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June 28th 2015 print

David Pryce-Jones

Escaping the Nazis in Style

The belief that their primary identity was French had put their lives at risk for no purpose. They couldn’t imagine that the Germans and a good many French made no such distinctions about Jews and were determined to kill off the lot

vichyOn December 1, 1939, an official with the title of Head of State Collections wrote to the Gestapo to draw attention to what he called the “rich inventory” and “outstanding things” to be found at Meidling, my grandmother Mitzi’s house in Vienna. In his opening paragraph he made the all-important point that she was a “Jewess with English citizenship”. The sheet of paper bore the stamp of the Nazi eagle. Below the typewritten greeting “Heil Hitler” was an illegible signature.

Six weeks later, on January 14, 1940, the Gestapo duly drove up to Meidling and expropriated everything in it, all the furniture, linen, silver. The full list of stolen pictures comes to fifty-seven, carefully inventoried by the Gestapo. A further selection of twenty-two was made on behalf of the State Collections. One of the paintings listed is a Van Dyck of Saint John, a favourite subject of that artist. The Head of State Collections had his eye on this picture, and he was particularly disappointed that it had gone missing. Within twenty-four hours of moving into Meidling, he was already recommending an investigation into its whereabouts. To this day, it is still unaccounted for, and the only plausible explanation is that one of these Nazis had been quick enough to lay hands on it for himself.

The house in which I had been born then became a school to train senior Nazi officials and future gauleiters. Meidling had meant everything to Mitzi but she did not give way to sentimentality or self-pity, merely commenting in her diary, “We go on doing our best to be practical and to keep our spirits up.”

In the months of the phony war Mitzi was in Paris, staying in the Hotel Lancaster. She owned a flat in the Rue de Surène, and also Royaumont, a house in the country near Chantilly. Her eldest daughter Hélène, known always as Bubbles, and her husband Eduardo Propper de Callejon, divided their time between these two properties. At the end of the Spanish Civil War, Eduardo resumed his diplomatic career as a secretary in the embassy in Paris. A young historian, James K. McAuley, summed him up in a Harvard thesis as “a loyal servant of Franco’s Spain and a committed Nationalist … deeply conservative, almost reactionary”. On January 12, 1940, the Spanish Embassy informed the Quai d’Orsay that Royaumont was Eduardo’s “résidence habituelle”.

That February, Mitzi’s second daughter, Poppy, my mother, returned to London to be with Alan, my father, leaving me in France in the care of Jessie Wheeler. Born in 1873 and one of the seven children of an Oxford carpenter, she looked and thought like Queen Victoria. More than a nanny, she was the guiding spirit of the family. Enlisted in the French air force, Max, Mitzi’s only son, was an interpreter with the British 150 Squadron stationed at Soissons within range of the Maginot Line.

As luck would have it, Mitzi was in Paris on May 9 in order to take to the Hungarian Legation the documents proving that Frank Wooster, her second husband, was Aryan. The blitzkrieg had opened when Bubbles telephoned at ten o’clock next morning, a Friday, to say that Max had arrived at Royaumont in the middle of the night and we were all to flee from the war zone as soon as we could. Through the Spanish Embassy Eduardo was in touch with the news of the disaster in the making. He agreed with Max that we should go south. Charras is a small town near Angoulême, and Dr Albert Metzl, director of the Springer factory, had a house there. He would take us in.

Before leaving Royaumont, Jessie wrote to Poppy:

Things look very black just now but no doubt we shall tide over it all. You see, the Germans are so deceitful, dishonest, crafty, fake, dishonourable, that it is like fighting a white lie. Anyway we must not look on the black side, but believe that right must prevail over might.

