibilities: one has been to form a partisan group and the second was to try an escape to a country from where we would join the Allied armies.

The early victories of the Germans indicated that the war will last long and that had eliminated the partisan option, so the only feasible solution was an escape.

A possibility for escape emerged when we found out that a sawmill where my younger brother was employed was exporting timber planks to Switzerland and that the planks could be loaded in such a way that inside would be space for two persons.

We were just in the process of planning the details of the escape when it became necessary for me to “disappear”. The authorities found some faked documents that I had produced and it was easy to deduct that I had been their author. So, somewhat prematurely, I was the first to use the escape route.

It was an early May night in 1942, when, with the help of my brother, I crept into the prepared space of about two-meter length, two-meter width and some 80cm high. My brother left and I was alone in the darkness of my hideout.

The next morning my wagon became a part of a freight train. It took us four days till we crossed the border of Slovakia near Vienna. One of the unknown facts of the escape plan was that we did not know how border inspection was carried out. Through a slot between the planks I could look out, without the danger of being seen. I heard nearby steps and through a small slot between the planks I could see two uniformed men, probably customs officers, one was holding some papers and the other had something that looked like a poker. The one with the poker jumped onto the top of the planks and pushed the poker into the slots between the planks. A few times I saw the poker approaching towards me, it was a few centimeters too short. It had been a dreadful moment; I hardly dared to breathe.

By morning we were on the move again through the beautiful Austrian Alps. It had been a tremendous relief that the inspection was behind me but I was aware that probably a similar, or if anything even a more rigorous inspection was awaiting me at the Austrian-Swiss border.

To add to my misery during the journey it started to rain relentlessly. It was an open carriage and it was raining though. I had covered the floor with a heavy blanket, and water leaked through into my confined living space. I was lying in the water. I covered myself with a rubberized Macintosh. The water was constantly dripping. I remember how I recognized a certain drop of rain that hit my raincoat at regular intervals. When it fell, the sound amplified on the raincoat. It was like I was sitting in a bell, afraid of and at the same time mesmerized by each consecutive drop. I might have been close to loosing my sanity because I could hear it before the drop even fell.

The train was then stationery again at one of the numerous stops and I heard a conversation between two railway workers about a railway line that had been bombed and a train that would have to be diverted. There was also a remark about a mistake that would necessitate re-loading of a wagon. In the state I was in I assumed all this talk related to my own carriage, and was relieved when it didn’t.

With the resumption of the journey the rain also ceased. I changed into reasonably dry clothes. It was the eighth day of my journey and we were approaching the Swiss border. After a while there was shunting and then stillness.

The border check and customs inspection resembled the entry into Austria – the uniformed men and the poking stick. But by this time I could feel little more than apathy, not caring anymore about what might happen. I had managed to cross to Switzerland; I saw for the first time the uniforms of the Swiss guards. The name of the station was St. Margarethen.

I lay there on the damp floor of my carriage, too exhausted to muster the energy necessary to saw through the floor timbers and get out, as was the original plan. Instead I fell asleep. Sudden shunting and stopping awoke me. I looked out through my slot and saw stacks of timber everywhere; the truck had arrived at its destination, the timber yard in Goldach, after a journey of nine days.

Two hours later, two workers came and started to unload the timber. I knocked on the side of the wagon and asked if they could open the latches so I could get out. Instead of complying, one man went away, the other remained to keep watch. Not long after the first man returned accompanied by a policeman.

My legs wouldn’t support me and I collapsed, and they had to prop me up. I was taken to the policeman’s house and given a meal and was allowed to rest. I was obviously under arrest, but sensing my emotional exhaustion, was hardly questioned about the details of my escape and what had brought me there. The next day we traveled to nearby St. Gallen and I was handed over to the prison warder. After a lengthy interrogation I became a jail inmate. I spent 30 days in a solitary cell. Every second day I was permitted to spend one hour in the prison yard and there, together with other inmates, in absolute silence, hands behind our backs, we would march round and round in a circle.

During my month in jail I was often interrogated, but I did not realize that the police would disclose some of the salient details of my escape to the press. This indiscretion, of which I only became aware much later, might have cost the lives of some people.

Whilst in jail I had a visit from the owner of the timber yard. He did not leave me in any doubt about his displeasure at being implicated in my illegal entry into Switzerland. To assist foreigners with illegal entry was a serious offence. I learned from him how tenuous my safety in Switzerland was. Racial persecution was not considered a political act of persecution and Switzerland did not have to grant Jews political asylum. I found the nerve to ask whether he would send a telegram to the Slovak sawmill owners, where my brother was waiting for a message, to say that the timber had arrived, coded in such a way that it would indicate my safe arrival. This he did, but he also added his own message, that in future he was not prepared to accept such low quality timber.

A few weeks later, another two of our group used the same method and arrived in the same way in Switzerland, but they were the last ones. The Germans must have started to inspect the carriages more thoroughly.

The worries that I had over possible extradition to Slovakia were expelled when news came that I was to be sent to Bern to one of the work camps for refugees. I spent five days in Bern before being sent to Witzwil Jail. I spent three months in Witzwil where the work camp was part of the penitentiary. An extract from the diary I kept reminds me how desperately tired I was from the 11.5 hours work every day, the ever-present hunger and the constant abuse. I was categorized as an “internee”, with other illegal entrants into Switzerland, which included deserters from the French and German armies, conscientious objectors, Jews from Holland, Belgium and France, escaped prisoners of war from Germany, escapees from Dachau and other concentration camps, communists from many countries and various offenders of Nazi laws.

During my stay at Witzwil, a representative of the Czech government in London visited the Czech inmates. He promised to intervene on our behalf and organize our departure for England to join the army. Indeed, two days later we were on our way to Geneva. We were given a medical examination, pronounced fit and inducted in the Czechoslovak Army. I had become a soldier.

Martin Spitzer’s story continues with a grand plan to enter Vichy, France, in 1942 with a changed identity, his Spanish experience (1943), becoming a soldier, his Army service (1943-1945) during which time he lost a leg in Normandy, Back Home (1945-1947), America (1947-1948), Czechoslovakia (1948-1949) and Israel (1949-1954). For the purpose of the Adelaide Jewish Museum website, we have focused on the story of his dramatic escape from Slovakia, as told to me in an interview in September 2003. Roslyn Sugarman.

Addendum

Every year in Slovakia, three commemorative medals are awarded to people who have devoted themselves to fighting the effects of the Holocaust and publicly speaking out about it. In 2002, Martin Spitzer was one of the recipients of this award. He received it on 9th September, the day declared Holocaust Memorial Day in Slovakia.

On the occasion of remembering the day of the events of the Holocaust and racial vilification, the President of the Slovak Republic, Rudolf Schuster, awarded Martin Spitzer for his lifetime activities in fighting the effects of the Holocaust.

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