BRACHFELD, Chaskiel (Visa # 1960 – age 41)
BRACHFELD, Estera née KIRCHENBAUM (Visa # 1959 – age 48)
BRACHFELD, Jacob (Visa # 1958 – age 44)
BRACHFELD, Jonas (age 16)
The above visas were issued by Aristides de Sousa Mendes in Bordeaux on June 17, 1940.
The BRACHFELD family did not cross the Spanish border, and remained in France. In May 1942, they sailed from Marseille to Casablanca. From there they traveled on the vessel São Tome to a refugee camp in Jamaica called Camp Gibraltar. They subsequently were able to go to Mexico, where they remained for the duration of the war.
Testimonial of Jonas BRACHFELD (son of Chaskiel)
My parents had emigrated from Poland to Antwerp shortly after WWI and I was born in Antwerp in 1924. Four other children followed, the youngest born in 1939…. I recall how a mood of anticipation entered our lives in 1939, particularly after France and England declared war on Germany. I do not remember talk of fear, as everybody had confidence in the overpowering strength of the Allies and felt confident Belgium would not be touched.
On May 10, 1940 at 5 a.m., Antwerp was awakened by what sounded like explosions. General mobilization had been announced the previous day, and multiple aerial maneuvers were being conducted. We thought at first that these explosions were part of realistic maneuvers and it was only at about 7 a.m., with the absence of electricity and radio service, that it became clear that Belgium had joined France and England in their war against Germany.
I was thrilled. I regarded this as a futile move by the Nazis who, pushed into a corner, were desperately trying to break through. Just a few more days and the powerful Brits and French will wipe this scourge off the earth. We went to the corner grocer’s and bought a few provisions that would be useful in tiding us over the coming days.
I looked up to my father who had been through WWI and I relied on him to see us through these events safely. I was pleased that he recruited me as an assistant. My first assignment, which made me feel I had all at once reached adulthood, consisted of going to the houses of his minor creditors and paying off his debts to them. One recipient shook his head sadly. “He did not have to do this. He is smarter than I am. The money is safer with him than with me.” As events progressed, this unfortunately turned out to be true. While I was liquidating these minor obligations, my father paid off his major debts and then stayed at home and various debtors came to clear their accounts.
As I walked on the streets accomplishing my assignment, I heard the explosions continue. It was difficult to localize those heavy bombs. Hearing the whistling sounds as they were coming down, I felt each time that possibly that particular bomb would fall on me and that would be the end. But I did not focus on this. I imagined myself a little drummer boy in a Napoleonic battle, crossing the field to deliver a message. The fact that the streets were clean, free from rubble and traces of explosions, did not enter my consciousness. (Eventually it turned out that only the airport was being bombed.) A sense of pride that I had been given an adult task thrilled me and I felt no fear. I also was proud of my father and his devout honesty. I sometimes think of this experience and it symbolizes to me the diamond world of Antwerp, where all business was conducted on a handshake, contracts and documents were not used and honesty was taken for granted.
It became obvious in a few days that the Jewish community of Antwerp had misread all the obvious signs. This was going to be a bigger battle than we had foreseen, although we all still thought the country’s defenses, heavily dependent on the plans of flooding all potential access, were safe. Most members of this community did not know what to do and therefore did nothing. My father felt differently and formulated our plans to stay as far away from the Nazi army as possible. He therefore took us by taxi to the Belgian shore, a strip of land protected by the flooding of the Yser in WWI, as close as possible to France, whose border was only some 50 miles distant from our shore refuge. As it became obvious that the vaunted Belgian defense would not hold, he took us by taxi to the northern shore of France. We worried at first about visas and entry permits but it turned out that the border post was completely abandoned, so that we never could legalize our entry, a matter of major importance at a later time. Soon, the roads were entirely blocked and we took a few essentials with us and proceeded afoot along with thousands of other refugees, few of whom were Jewish.
A long odyssey followed, consisting of walking, hitchhiking on carts and trucks (with the five children), sleeping in barns and being strafed by enemy planes. Our goal was to reach Bordeaux, where my father’s sister lived.
We eventually reached a bridge over the Somme, and on the other side were able to find a taxi which took us to Dieppe. Trains were still functioning so that we were able to travel to Bordeaux where we expected to wait out the end of the war. However, what we considered a reliable (albeit highly crowded) safe haven rapidly showed signs of the gathering storm. The newspapers obviously were trying to put a good face on the news but it became clear that France was being overrun. My aunt and uncle, seasoned French citizens, refused to discuss any options other than “sitting it out.” My father, on the other hand, did not accept such a passive role. Reliable information was in short supply. Rumors had it that Spain permitted refugees to transit that country and go to Portugal and from there, hopefully, across the ocean. We felt trapped in Bordeaux where the Germans were expected to arrive in 2-3 days.