Without warning, I was woken up in the night and had to dress. This was unprecedented. It was exciting to hear that we were about to go on a long journey running away from the Germans. On that drive to Charras, I sat in the back of the car next to my cousin Elly, daughter of Bubbles and Eduardo and eighteen months older than me. Nanny Stainer from Godalming, the companion and rival of Jessie, looked after Elly and her elder brother Philip. Millions of panicking people for days on end fled from the Germans in this exodus which set the seal on the defeat of France. I retain an image of the Spanish flag fluttering on the front mudguard; also at some point when the throng on the road obliged the car to slow down a woman dressed in black stared in at the window.

Every other day in Charras Jessie wrote to Poppy on the grounds that at least some letters would be delivered.

I think you will find it difficult to get over, as all regulations are changed, but we’ll hope for the best. The struggle will be long and many valuable lives lost, but the Allies will win through at terrible cost; keep well and don’t worry needlessly.

On May 24 she wrote, “I hear Mosley has been arrested, good job too,” ending, “I hope God willing one day we’ll all meet again, even if in poorer circumstances.”

The French government fled from Paris to Bordeaux. Arriving at Charras at this moment of national collapse, Eduardo insisted that his duties took him to Bordeaux and we all had to move there. Next morning, “We left at 8.30 in four cars—packed and how! Oh what tears.” The cars reached Bordeaux at half past twelve. “Indescribable” is Mitzi’s word for what she found; this was sauve qui peut, especially for Jews.

Refugees leaving France with papers that allowed them to escape via Spain or Portugal to foreign destinations were still required to obtain Spanish transit visas. In a bureaucratic bind evidently designed to keep such refugees out of the country, these visas were issued in very moderate numbers. Frightened either to grant or to withhold these visas, the Spanish consul in Bordeaux had shut the consulate and made himself scarce. Mostly Jewish, refugees frantic at this extra last-minute impediment to survival and freedom were milling outside the building. Without authority to do so, Eduardo opened the consulate and set about issuing visas. At the request of the French government, his ambassador, José-Felix de Lequerica, was engaged in negotiating the terms of the armistice with the Germans. A former mayor of Bilbao, Lequerica was known for his political influence and his anti-Semitism. A note from him to Eduardo survives and it ought to have covered him: “Eduardo, do whatever you think you should and let me know before you start.”

The armistice on June 22 divided France. The unoccupied southern zone took its name of Vichy France from the spa where Marshal Pétain now set up his government. Those with reasons to be afraid of the Germans immediately fled there. To return to Royaumont would have meant living under German occupation. The factor was reassuring the hesitant Max that he’d been to the Kommandatur for advice, the property had suffered no damage to speak of, and “the Germans, it must be recognised, are very correct”.

Nobody knew where to turn. In a letter of June 25, Jessie in Bordeaux brought Poppy in London up to date:

Your mother left here with Frank this morning early, and in a short time she hopes to be with you. There was a lot of hesitation as to whether the boy ought to come but in the end she decided not, the risk was too great. Then Lily [my aunt, Mitzi’s youngest daughter] said she wanted to go to be with you, and that also was ruled out so here we are with none of our usual newspapers and the wireless and as we sit beside this instrument of torture we know you are listening to the same and this is the only tiny link we have at present.

Her closing exhortation was perhaps not as robust as usual. “We are not down-hearted. I wonder if you will get this and how soon?”

“That terrible day of 25 June,” is Mitzi’s account.

We got up at 6.30. Packed. The girls sat with me. We gave each other addresses all over the world to meet at. Bubbles keeps having panics and the wish to leave Europe. Lily does not see how she could stand life away from Europe but also has panics sometimes. I did not go and see the babies who were sleeping. I did not feel I could face it. The girls and nannies came to the car. Frank and I kissed each of them, we were all in tears. Will we ever see them again? I looked and looked at them as the car rolled away, my eyes and heart seemed to leave my body.

Whitworth (an English chauffeur) drove them out across the frontier into Spain. In Madrid they found themselves among people whom they had known before the war. The talk was only of “visas, Clippers [flights to the United States], ships, dollars”. She quickly concluded that she couldn’t look after Bubbles and Lily, and didn’t expect them to look after her. Regulations prevented Hambros bank from sending to Spain more than £150. When Frank called at the British Embassy, the ambassador Sir Samuel Hoare had said, “Are you worried about England? Don’t be. We are perfectly prepared now.”

