Bagger

BAGGER, Esther (age 49)
BAGGER, Eugene Szekeres (age 56)

Aristides de Sousa Mendes signed visas for the above at the Hotel Splendide in Bordeaux on June 19, 1940 per the written testimonial of Eugene BAGGER (see below).

The BAGGER family crossed into Portugal and subsequently sailed on the SS Manhattan from Lisbon to New York in July 1940. The following testimonial, first published in 1941, is the earliest known published account of Aristides de Sousa Mendes following the events of 1940. (Source: For the Heathen Are Wrong by Eugene BAGGER)

Monday, June 17th.  …  We set out for Bordeaux at 10:30 [a.m.].  The center of the town was bedlam; I had never seen so many cars in so small a space.  A policeman waved us off as we tried to enter the rue Vital-Carles; it was closed; the Government was in session.  (We did not know it, but they were discussing the surrender of French freedom.)…

About 11:30 [p.m.] we settled down in the front seat of our car for an uneasy night’s rest.  Hundreds of people, mostly from Paris and the North, were spending the night in their cars around us.  We dozed.  Suddenly all the lights in the square went out.  I glanced at my wrist watch.  12:23.  And then we heard them—the bombs.  We counted eight, in quick succession; far away in the northwest, in the Gironde estuary I reckoned.  Then the sirens began to shrill, far away too, then nearer and nearer.  The popping of the anti-aircraft guns followed…

Tuesday, June 18th.  At 6 a.m. I drove the car to the big square in front of the Hotel de Bordeaux, about a quarter mile from where we spent the night…  We went to the American Consulate and secured letters to the Spanish and Portuguese consuls.  Returning to the Spanish Consulate, I was admitted at once.  The consul was polite but firm.  “It is absolutely impossible for me to give you a visa unless you have your Portuguese visa first.  Go get it…”

The line at the Portuguese Consulate formed up a narrow staircase.  The office was on the third floor…  I got into line and waited…  The thing was obviously hopeless…  I stood on the staircase in front of a window between the stories.  The window opened.  Behind it stood the Portuguese consul, whom I had met several times before.  “But my dear Mr. Bagger, what a delicious surprise!…”  The window closed.  The pushing and elbowing on the staircase grew more and more desperate.  At 7 o’clock I gave it up…  Nobody knew just where the Germans were; we might be machine-gunned on the road.  Bordeaux was not exactly safe, but still.  We hated the idea of another night in the car…

Wednesday, June 19th.  At 9 a.m. there was a mob of four hundred in front of the Portuguese Consulate.  Half a dozen soldiers, with steel helmets and fixed bayonets, struggled to maintain a kind of order.  I waited in line till 11 o’clock.  No use.

We went back to the terrace of the [Hotel] Splendide, to have a drink…  I stepped into the café to find the waiter.  There at the table sat the Portuguese consul, having an aperitif with a friend.  He hailed me.  “But my dear Mr. Bagger, I am desolate about yesterday—the heat—the crowds—overwork—”  “Why not give me a visa here and now?”  “But certainly, my dear friend, but certainly.”  He whipped out a fountain pen, scribbled something in our passports.  “Here you are. All you have to do now is to go back to the Consulate and have them stamped.”  I said nothing.  There was nothing to say.

It was then that the miracle happened.  A distinguished-looking man approached, in his hand half a dozen passports.  “My dear Monsieur Skalski, with the greatest pleasure,” said the consul.  “Monsieur Skalski—Mr. Bagger.”  He signed the passports.  M. Skalski said, “You want your passports stamped?  Come along.”  I went.  M. Skalski explained.  He was the Polish consul at Arcachon.  He had been honorary Portuguese consul in Poland.  He had his credentials with him.  At the Consulate … the steel-helmeted corporal, overawed by M. Skalski’s diplomatic passport, saluted and let him pass.  Five minutes later M. Skalski handed me our two passports, duly stamped…

We were now on the main Biarritz road…  It was full of southbound cars driving close behind one another…  We drove with dipped headlights.  Two or three times we were stopped by soldiers who cursed us.  “Douse your lights, you fools, the Italians are overhead.”…  It began to rain…  At Bayonne gendarmes asked for our papers; they were very polite, as in normal times.  We reached St. Jean in a downpour…  The Hotel de la Poste had no rooms…, but they let us sleep in armchairs in the dining room.

Thursday, June 20th.  …  We had to drive back to Bayonne to get our Spanish visas.  The Consulate was surrounded by a mob of four hundred people.  Even M. Skalski’s diplomatic passport was no help.  We were talking things over on the corner when the deluge came.  In two minutes we were drenched to the skin.  I had never seen such a thunderstorm in Europe.  The rain came down in blinding black masses, like a waterspout.  A continuous barrage of forked lightning interlaced with the flying buttresses of the Cathedral in a kind of infernal counterpoint.  In the midst of it all our old friend M. Mendès, the Portuguese consul from Bordeaux, rushed out of the Portuguese Consulate, pursued by a mob waving passports at him…

