Book of Life Stories

The Story of Brigitte Flatau Yallen

I was very fortunate. I was never in a concentration camp. We always escaped. We were always one step ahead of the Germans. Fortunately I was spared all these grizzly things. My grandmother perished in Auschwitz, we had to leave her behind in Paris when we fled. For one thing my father was very clever and had a lot of foresight. We left Germany right after Hitler came to power in 1933.

In 1933 they were already breaking into Jewish stores, they were already beating people up in the streets. In 1938 we got my grandmother out. By then it was difficult. In 1933 they wanted you to get out, but as time went on it got more difficult.

We left Berlin and went to Barcelona where my father was offered a position to run a motion picture company. At the beginning things were kind of fun, to me anyway, as a child. We had been in Spain for three years and then the Civil War came along and my father put my mother and me on a train to Paris. He stayed behind to salvage the furniture. He always saved the furniture because they were antiques you see! He wrote that in his book, which I will edit one day and print a dozen copies or so and give them to friends. He wrote that friends made fun of him, that the furniture went from Berlin to Barcelona, Barcelona to Paris, and then after the German invasion, to Los Angeles. His friends just packed their suitcases and left. It cost a lot of money to save the furniture, when we had hardly any. My father said it was because it was the only thing that connected him to his past life. To his youth, to his childhood. He had the Persian rug that he learned to walk on. He had things that he collected over the years. It’s the difference between buying antiques and buying furniture. All these things had connections with his life. Life was kind of rough. It was the third immigration, trying to find a job, trying to make a livelihood. But he would come home to the familiarity of his surroundings.

We lived in Paris for five years. To me Paris is still home. Then came the German invasion and things got rough and it was difficult to leave Paris. My father was in the French army stationed in the South of France, but then they sent him off to the Front at the last minute. My mother and I were in Paris, and the invasion came quite suddenly. We found ourselves in this terrible situation, which was the same as the poor boat people in the camps found themselves in. We were refugees from Germany, Jewish refugees, and in France we were enemy aliens. The Germans were our enemies and the French regarded us as enemies. It was a terrible situation to find oneself in. Actually it is very strange, I went yesterday to see a lawyer about something completely different, and he asked me for some information about myself and one of the questions was where were you born. For years I hid the fact that I was born in Germany, even when I was in the States. I would be at a party and someone would say where were you born, and I’d lie and say I was born in France. I just couldn’t face the fact that I was born in Germany, like it was my fault.

The war broke out between France and Germany and my father enlisted in the French army, he had already given up his German citizenship. We were in the midst of becoming French citizens but it never went though because the Germans invaded France at that point, and we found ourselves with no nationality. The French interned all the Jewish refugees. And so when the Germans arrived they were sitting ducks. They were already brought together, interned as enemy aliens. They came to get my father and of course the police always come at 6am in the morning, and took my father to the Stadium of Colombes and he ran into all his friends who had been there already for some time. Fortunately my father always had connections, and since he had already given up his German citizenship and had already listed in the French army, he was released after two days. The first year of the war everything was pretty much normal. I never had any gory, horrible physical things happening to me, but in France you had to hide the fact that you were German. Fortunately my French was perfect, I spoke it without a trace of an accent. Then suddenly we got a notice that the school wouldn’t take me back because I was born in Germany. I hated going to school but there is nothing worse than being told that you cannot go.

My father, through his influence, managed to get me back into the school, but it was very uncomfortable. Suddenly came the invasion, it came overnight, we wanted to leave Paris but we had to get permission. My mother would send me to the prefecture (police department) for identification papers every day, because my French was flawless and she spoke with an accent. It seemed more likely that I would succeed because I was a young girl, I was 15, but it was turned down every day. The Germans were getting closer and closer. This was getting very uncomfortable. Then three days before they marched into Paris, that is when the whole city started to leave. You’ve probably seen it in newsreels. Again I went to the prefecture and this time they said we could go. But the trains had stopped running. Fortunately we had some Spanish friends who had also escaped during the Civil War, and they had on that day bought a car to get out of Paris, and they said they could take me and my mother along. This gave us a way out, but we had to leave my grandmother. She didn’t live with us. For one thing, if I look back, she was in her middle 60s; she was a very old lady. In those days women in their 60s seemed very old. My grandmother stayed on in Paris. I still have all the correspondence, but can’t read it. It is difficult for me to read hand-written German. My mother kept all the letters and we have the last correspondence with her. The plan was that after we were reunited with my father and got a chance to go to the States, we would eventually send for her. After the war we found out that they came and arrested her. We had hopes that she might have been sent to Thereizenstadt, but after lengthy research it turned out that she was sent to Auschwitz.