Mitzi suggested they go to Canada or even the Azores; Frank preferred South Africa. In a telegram, Alan was anxious that Jessie and I were not safe, and he’d help financially for us to fly by Clipper to America with Mitzi and Frank and Lily in tow. Mitzi objected: there were no seats on the Clippers till the end of September, some twelve weeks away; there was no money to pay for such a trip; and nothing for them to live on over there. Alan did not specify what financial help he could provide. Finally, it was virtually impossible to obtain visas.

Mitzi and Frank moved from Madrid to Lisbon around the middle of July 1940—at this point her diaries carry even fewer dates than usual. Whitworth drove them one last time, and he then caught a ship to England. On July 25 Mitzi and Frank settled into the house they rented, the Villa Preciosa at Estoril. She had never lived anywhere so nondescript but was soon expressing a hope to spend the rest of the war there.

In need of a power of attorney for Pokorny (her agent in Vienna) to deal with her affairs, she was obliged to apply in person to the German Embassy. In an atmosphere of embarrassment and hostility, she obtained the requisite document. She visited the Hungarian Legation on August 1. She and the Minister, André de Vodianer, talked politics as much as they dared. The future of the Balkans, they agreed, was changing from one day to another.

Mitzi then asked about Trissolin, one of the horses that a couple of years previously Alan and Poppy had seen in training at the stud in Lesvar. Mitzi had what was surely a unique experience for a refugee of learning that Trissolin had just won the Alagar Preis, the Hungarian Derby. Trissolin was unbeaten that season, and an article in a Hungarian newspaper congratulated “the little Baroness Mitzi” on winning all the big races, even though the new anti-Jewish laws made life in Hungary impossible for her. Minister Vodianer came to dinner in November, and she quotes him saying that if Hitler took Palestine he would make it a Jewish national state. He also told her what other diplomats would have been glad to know, that Germany was already massing troops against the Soviet Union in order to save Europe from bolshevism.

What to do about me puzzled them all. Letters and telegrams with proposals and objections passed between Mitzi in Lisbon and Poppy in London, and Eduardo and Bubbles. Mitzi did not want to have to take me with her to Canada, but she was not happy that I stayed in France. “People coming from Nice say they are starting to starve there and that the Jews will be put in camps.” She wondered, “How will I ever get David and Jessie out?” Jessie refused to fly alone with me to Canada. If Mitzi was to take care of me she would have had to postpone departing from Lisbon, and she imagined Frank would blame her for paying attention to the children “if anything happened”—that is, if they were deported from Portugal or somehow forced back under Nazi rule. Visas and tickets, she said, were unobtainable, but they obtained them all the same. Round about June 10, 1941, she and Frank sailed to New York on the Serpa-Pinto, a Portuguese liner that had seen better days. She shed no tears when she threw off what she calls “poor mad Europe”.

The Villa Les Oeillets is on the Boulevard Alexandre III, a short walk down to the Croisette, the Cannes seaside. Built in stone in spacious and leafy surroundings, here is a nineteenth-century summer-house. Shallow steps lead up to the entrance. At the rear is a patio, slightly sunken. Out there one day, I somehow contrived to collapse the deckchair I was lolling on, pinching a finger and unable to lift my weight off it. A balcony on the first floor overlooks the patio. From time to time, a priest would call round, stand on that balcony and throw sweets to Elly and me.