Friday, June 21st.  …  We reached Hendaye at 9, and were directed by a policeman to the Spanish Consulate at the far end of the town… At 1 o’clock we were admitted into the inner office.  An hour later we came out…  It was past 4 p.m. when we joined the mile-long line of cars that stretched from the railroad station down the hill to the international bridge across the Bidassoa… By 6:45 we had moved down the mile.  Our car was now the second behind the barrier separating France from the no man’s land on the Bidassoa bridge.  We hoped to get across and sleep at Irun that night.  At 7 o’clock sharp the French gendarmes announced that the Spaniards had just closed the frontier, and were not to open it until 9 in the morning…  All along the sidewalks, with their heads propped against suitcases or a wall, refugees were snoring.  I stayed up late, talking to two customs guards; we smoked our pipes and cursed the swine who had betrayed France.  After midnight a column of large black Renaults glided down the bridge…  The gendarmes opened the barrier and they drove across into Spain.  I did not need to be told who they were; I had seen those Renault limousines … at Bordeaux only a few nights back.  They were Government cars.  One of the customs guards spat.  “I’ll bet those cars are lined with gold.”  About 2 a.m. I sat down behind the steering wheel and pretended to rest.

Saturday, June 22nd…  The frontier opened at 8:45.  Two minutes later our car was parked on Spanish soil…  The next three hours we were kept busy…  We had to have our passports stamped; we had to see three different officials about our car, two more about currency, one about baggage, and when all this was done we had to go to the Military Command and get a permit to enter Spain! …

A Belgian woman just ahead of me in the passport queue was told she had to go back to France; her Portuguese visa was not properly stamped.  Her husband, whose papers were in order, said the Portuguese official at Bayonne must have made a mistake.  The Spaniard was adamant; the woman had to go back.  “But I can’t go back!  They won’t let me enter!” she cried.  “I’ll have to stay on the bridge!”  The official shrugged.  The woman threw herself on the ground, screamed and kicked; … we never knew how the affair ended…

At the Military Command our passports were marked with an itinerary:  Burgos-Valladolid-Salamanca-Portuguese frontier; we had to stick to it or face arrest.  We had every intention to stick to it.  At 12 o’clock we were free to proceed… We drove on in the downpour…

The villages seemed incredibly poor.  We reached Burgos at 9…  At Irun we were allowed to change only 1000 French francs—500 per person. What with the terrific price of gasoline and two long cables I had sent from San Sebastian, we had only 100 pesetas left, not enough to pay our bill, let alone to keep us in gasoline to Salamanca.  The proprietor said he could not change any money; it was strictly forbidden…

Monday, June 24th.  It took me an hour and a half to change a thousand French francs—they would not take more—and two pound notes at the Banca de España.  We left Burgos at 10:30…  We reached Valladolid at 1 p.m… The country [Spain] through which we now drove was absolute deadly desert.  The only live beings we saw were some starved-looking crows…  The car gave a sickening lurch and there came a grinding and groaning sound from the rear.  In a word, a puncture…  The rain began to come down in sheets.  Three cars whizzed by.  Belgian cars.  I waved.  They whizzed on.  Two more cars.  Polish cars.  I waved. They stepped on the gas…

Tuesday, June 25th.  We left Salamanca at 9:30…  After Ciudad Rodrigo we saw the first signpost marked LISBOA.  Then and there began thirty miles across some of the more hopeless stretches of Dante’s Inferno.  I had never imagined that such desolation could exist anywhere in Europe…  There was a chain stretched across the road…  There was also a large sky-blue sign with white lettering:  PORTUGAL.

We stopped on the Spanish side of the chain.  It was a great moment; our troubles seemed to have come to an at least temporary end.  For Spain had been enemy country; we had not actually been ill-treated, but the hostility was there just the same…  The very air of Spain had oppressed us; we had expected a Fascist atmosphere but what we found seemed more Nazi than Fascist.

Two Portuguese frontier guards, with rifles flung across their backs, came walking down the line of cars. When they saw our number plate they stopped, all wrapped up in smiles.  “Inglés?”  “Americano e inglesa.”  “Aliados!”  We shook hands.  It was a new world, a world of friends. The country was grand, a vast upland horizon reminding us of the Causse of Larzac in southern France, between Millau and Lodève; rising gently toward the blue line of the mountains of Beira…

About 7:30 a group approached from the direction of Vilar Formoso; men in black, with grave, kindly Latin faces; little rotund, smiling ladies in gay summer clothes.  The mayor, the judge, the doctor, all the official world of the frontier village, and their wives.  They walked down the line, accompanied by soldiers.  The soldiers carried large open bags and held them out to the refugees.  Round golden-brown loaves of freshly baked Portuguese bread, still warm from the oven; the best white bread in the world, as we were to find.  Tins of delicious large sardines.  Bars of chocolate.  The ladies distributed sweet crackers and tins of condensed milk for the children.  As long as we live we shall not forget the Portuguese officials of Vilar Formoso…

We had been through a nightmare; it seemed very unreal; this was a good dream, but it was also true…  They fed all comers, regardless of nationality; those who had money paid what they chose to; most refugees had no money, and paid nothing…

And here, on this happy note, our log might as well end; though our story does not.  It had taken us eight days, including the two and a half spent in Bordeaux, to reach, from our home near Arcachon, the Portuguese frontier and safety.