Extensive discussions between my parents finally concluded that only older males, likely candidates for military service or labor camps, were in danger and that it would be most efficient for my father to take me and escape to Portugal, where, once settled, he could send for my mother and siblings. This may now appear incredibly naïve, but the state of anxiety and confusion that overwhelmed us is impossible to describe.
I still recall the trip to Hendaye, the French border post, as a veritable nightmare. The train was crowded with defeated French soldiers, and my father, who spoke Polish fluently, carried on long conversations with Polish veterans. The emotional conversations, in a language that I could not understand, added to my sense of anxiety and chaos. It took all night to complete a trip that normally takes a few hours. Yet, no sooner had we arrived that my father shook his head, said to me this is all wrong, and that he just could not abandon his family, no matter how efficient our plan had seemed. He immediately went to a ticket window and purchased 2 round trip tickets to Bordeaux.
We thus replicated the nightmarish trip. I cannot recall whether my mother was pleased or shocked to see us back and to have to pack up all belongings for the trip to Portugal. I often shudder at the possibilities of the alternate plans and admire the strength and persistence of my father to follow his convictions. When I see columns of refugees on TV I always reflect on the chaos and difficult decisions these people have to make.
What a joy it was to reach the border, the whole family intact, and the outlook for escape “around the corner.” My father bought tickets to Irun, the Spanish border town, and we were told that we then could buy tickets to the Portuguese border. Unfortunately, it was not meant to be. For a few happy moments, I felt jubilant that we had “made it,” and had escaped successfully, and then catastrophe struck. It had escaped my attention that after buying the tickets my father had been taken into an examining room, searched and all diamonds that he had in his back pockets had been impounded. The Customs Officer claimed that he had violated French export law since these assets had not been declared on entry. The fact that there was no border post when we entered was immaterial to the douanier.
I had never seen my father like this, sobbing, obviously overwhelmed by the reality that we were stuck and that a most dreaded event had indeed taken place. I have often rethought that event and understand now his reaction, as he was seeing his unprotected family thrown out on the streets while he was hauled out to jail. I remember what followed immediately thereafter the way one remembers a nightmare, a horror whose details are blurred.
Out of nowhere a charitable Jewish-French woman appeared who took us to her house, gave me the address of the local rabbi who asked me to breakfast the next morning. His placid manner at breakfast, while I was burning with anxiety and eagerness to act, was hard to take…. The rabbi finally gave me a name and address at the courthouse, and when I went to see the attorney, I was delighted to see my father already in his office, apparently released. I learned that the director of Customs had taken a more benign view of the whole matter but felt obliged to release the impounded diamonds only upon payment of a heavy fine….
We were in Hendaye as the Germans were advancing southward and my father decided it was vital to avoid occupied territory; no matter what his financial status was (his money had not been confiscated). Once again, we wandered from city to city (Pau, Toulouse, and finally Marseille). We had heard that a contingent of Antwerp refugees had settled in Marseille and my father decided to try his luck there. We rented an apartment and bought some primitive furniture. It had become obvious that France was being overrun and that we would have to stay there until victory by the Allies was achieved.
Day by day living became routine…. We were hungry but got used to it. We lacked the resources of the “locals’ to obtain clandestine food supplies, particularly during the first months after our arrival. It became my daily assignment to wait in food queues. In retrospect I consider that it was a great opportunity for polling the community opinions and spirit, which, to the best of my memory, expressed resignation and acceptance. The French seemed to prefer their defeat to the British exposure to bombardments. “It serves them right, it’s all their fault anyhow, they started all this.” These opinions contrast sharply with current descriptions of heroism and resistance which may reflect other segments of the French nation with which I never had contact….
This apparently uneventful routine, however, was only superficially safe and I was fully aware of a chronic, pervasive anxiety which plagued our daily lives. We had entered France through an abandoned border post and were therefore “undocumented aliens.” At first, this status did not interfere with our daily activities until such time as one had accidental contact with the police. The identities and addresses of the refugees had not yet been recorded by the poorly organized French authorities, but random street raids periodically resulted in the arrest of some hapless refugee and his subsequent dropping out of sight. Raids of coffee houses or of arbitrarily chosen city blocks were unpredictable. The Vichy government and its local minions dealt harshly with us, Jewish foreigners, the most vulnerable element of society, perhaps to show off its cooperation with the far away German master….
Meanwhile, the search for escape continued unabated. In Marseille, someone had thrown bait to the Cuban consul that a few hundred diamond “financiers” would set up a diamond industry in that country. The proposal, heavily based on fantasy, argued that diamond cutting was labor intensive, at any rate as it dealt with small and tiny diamonds, and such an industry would benefit from the low cost of labor prevailing in Cuba. The Antwerp refugees kept weighing the high risk of economic survival, particularly in an unknown tongue in a poor country, against the vague perception of impending local danger, which was never clearly appreciated or understood. My father and 19 others approached the consul of Mexico, a country where opportunities of making a living seemed more promising, with a similar proposal. One fine day in 1941, we found in the mailbox a short letter informing us that our Mexican visa was ready and we should come and get it….