Mother and I started fleeing with the Spanish friends. The roads were crowded, crowded, crowded, the cars couldn’t go, the cars were all boiling over, you couldn’t get gas anyway, it was a mess. There were people on foot, people on push-cars. It took us a day and a half to get to Orleans, normally only 30 minutes away. It took forever. And of course the Germans were advancing very quickly. Then it came to the point where not only could we not get gas, but the car kept breaking down and so we left the car and bought a baby carriage to put all the suitcases in. Then the German planes came and started machine gunning the people on the road. This was not a Jewish thing. This was all the refugees. I was in a ditch; the man next to me got killed. You are fleeing; everyone is fleeing. You are a part of everybody else. Then we tried to take a shortcut through a field and suddenly a whole bunch of people from the village came running, and they said we were parachutists. We almost got lynched. It was a very frightening thing. I was the one who saved the day. It was summer, terribly hot, I had this chiffon scarf and pulled it over my face to protect my skin, and suddenly someone said they are not parachutists, because she remembered this girl with the scarf. After the machine- gunning our friends said they were going back, they were Spanish citizens and they weren’t Jewish.

There were times when the Germans were very close. When our friends left, we went to the next village to buy a baby carriage to put the suitcases in. A couple of times an army transport that was retreating picked us up. One day we were walking past the forest and a woman, the strangest thing, came running out of the forest, shouting Madame Flatau, Madame Flatau! It was a Spanish actress that had worked for my father. She pulled us back into the wood and there was her husband and another two couples, they had 2 or 3 cars, and they were fleeing in style with camping equipment, and she said stay with us. We waited an hour or two for her husband to return, he had gone to get gas, and finally we said no, we had to push on. As it turned out, they were going to Bordeaux and Bordeaux was taken that night. So if we had gotten there it wouldn’t have done any good. When the armistice came we found ourselves in a sort of a pocket, the demarcation between occupied and unoccupied lines, we found ourselves in unoccupied territory. The German soldiers arrived and naturally we stayed indoors and hid. We had managed to get a room upstairs from a bistro. My mother went out and buried our papers. The Germans came and gave candy to the children. After they left my mother went back to retrieve the papers, the whole night she couldn’t remember where she had buried them.

The next big town was Limoges, far north. It was a miracle that we found ourselves where we did. With several other refugees who also wanted to get to Limoges, we got a taxi to take us there and that was a horrible experience because Limoges was overrun with refugees and you couldn’t find a room for love or money. It was beginning to get dark, and I saw a sign that said pension and we got a room. Then we wanted to be near my father where he was stationed in Montauban, and waited for him to be immobilized, and then started to make plans to get out of France. For about a year we stayed in a little town in the Pyrenees, which was close to the Spanish border, and my father had already arranged with a guide to take us to Andorra in case things got really rough. My father was corresponding with America to try and get a visa. We were staying at a boarding house that belonged to a Belgian woman. It was in the unoccupied zone but things were getting a bit risky there too, it wasn’t as bad as the occupied zone where they rounded people up and gave them over to the Germans. The police did come one morning and at that time my parents were away in Toulouse. Some other Jewish refugees had arrived and were staying in the same building as us. We had these so-so papers, okay but not the greatest, we got by with them. But they had no papers whatsoever. Fortunately they were satisfied with my papers, and then the landlady got the refugees into my room and hid them in the closet.

There were always plans to try and get out. One of the plans was to rent a boat to get over to Africa. My father and I looked into the possibility of renting a boat, but never found one to rent. That morning we heard that other refugees had the same idea, but once they got out to sea were thrown over-board. So we went to Marseilles for the visa, and were there for a couple of months. Finally the visa came through. The year was 1941. In 1941 we managed to come to go to the United States. By 1942/1943 an unoccupied zone didn’t mean anything anymore. Up to about 1942 you were still all right. With the visa in our hands we then tried to find a boat, and got passage on a cargo ship. We were supposed to have passage to New York from Martinique, but there we were interned because they didn’t want Jewish refugees. We were put in the camp, but were allowed in the town twice a week and finally managed to get passage on a boat that went to Puerto Rico.

In America we were also considered enemy aliens. We had a curfew and couldn?t go out between 6pm and 6am. But after six months they stopped that.

My father died at age 55, I think it had all been too much for him. He had to save us three times. And he had to start all over again, trying to make a living. The first few years in Los Angeles were very rough financially; it really all took a toll on him, even though everywhere he went he made connections right away. He was quite unique.

My only child Kitty married an Australian. I missed her too much but we didn’t come over right away. I decided it was the thing to do; just as well that we did because after we had been here two years my husband died of a heart attack, and I would have been all alone in Los Angeles. My mother followed me. She lived till 101.

All this injustice, it hasn’t changed. Years ago, when Kitty was a journalist and I was speaking to her about my experiences, I realized that when I grew up I was like a non-person. The Germans wanted me dead. The rest of the world wanted me to quietly disappear. It was a horrible way to grow up.

Documented by Roslyn Sugarman, based on an interview with Brigitte Flatau Yallen, 5 August 2003


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