Max rented this villa, and in mid-July 1940, a few days after we had arrived there, Jessie was again writing to Poppy. Letters, the one and only lifeline, had to be mailed via a neutral country. In Spain and then Portugal, Mitzi had the vital function of forwarding communications between Cannes and London. Jessie’s letter of July 19 must have given Poppy as much reassurance as information. The opening paragraph declares, “I have never lost confidence in what England can, and will, do, but it will be a hard struggle.” Royaumont, she then says, so far is intact, with the Spanish flag flying over it, thanks to Eduardo. A family discussion was held next day in order to work out the best thing to do for the children. We were to spend the summer of 1940 from the end of July to early October at Zarouz, a resort on the Spanish coast half an hour from San Sebastian. For Eduardo and his immediate family no particular formalities were required. Jessie and Nanny Stainer could still travel legally on British passports and both may have been too old to be interned. Hitherto I had travelled on Poppy’s passport but once we were separated I had no identification papers of any kind.

In the course of innumerable conversations with Eduardo towards the end of his life, I never thought to ask how he had arranged for me to be waved across the frontier between France and Spain. For many, this was a matter of life and death. I have to assume that Eduardo passed me off as Spanish, a relation, even his son.

The Grand Hotel at Zarouz had a French owner, Madame Bringeon. Philip, then aged ten, remembers the deprivation and poverty left by the civil war. Children were barefoot. The hotel served only one good meal a week. German soldiers were allowed to wear their uniforms in Franco’s Spain but not to carry sidearms. Jessie had only one criticism: “Any amount of sausages [Germans] walking about here, so we have to shut our eyes, ears and mouth.” She was sitting on a bench one day when one of them suddenly appeared and sat down next to her. Behind the bench was a concrete ramp which I used to run up from bottom to top. Playing at this, I saw Jessie turn to this soldier, and I heard her say in English, “Do you think I am going to sit next to you? Get off this bench at once.” Probably the sight of an angry old woman made him think he was doing something wrong. He stood up, saluted and walked away.

The choice was between joining Mitzi at the Villa Preciosa or Max in the Villa Les Oeillets. Portugal was an unknown quantity. Jessie was frank with Poppy:

I don’t care to go on such a journey on my own, but if you insist, I must. One is safe nowhere … Bubbles says she can’t take David without your consent so I suppose you will be getting a wire to that effect. Granny wants him to go to her but I say of two evils choose the least, and I think we had better go to Max … I don’t care so long as they don’t take David away from me. For me, it is a sacred charge, and I must deliver him over to his Mummy.

To leave neutral Spain and re-enter Vichy France was to go heedlessly towards the dangers that so many others were trying to get away from. Our life in Vichy France, Jessie tries to get across to Poppy, was almost normal. Attic-like, my room was on the top floor of the villa. I played marbles with Philip, and cards with Elly. For Christmas 1940 Jessie bought two books, addressed and stamped them herself, and had the postman tell me that this parcel came from my parents in England.

Jessie had a bicycle, and in February 1941 bought me one too, pretending that it was a birthday present from my parents. The two of us would bicycle round the local streets foraging for food. Jessie had spotted a garden with a hole in its wire netting, and would wait for the moment to send me in to pull up vegetables while she stood guard. In the local shop the sole things for sale that gave some impression of sustenance were little round red tins of Réglisses, bits of licorice either a centimetre long or cone-shaped, for obvious reasons known to Jessie as Mouse’s Number One and Mouse’s Number Two. These did nothing for the brief and joyless meals in the villa. At one point we shared a single cauliflower between us all, and on another occasion we were reduced to sucking fish-bones.

Spanish foreign policy was in the hands of Ramon Serrano Suner, an unqualified supporter of his brother-in-law General Franco and an outright Nazi sympathiser who expected Hitler to win the war. The initiative Eduardo had taken in Bordeaux to issue transit visas for Spain was bound to be seen in Madrid as a favour to the Allies which exposed them unnecessarily to German pressure. In a letter to Lequerica in charge of the embassy in Vichy, Serrano Suner chastised Eduardo as someone “who served the interests of French Jewry”. On February 2, 1941, he demoted Eduardo with a brutal telegram: “You have 24 hours to leave your post and you go to Larache.”