The term “obtaining one’s papers” summarized a whole world, or perhaps more appropriately, an irrational underworld with which we never came into direct contact but which was nevertheless vital to us. Years later, when I read Kafka, this irrational but omnipotent world became more real to me. The obstacles were of infinite variety. Some people whose passport required renewal or who had never bothered to obtain one, were out of luck as consulates of countries inimical to France were closed. Others, like ourselves, were stymied at the very first step of a series of formalities because a “Police certificate of good conduct” was required…. How could such a certificate be obtained when one was hunted by the police and one’s stay in the country was entirely illegal? …
It took almost a year to obtain the required papers…. Even after the exit permit was obtained, the logistics of traveling abroad were complex. Ships to Mexico sailed only from Lisbon. The France to Spain border was closed to us. Airlines, of course, were not functioning. Ships out of Marseille were traveling only to Algeria and Morocco, colonies that had remained “loyal” to Vichy France. Out of nowhere, so it seemed, a local representative of an American Jewish Agency (the “Joint Committee”) suddenly appeared. No one knew where he came from but we accepted with gratitude the information he brought that his organization had arranged for a Portuguese ship, sailing from Lisbon to Mexico and then to Cuba, to stop in Morocco and collect those of us that had managed to get there….
On a sunny day in May 1942, it looked as if this time we were definitively going to leave Vichy France for the New World. We had had many disappointments and failures but now the paper work seemed flawless (albeit some of it forged). It was thus with a mixed sense of contained elation and ill-defined dark foreboding that I watched my father, confident and calm in all circumstances, walk through the “formalities” and then we finally mounted the gang plank.
True, we had expected rather luxurious quarters since we had been forced to buy first class tickets, and the appearance of the two holds that had been transformed into two dormitories was disheartening. Our fate became clear to us. Obviously, we still had not escaped completely our refugee status of inferiors but now there was hope. The choice we were given by the ship’s purser, namely that we could disembark if we did not like the facilities offered, was of course pure rhetoric and provocative.
The refugees were a much larger crowd than we had anticipated, perhaps a total of 1000 passengers going to Cuba and to Mexico. There were about 500 Jews going to Cuba, mostly folks from Antwerp, seven Jewish families going to Mexico and 500 veterans of the Spanish republican army, many of them members of the International Brigade, who had been “interned” in France…. There was also a contingent of French Navy sailors on board as well as Senegalese troops who were returning home…. Soon thereafter, we were exposed to the extremely stormy approach to the port of Casablanca but when we docked, tired and depleted, we felt gratified that this leg of our Odyssey was finished. All we needed was to transfer to the Portuguese boat (the São Tome) and we would finally be safe….
The São Tome turned out a pleasant surprise. Once again, the hold of the small cargo boat had been transformed into two dormitories. However, most of us had been hungry, if not starving, for two years, and a luxurious 4 o’clock tea unexpectedly awaited us on large tables set on the deck. The whiteness of the bread contrasted with the bran we had been eating. There were sandwiches, cakes and cookies but also huge sardines and these were included in each of the four meals served which were varied and plentiful. There were plenty of meats and sausages, but many of the Antwerp refugees ate only kosher food. Because I had acquired rudimentary Spanish, I was assigned, together with a woman who likewise knew some Spanish to speak to the head cook and explain the problem to him. He listened to our stumbling, long explanations with increasing impatience and had only one comment, accompanied with stabbing a huge knife into a wooden workbench and yelling, pointing to himself “PORTUGESH.” To my amazement, he got the message and responded graciously and came up with plenty of fish for his kosher passengers.
The entire 18 days on shipboard felt like a resort, useful for recovery from our two-year ordeal and a preparation for the adult life to come. In contrast to the French ship, the dormitories were well lit, cheerful, and neat. The sailing was most pleasant, with lovely weather, an empty and quiet ocean, occasional schools of dolphins at sea, nice deck chairs and much of interest on the deck…. Occasionally, the thought crossed my mind as to how we were going to fare in Mexico but I had great confidence that somehow my father would manage. Tanning myself carefully, in the tropical sun, seemed a more immediate concern.
On the 18th day, this idyllic picture was marred by a war ship which appeared on the horizon. It soon turned out this was a British destroyer and it signaled to us, “Follow me.” Signals were transmitted by light flashes in Morse code as radio communication was undesirable even though this part of the Atlantic was not known to be infested by submarines. We all knew about the British inspection and were prepared for it. The aim of the inspection was to find money that a potential spy might take with him to Mexico and Cuba. This seemed like finding a needle in a haystack but the Brits went at it with calm thoroughness, aloofness and mild contempt, taking no account of our status as persecuted Jews. Most refugees had plenty of money somehow cached in their luggage and to my knowledge none of it was detected. My father, on the other hand, relied on a document issued by the Belgian consul in Marseille certifying he was a reputable diamond merchant and that the diamonds in his possession, in a officially sealed package, were his legitimate property. The British agent brushed this document aside with utter contempt, stating this was not a British “Navicert” and that he therefore had to impound the merchandise. Asked by my father how he was to support his five children in Mexico without any money the Brit merely shrugged and repeated that he required a Navicert. He informed my father that such a certificate could be obtained in Mexico in cooperation with the British and Belgian consuls but he had no advice as to life support in the interim. He allowed my father to keep $1000 of the money he had with him.
The inspection lasted four full days. In the interim, we were housed in barracks outside of Kingston. These barracks had all the earmarks of a concentration camp, with barbed wire fences and armed guards at the gates. The only difference, we were told, is that one could leave to go abroad but that no one was allowed to go out on the island. Indeed, a dozen or so people eventually left with our ship. To our surprise, our informants, “resident inmates” spoke Flemish and Yiddish. It rapidly became clear they were from Antwerp. Most of them had sailed to England in 1940 from the Belgian shore in small ships. Those not suitable for military service were transferred to this facility. The excuse offered for the lock-up was that their language was so similar to German that native Jamaicans might attack them. Years later, I met an upper class Jamaican who told me he had been raised right next door to the camp and his parents had told him the same party line.
The food in the camp was not bad, the coffee was excellent, but the relationship to the guards was hostile and threatening. In the evening, the inmates had actually prepared an entertaining show for us. I was indifferent to the show and was aware of becoming deeply depressed. I did not know that word at the time, but nothing interested me, I could not eat, and a sense of revulsion and nausea became overwhelming. I saw a future that was dark and glum. If these were the people fighting on our side, our best friends and rescuers, and this was the way they handled refugees, what could I expect of the future, of life? Well, perhaps things would be different in Mexico.
We were glad to be back aboard ship, away from this depressing camp. My father, as nearly always confident and calm, seemed sure he would redeem the diamonds as soon as he was settled in Mexico and seemed unworried about the future. But even the sea no longer was cooperative. Calm and smooth on the first leg of the trip, it now became stormy and I, always prone to seasickness, was sicker than ever. This reinforced the severe nausea that was haunting me….
We docked in Vera Cruz the next day. Once again, I was up on the deck and watched the gorgeous sunrise, the captain (my favorite figure) on the bridge issuing orders which were being followed with skilled precision so that the small ship maneuvered lithely without tugboats through the port. We had arrived. Soon, the immigration officers, in their formal white uniforms, set up a table near the gangplank and started to look at the documents of those passengers who had packed rapidly and were ready to leave. One set of passengers after another approached the table.
Gradually, it became apparent that nobody was leaving. Rumors spread throughout the ship, the most frightening being that our visas were not valid. Representatives of the Jewish community arrived to help us but it seemed to me that this was limited to supplying us with oranges. There must also have been some Jewish community agents helping the Spaniards but I did not identify any of them. We stayed one week under the hot blasting sun of Vera Cruz with gradually mounting despair. Descriptions and anecdotes of the St. Louis, which had been returned to Germany, abounded. I will never forget my father, calm and confident that this matter will eventually get resolved, refusing to participate in the conversations of ill forebodings.
It did indeed get resolved, and in the only manner that matters get resolved in Mexico. Mr. Shmuel Dolcyn, the Executive Director of the Federation of Jewish Charities of Mexico City, (who, incidentally, years later organized the evacuation of the Ethiopian Jews) came down from the capital and knew exactly what to do. He offered a substantial bribe to the officials and all of a sudden the visas became valid…. And so we descended the gangplank and finally touched the ground of liberty. Everybody was ecstatic. Not I. I continued feeling blue, worthless, jetsam in a cruel and indifferent world and profoundly nauseated. I had read Macbeth and the phrase, “Macbeth shall laugh no more” resounded in my mind. They (whoever “they” were) had killed something inside of me, had killed my soul.
We checked into a hotel, and my jubilant family went out to look for a place to eat. I had no desire to do so, stayed in our suite and did not even put on the light as darkness set in, until I went to the bathroom. There, I noted that my urine was dark, the color of Coca Cola and suddenly an overwhelming sense of elation overcame me. I knew exactly what this meant as my brother had had jaundice some weeks ago. Hurray, my soul was not sick. Yes, the yearned for deliverance had been achieved. Yes, I will recover soon and begin a new life…. Life was beautiful.
BRACHFELD, Chaskiel (Visa # 1960 – age 41)