In March 1941 the family had to readjust to Eduardo’s new post, in effect exiled as vice-consul in what was then a small fishing village on the Atlantic coast of Morocco. The departure from Cannes of the Propper parents and children, the two nannies and me was on July 5. Between us, we carried twenty-one pieces of hand luggage and parcels. At the frontier we were detained for four hours. After a pause in Madrid, we went by train from Cadiz to Algeciras and then by boat to Tangier.

Eduardo had rented the Villa Ritchie, named after its builders Richmond Ritchie and his wife Anna, daughter of William Makepeace Thackeray. The house is on the Marshan, a hill overlooking the town below and with Gibraltar a visible smudge on the far side of the Straits. Two squat pillars enclose the entrance, and a short drive curls up towards the house. “There’s plenty of room to move about, six bedrooms and three servants’ rooms,” Jessie is quick to tell Poppy, “only one bath and just jugs and basins but that can’t be helped.”

In my mind, the Moroccan sky is a permanent Prussian blue. In the garden Muhammad Driss enjoys showing me the lilies and orchids he is growing. The house is cool. Eating at last, we are “like full-fed ponies” in Jessie’s expression. Philip goes to the lycée, and a tutor by the name of Isaac Abekassis comes to the house. I play football with boys my age on an open space of the Marshan. These boys have djellabas that flap round their ankles when they run, and heads closely shaved except for a tuft in the middle of the scalp. This, I hear, is for Allah to lift them up to him if he must.

Next door, out of sight behind a high wall, is a large forbidden mansion. The owner is a great Berber chieftain, the Glaoui, and if he’s in residence weird music will shatter the silence. Sitting against one of our pillars is the fiqh, an elderly unkempt witch doctor, the soles of her feet dyed orange with henna. She has bangles up her arms. The little footballers stand around while she works her spells, burning feathers and mumbling to herself. Suddenly frightened by a curse, we all run away.

One day at dawn Bubbles and Eduardo get me out of bed, and from a seat in the garden we watch the dark grey shapes of British warships passing through the Straits. You’ll never forget it, the grown-ups impress on me.

In a hectic exchange of telegrams, Bubbles argues that it is better, safer, for me to stay where I am, and Poppy presses that we be reunited. Jessie says, “I don’t altogether relish the idea of a long air trip, but if you can you must, and if you must, you can.” Sir Alvary Gascoigne, the Consul in Tangier, John Mallet in the Lisbon Embassy, and Mrs Schreiber, wife of the air attaché, arrange the passage through Lisbon, and see Jessie and me off on a Portuguese aeroplane flying to Bristol.

On September 10, 1941, I met my parents again. In a crowded carriage of the train to London I sat next to Jessie and wondered what this man and woman opposite had to do with me. Bananas were unobtainable in the war and I was conscious that everyone setting eyes on the bunch I was carrying threw me a special look.

I had already left by the time Lily and Max arrived and settled in the Villa Ritchie. They had been exposed to the reality and consequences of Nazism. Yet in 1942 they chose to return to the Villa Les Oeillets. In reaction to the Allied invasion of North Africa on November 8, 1942, the Germans occupied Vichy France. Caught in a trap, more tens of thousands of Jews were then deported. In all probability, their Austrian background would have sealed the fate of Lily and Max. At the very last moment, Eduardo cabled false papers. German soldiers were already in the station at Marseilles when they boarded the train. Hours passed before departure; there was nothing to eat; they spent the night in a grim hotel at Cerbère, the frontier town. But they were out once more.

To the end of their lives, they were unable to put into words how they had been dicing with death. They believed people like them were essentially immune to persecution and murder. Bad things were what happened to the poor, to Jews unable to call on lawyers and bankers. The belief that their primary identity was French had put their lives at risk for no purpose. They couldn’t imagine that the Germans and a good many French made no such distinctions about Jews and were determined to kill off the lot.

This article is adapted from Fault Lines, a memoir to be published by Criterion Books in October. David Pryce-Jones is a novelist and historian, whose most recent book is Treason of the Heart: From Thomas Paine to Kim Philby. He is a senior editor of National Review.